BOSTON — First he had to fix his shoulder, and then he had to sort out his shot. After that, there was one more hurdle for Markelle Fultz to clear in order to return to the court following his 68-game absence.
He had to get in game shape.
During the regular season, this can be harder than it seems. Teams compete in 82 games over the course of six months, a slog that can drain even the strongest and most energetic of souls. To combat the besieging fatigue, practices grow more and more relaxed as the season inches along.
For players in their respective teams' regular rotations, this is a much-appreciated gift. But for those slotted at the end of the bench or working their way back from injuries, the lack of vigorous practice can make it difficult to remain in peak cardiovascular shape.
"If you saw the design of my coaching staff, you're going to see some athletes, some former players," head coach Brett Brown said recently. "That's on purpose."
The Sixers deployed these able-bodied coaches to help bring Fultz back. After practices and on off days, he would play full court one-on-one against both Chris Babcock, an assistant director for player development, and Dwayne Jones, a former NBA player recently hired as a player development specialist.
Babcock would play offense and guard Fultz in the backcourt; the 6'11" Jones would defend Fultz once he crossed the half-court line. Then, on game days, Fultz would be out on the floor three hours before tipoff, working on specific moves off the bounce. Billy Lange, a Sixers assistant coach, would instruct Fultz and then guard the perimeter while Jones manned the inside.
Fultz registered 10 points and eight assists in his first game back and finished the season averaging an efficient 7.1 points and 3.8 assists in 18.1 minutes per game, all while playing a role in helping the Sixers climb the Eastern Conference rankings.
"I think that helped a lot in terms of me coming back ready to play," Fultz said recently. "Playing full-court one-on-one against those guys, working me out, going against them each and every day."
A small supporting role is not what the Sixers envisioned they were getting in Year 1 after drafting Fultz first overall. But given the time he missed and the issues he dealt with, that he was able to provide even the smallest of boons upon returning counts as a victory.
It also gives Brown another option off the bench during this postseason. He's rarely gone to Fultz. But he knows that if he were to call for Fultz or any other bench player he believes can help the Sixers claw black from their 0-2 hole against the Boston Celtics, all of them will be physically prepared thanks to the team's deep staff of spry bodies.
The Sixers are not the only team to employ young and athletic assistant coaches for this reason. Teams today value player development more than ever before—put coldly: it's an uncapped tool that can be used to maximize their million-dollar investments—and recognize that the most effective work takes place out on the floor.
Brown, at the behest of Sam Hinkie, the team's former president and architect of its massive rebuilding, brought the idea to Philadelphia from the San Antonio Spurs, with whom he began as the director of player development before becoming one of Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich's top assistant coaches.
Like many of Popovich's principles, the practice has spread across the NBA—especially as his disciples have taken up perches in other franchises.
What separates the Sixers is their deep stable of able assistants. Many teams have one or two younger staffers who you will find breaking a sweat on the floor pregame. The Sixers, who have maintained this emphasis in the two years since Bryan Colangelo took over for Sam Hinkie, have about five, not to mention the other half-dozen or so coordinators and interns who aren't listed in the team's official media guide but make up the Sixers' video department.
The front office has even joked about needing to consider the positions of potential new hires so that the team's coaches can boast a full and balanced lineup.
"It's very different here," said Sixers forward Justin Anderson, who spent a year and a half with the Dallas Mavericks before being traded to Philadelphia in 2017. "Not only do we have a bunch of coaches, but we have more coaches willing to get out there and play half-court, full-court and one-on-one."
Fultz admitted to initially having trouble remembering all the names of the various staffers. "I mean, I still get confused every once in a while," he said. But he also pointed out there's a more human benefit to the setup as well.
"It builds chemistry with the coaches," he added.
On game days, Jones, the one former pro among Brown's player development staff, takes the floor about three hours before tipoff so he can stretch. He's the lone assistant who's in action during every player's pregame routine. Sometimes he's contesting Fultz layups; other times he's pushing Ben Simmons on the block, trying his best to emulate the way an upcoming opponent will guard him. During the Sixers' first-round series against the Miami Heat, he made a point of picking up Simmons on the perimeter during warm-ups and taking away some of his space.
The other coaches fill in as different players stroll out on the floor. Connor Johnson, the Sixers' director of player development, will put the team's inactive and end-of-bench players through various drills, simulating game situations, such as sliding down to the corner to catch a cross-court pass or coming off a pick and shooting over Jones' outstretched arms. Brown prefers practice shots be contested.
Later on, with Jones' shirt soaked with sweat, Lange will call out moves for Simmons to unleash.
"It's huge, especially if you're not playing as much," Sixers reserve point guard T.J. McConnell said. "Those guys do a really good job of making sure you stay in shape." (The Sixers declined to make any of their assistant coaches available for comment.)
In the Sixers' 108-103 road loss to the Celtics on Thursday, McConnell scored eight points and dished out five assists. On a night when Simmons looked lost, Brown leaned on McConnell more than he had since the playoffs began. The 17 minutes McConnell played were more than double his postseason average entering the game.
The Sixers outscored the Celtics by 16 points when he was on the floor, the best mark on the team.
Philly's phalanx of assistants didn't score those points. Perhaps, though, they can be credited with an assist.