ORLANDO — As Markelle Fultz made his way from mandatory radio spot to media scrum to photoshoot, his steady confidence was obvious.
Well, not confidence so much as relief.
"It's the toughest thing just like anything you love," Fultz said. "If you ask anybody what's the thing you love the most and then take it away. If I had no arms, I'd still want to play basketball. Now that I have it back, I'm not taking anything for granted."
The 21-year-old point guard's upside made him the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft. It prompted the Philadelphia 76ers to move up from the third overall slot to nab him, forming what should have been a superstar trio in him, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.
After one-and-a-half forgettable seasons, the Sixers dumped Fultz to the Orlando Magic for Jonathon Simmons, a 2019 second-round pick and a top-20-protected 2020 first-rounder that will become two more second-rounders if it doesn't convey. The team that invested a No. 1 overall pick and a future first gave up after 1.5 injury-filled seasons.
That disappointing journey, much of which was summarized by the Washington Post's Candace Buckner in December 2018, involved changes to his shooting form and an underlying physical issue.
Per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, Fultz's agent, Raymond Brothers, shared the diagnosis: "Markelle (Fultz) has been diagnosed with Neurogenic Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, (TOS), a physical injury. TOS affects nerves between the neck and shoulder resulting in abnormal functional movement and range of motion, thus severely shoot a basketball..."
A year later, after Fultz changed uniforms and sat out the closing portion of the 2018-19 season with only 33 career NBA appearances, he has a chance to play again.
"It's been a while," he said. "I really haven't been like this since I've been drafted. I've overcome a lot. I've worked really hard, so I'm excited."
The Practice of Patience
Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman will be the first to assure the public there remains no immediate expectation for Fultz, nor one going forward. His caution after last year's trade deadline almost perfectly mirrored comments made last week at a shootaround.
"As for the timetable, we're going to do it right; we're not going to do it fast," Weltman said in a Feb. 7 press conference. "However long that takes, that's how long it'll take."
"We're going to remain patient," he reiterated at the offseason shootaround. "We're not going to put expectations or timelines on his development. He's played 33 games total in his career. So it's going to unfold the way it unfolds."
But the Magic are definitely invested in Fultz. Orlando displayed their most significant show of faith yet when they picked up Fultz's $12.3 million option for the 2020-21 season.
"It shows the trust they have in me," the point guard said. "The relationship we have, seeing the work we put in over the summer and the improvements I made. It's huge. I give a big thanks to them."
Rebuilding Fultz's confidence is paramount to rediscovering his form, but it doesn't come without risk.
The Magic sit just below the 2019-20 luxury-tax threshold at $128.4 million, per Spotrac, but things get dicey moving forward. With $123.7 million already dedicated to the 2020-21 group, Weltman still needs to find the means to bring back his starting point guard (D.J. Augustin), who has been solid during his three seasons in Orlando.
Augustin may be an ideal mentor for Fultz, but the 31-year-old also needs to cash in on what will probably be his final sizable payday, especially given the weakness of the 2020 free-agent class. Evan Fournier could save a bit of capital should he decline his $17 million player option and sign a long-term deal at a manageable number.
But if that doesn't happen, the Magic may find themselves in a vulnerable spot if Fultz can't produce.
Cap flexibility isn't the only potential negative. Chemistry could be, as well. At media day, each player was blasted with repeated questions about a teammate who has yet to play a single game in a Magic uniform and, in many ways, has been handled with kid gloves by two organizations.
The Magic are willing to accept those risks because they know what the potential reward could be.
Inevitable Expectation of an X-Factor
With patience and a guaranteed salary comes expectations. And despite Weltman's best efforts to slow the hype, those expectations are already clear.
"He's going to fit in very well," Aaron Gordon said. "A good player, man. I think he's going to have some games this year where people say, 'Wow.' This kid is special."
Gordon's comments indicate he not only expects Fultz to play, but he also expects him to make an immediate contribution. Growing pains will be expected, but his teammates' comments reinforce the feeling that the 21-year-old is going to play this year.
"He's going to shock people," Augustin said.
Between media availabilities, those comments from teammates and video montages, the organization isn't keeping the 6'4" guard from the public eye. Hype videos showing off Fultz's improved jumper, James Harden-esque side-step and Mamba Academy visits are all bound to pique interest.
Questionable offseason moves further indicate Orlando could count on Fultz right away.
The Magic selected 6'8" forward Chuma Okeke at No. 16 overall, knowing his ACL tear would keep him out for quite some time, and they plan to "redshirt" him throughout 2019-20. Why not instead bolster the backcourt with Nickeil Alexander-Walker or Ty Jerome? Why not reinforce the small forward position with Nassir Little or Grant Williams?
Orlando also used its only financial flexibility (the mid-level exception) on another power forward in Al Farouq-Aminu, who doesn't have the playmaking or shot-creation ability it needs. Adding a 6'9" power forward while flush in the frontcourt with Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Nikola Vucevic, Mo Bamba and Khem Birch seems suspicious.
Unless the Magic were confident Fultz would be available all along.
"I think [the starting point guard job] is for Markelle Fultz to lose," former NBA player Caron Butler said at summer league. "I think that D.J. [Augustin] is in position as the seasoned vet that he is OK with being the backup guy or the starter because he's in position to do both. His true value is because he is willing to do both."
"I spent some time with [Fultz] this summer," Butler reiterated in late September. "He's ready to go. He's healthy. He looks extremely well. He's going to take the league by surprise. That's my Most Improved Player for this season"
If the Magic are to take the next step and challenge the 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks for the Eastern Conference title, it will take Fultz's best efforts come April. But in the immediate future, he only needs to steady the ship in a depleted backcourt.
Adding the Missing Skills
To say the Magic's backcourt has struggled in recent seasons would be to massively downplay its inefficiency.
Orlando doesn't have playmakers who can create their own shots. It relies on action and situational shot-making, needing to pass in order to score more than any other team in the NBA. The Magic were No. 1 in pass percentage last season (43.5 percent) but sixth in assists per field goal made (63.0), per TeamRankings.com.
Fultz's skill set could change that. As Vucevic said, "He's the kind of player we need: a guy who can create for himself and for others."
The need and ability are there. Now, the latter must translate to the court.
His teammates know it will take time to realize his full potential and that his growth will inevitably begin on the defensive side, where the Magic thrived during their late-season surge. They finished eighth in defensive rating but climbed as high as fifth after the All-Star break.
"Defense wins championships," Gordon said. "Defense is something we can rely on every single night. Some nights, shots don't fall. If the energy isn't there, you better get it there or you're going to lose. That's what we're going to hang our hats on."
It's as if he were speaking directly to Fultz.
Fultz's precipitous drop-off in shooting efficiency from the Washington Huskies (47.6/41.3/64.9) to the 76ers (41.4/26.7/53.4) has become infamous. Regardless of whether the trend reverses, he must affect the defensive end first to make an immediate impact.
"I bring defensive presence, rebounding, almost everything. I bring a little bit of everything," he said. "I'm going to be that guy that dives for a ball, communicates on defense, helps a teammate up. I'm going to be here for my team and this organization."
The Right Landing Spot?
In many ways, Orlando is the perfect landing spot for Fultz.
He can focus on defense and allow his offense to come to him as he establishes confidence—confidence he says never truly left him: "Me coming up, I wasn't one of the top players in the nation. I didn't play varsity all four years. I had to work for everything I got. My mom raised me to never give up, work for everything I got."
And while Augustin has done nothing to weaken his grip on the starting spot, his hold could become shaky during training camp.
"That's my goal," Fultz said of starting. Head coach Steve Clifford offered further thoughts: "We'll see. Again, Markelle needs to do what he's done since he got here: have good days. That's what the best players do. That's what the best teams do. Put good stretches of days together."
There couldn't be a friendlier set of circumstances for a shift in responsibilities. Augustin thrives in both roles and openly roots for his new backcourt mate.
"He works hard," the incumbent starter said. "He's in here every day, working on every aspect of his game. He's a great kid."
Given Fultz's combination of size, length and speed, the two could even share the backcourt in certain lineups. As long as the Magic have a frontcourt logjam featuring many players who deserve minutes, a three-guard lineup comprised of Augustin, Fultz and either Fournier or Terrence Ross could pack offensive firepower with electric tempo and spacing.
Even if he doesn't earn the starting job, he could give Orlando dynamic options and the flexibility to match up with any team in the Eastern Conference. And the Magic know it.
"It's going to be a big season for us, a pivotal season," Gordon said. "I think we're ready for it."
The East appears to be open for the taking while the crown belongs to the Kawhi Leonard-less Toronto Raptors. The Bucks lost a vital piece in Malcolm Brogdon, and the 76ers overturned much of the roster that took them within a last-second shot of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Fultz's teammates appear confident he can return to the form that made him the No. 1 pick in 2017, and a breakout could help them challenge last season's powers. In a few short weeks, we'll learn if their words were prophetic or wishful.
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