One of the NBA's Best Comeback Stories on Hold After Markelle Fultz ACL Injury

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistJanuary 7, 2021

Orlando Magic guard Markelle Fultz (20) goes to the basket against Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton (2) during the fist half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
John Raoux/Associated Press

There aren't many things the entire NBA world can agree on, but everybody was rooting for Markelle Fultz

And for the first two weeks of the season, one of the strangest basketball stories in recent memory—a No. 1 overall pick who forgot how to shoot and dealt with repeated shoulder problems before being traded from the Philadelphia 76ers to the Orlando Magic and seemingly finding his footing—looked like it was heading for a happy ending.

Then, in Wednesday's Magic win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, one of the best comeback stories of the year was undone when Fultz suffered a torn left ACL that will end his 2020-21 season. He joins Orlando's other young cornerstone, forward Jonathan Isaac, on the shelf for the same injury, creating all kinds of questions about the short- and long-term future of the franchise.

It's the unfortunate latest chapter in what has been a wildly up-and-down career for Fultz.

Through no fault of his own, Fultz became an avatar for the Process. The Sixers traded a future first-round pick to the Boston Celtics in 2017 to take him first overall, back when he was the consensus No. 1 prospect out of Washington.

The pick they used to get him was one of many acquired by Sam Hinkie in his three years as general manager in Philadelphia, but the deal was made by his successor, Bryan Colangelo. Because of Hinkie's cult following among a segment of Sixers fans, as well as the controversial way in which he was pushed out, any move made by Colangelo was subject to extra scrutiny.

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

And so when Fultz, a 41.3 percent three-point shooter in his lone season at Washington, looked in his rookie year like someone who had never shot a basketball before, it was glaring. Some called it the yips; others questioned his offseason training methods.

Eventually, he was diagnosed with a scapular muscle imbalance in his shoulder, which was followed a year later by a diagnosis of thoracic outlet syndrome that sidelined him the rest of his second season, during which he was traded to Orlando at the deadline.

The whole saga became a symbol of a failed and dysfunctional era for the Sixers organization, and the fact that the Celtics came out of that 2017 draft-day deal selecting Jayson Tatum didn't help things.

All the while, Fultz was going through his own private hell of self-doubt and physical recovery (detailed a year ago in this B/R Mag profile by Mirin Fader) from an injury no one could quite pin down. That he was able to get back on the court at all for Orlando last year was a win—and he showed signs of improving.

He appeared in 72 games in 2019-20, starting for the majority of the season before March's COVID-19 shutdown. The three-point shot never came back, but he was solid as the Magic's starting point guard and helped lead them to the playoffs in the bubble.

The beginning of this season looked like another breakthrough. Despite continued poor outside shooting, Fultz blossomed as a playmaker and finisher, averaging a career-high 14.3 points per game as the Magic got off to a surprising 5-2 start heading into Wednesday.

Now, Fultz's season is over, and with it might be the Magic's.

Forgotten in a chaotic offseason because they didn't make a splashy free-agent move and had already lost Isaac in the bubble, Orlando has so far succeeded thanks to Fultz's improvement and solid performances from Aaron Gordon and the ever-underrated Nikola Vucevic. 

For the last two seasons, the Magic have been content to chase a low playoff seed, and they looked to be in that mix again this year. Maybe they still have enough without Fultz, or maybe they look to move Gordon or Evan Fournier and rebuild on the fly around Fultz, Isaac and promising rookie Cole Anthony.

Either way, one of the players who made this year's Magic a surprisingly fun watch is now gone.

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

If you want a silver lining, it's this: At least Fultz got paid before suffering this latest career setback. In December, before the season tipped off, he signed a three-year, $50 million extension with the Magic, a show of faith by the organization and a reward for all the work he'd put in to rebuild a career that couldn't have started off much worse than it did.

Another positive: The science around ACL injuries has evolved to the point that it's fairly common for young players to recover fully. That Fultz's injury came so soon after the start of the season likely means he'll be ready to return for training camp this fall. Unlike his bizarre, ambiguous shoulder injuries, there's a well-established process for the rehab he's about to begin, one that the Magic's trainers are already working on with Isaac. 

There are no guarantees Fultz will be back good as new, but he's been through much worse than this already. Hopefully, after he clears this latest hurdle, he'll be able to continue building on what was finally turning into a promising career.


Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R App.