Can Embattled No. 1 Pick Markelle Fultz Save His Career in Orlando?

Preston EllisContributor IFebruary 8, 2019

PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 23: Markelle Fultz #20 of the Philadelphia 76ers watches the game from the bench against the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Wells Fargo Center on November 23, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

ORLANDO — Who says the Magic aren't risk-takers?

It's usually alien-like length that catches the eyes of President Jeff Weltman and general manager John Hammond. This time, the two are trying their luck at unearthing star power in the almost forgotten collegiate scoring machine Markelle Fultz.

"Markelle Fultz was the No. 1 pick in the draft two years ago," Weltman said. "It wasn't a fluke. The whole league had him there."

Magic fans have been more than patient in awaiting their star point guard. After shipping out Elfrid Payton at the deadline last season, Orlando passed on opportunities to pick up Isaiah Thomas, Seth Curry, Shabazz Napier and Tim Frazier, as well as draft or deal for fellow 2017 draftmates Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina.

They gazed longingly at Trae Young from afar, only to see Atlanta ask him to dance first in a deal facilitated by Dallas for Luka Doncic.

Though the Magic only packaged an expiring wing shooting under 37 percent from the field (Jonathon Simmons), the Thunder's 2020 first-round pick (top-20 protected) and the Cavaliers' 2019 second-round pick, the move doesn't come without risk.

"Stan [Van Gundy] used to say when you start trading away pretty good players, a lot of times you can make yourself a lot worse," head coach Steve Clifford said. "And I think that happens a lot at trade deadlines. You watch a guy, and there's something about him you don't like, and you trade him. And then you say, 'Oh s--t.' A lot of times, the best trades are the ones you never make."

Picks like the one the Magic just gave away (via OKC) turned into several intriguing prospects in the 2018 draft.

Nos. 21-23? Grayson Allen, Chandler Hutchison and Aaron Holiday, with Josh Okogie going one pick sooner at No. 20.

The 76ers are the clearest indication of what expectation can do to a young player like Fultz. After all, it was just over a year-and-a-half ago that he was perceived as the brightest star in a draft class made up of Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, De'Aaron Fox, Lonzo Ball, Jonathan Isaac, Lauri Markkanen and Kyle Kuzma.

The 76ers invested a lot in the young scoring guard, combining their third overall pick (which became Tatum) with a future first-rounder and end up walking away with what amounts to two early second-round picks.

In the past year, fans watched more footage of head-scratching shooting drills and universally mocked free-throw attempts than meaningful basketball minutes.

Fultz and shooting coach Drew Hanlen also discontinued their relationship.

Alex Kennedy @AlexKennedyNBA

Markelle Fultz and Drew Hanlen are no longer working together or on speaking terms, according to league sources. No word on why the two parted ways, but their relationship deteriorated about three weeks ago. Prior to this falling out, Fultz spent the summer training with Hanlen.

"Honestly, I don't know where to start," one NBA executive told Jonathan Wasserman of Bleacher Report in October 2017. "This is mind-boggling. Who in the world told him to do anything like that? In college, he just shot 65 percent [on free throws]. It needed minor adjustments. This new thing is crazy, and a few weeks ago, he had an entirely different technique. Why change every time for the worse?"

On his podcast, JJ Redick lamented the lost opportunity for Fultz to grow and said the following at a media-attended shootaround in February 2018: "The kid's f--king 19, man. Holy s--t. Y'all are sick."

Fultz has since been diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome (an injury that affects the shoulder). President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman feels the Magic are uniquely suited to manage the situation, and he preached patience several times Thursday.

"As for the timetable, we're going to do it right; we're not going to do it fast," Weltman said. "It's our job organizationally to put him in a position to succeed. However long that takes, that's how long it'll take."

Keith Smith @KeithSmithNBA

Source: Orlando will exercise patience with Markelle Fultz's return to play. The Magic are taking the long-view with Fultz potentially being the starting guard to pair with the rest of their young core. Don't be surprised if Fultz doesn't return to play this season.

Greener pastures could still be ahead for Fultz, who finds himself outside of the northeastern spotlight in a quieter city with minimal expectations this season and beyond. The Orlando fanbase is more likely to be wearing Mickey ears than giant foam fingers.

Besides, Fultz doesn't have to step in and command the offense overnight. That job belongs to D.J. Augustin, who still has one year remaining on his four-year contract and has performed above expectations this season.

Augustin has continued his deft touch from the perimeter, sinking 42.8 percent of his three-point attempts this season. His presence on the floor has been critical to the Magic, as he's second to only All-Star Nikola Vucevic in plus/minus. Augustin pilots the misleading 26th-rated offense with aplomb, making the unit 10 points better per 100 possessions when he's on the court (would be 12th in the NBA).

As effective as the offense has been with Augustin, Aaron Gordon and Vucevic on the floor, it's been a five-car pileup once they sit.

They packaged two second-round picks to acquire Jerian Grant, who has been a disaster offensively, sinking the group's second unit at a rate of 8.3 points per 100 possessions. His lack of playmaking skill has corresponded to the slowed development of Mo Bamba (who is now out with a stress fracture in his leg). When the two shared the court, the Magic were a wretch-inducing minus-13.6 per 100 possessions. Bleh!

The lack of playmaking in the second unit has resulted in some big-time collapses this season. In fact, the Magic have lost eight games when leading by 15 points or more, worst in the league.

Simmons even took the reins of signal-caller because of Grant's struggles, but injuries and inconsistency torpedoed him in his contract season.

"Every time he [Simmons] starts getting back into a rhythm, he gets these four- or five-game things that have hurt him," Clifford said. "Look at his range shooting. Last year he was 33 percent, and this year he hasn't been able to shoot the ball well."

Clifford knows the importance of taking a chance on a player like Fultz, but he also lamented moving on from Simmons: "It's not like he hasn't worked at it. He's been in here. I think it's difficult when you miss a whole offseason like that."

However, the lack of one-on-one playmaking talent hasn't gone unnoticed. When asked about the importance of superstar playmaking abilities like those of Russell Westbrook and Paul George, Clifford said, "You have to have ways to get to the ball and have guys who can make quick, simple plays to take advantage of it."

He continued: "Would it be easier to have a guy you can just give the ball to? Absolutely. Or a superstar? Absolutely."

Those playmaking traits are what made Fultz the No. 1 pick two years ago. At Washington, he averaged 23.2 points per game to lead all freshmen and did it on 47.6 percent shooting from the field and 41.3 percent from three.

Weltman said: "His skill level, his vision, his competitiveness—this guy has the whole package. In today's NBA, to have a physical profile of Markelle Fultz is something that we're all looking for. Those are the kind of guys that can dominate games these days."

Scouts said the following of Fultz in August 2017, per Wasserman:

Scout No. 1: "Offensive skill set is very good. Able to get you a shot if need be late in the clock or early on, and he has creating ability that is undervalued."

Scout No. 2: "He's an underrated playmaker because his teammates at Washington didn't finish a lot of his passes. Versatile enough to play off the ball, too. Reminds me of Dwyane Wade."

Scout No. 3: "His environment will be crucial in his development, and it seems to me the Sixers are counting on a lot of question marks."

This is what Magic fans will dream about. The Magic have drifted through mediocrity for six consecutive seasons without a playoff berth. With a mishmash of veteran talent and developing players, it's hard to know just what direction they're heading in.

John Denton @JohnDenton555

Something to keep in mind with @OrlandoMagic trading for 6-4, 200-pound PG Markelle Fultz -- The @sixers run a motion offense with the fewest pick-and-roll plays in the NBA. Using his size & quickness, Fultz thrives in pick-and-roll plays. He'll get more of those looks in ORL.

Fultz could answer that question. If he can realize even 75 percent of his potential and combine it with the endless rim protection and defense of Isaac, Gordon and Bamba, this "Core Four" could give the Magic one of the most interesting young groups in the NBA.

"I think he's a 20-year-old player with tremendous potential, and I feel confident in saying the league looks at him that way, not just us," Weltman gushed.

Fultz probably won't create much noise in the Amway Center during the 2018-19 season, but forget this campaign. Orlando is the perfect place to provide him with the room and development he needs to realize his franchise-altering potential.

If Weltman, Clifford and Orlando can indeed practice patience and rediscover the player who once set the basketball world on fire, the Magic and Fultz may walk off into the sunset winners of one of the most surprising trades of 2019.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.