No one in the N.B.A. tests the old precept that forbids cheering on press row like Orlando’s Markelle Fultz. There is an inevitable urge to root for him after what he endured in his first two seasons.
Season No. 1: Drafted first overall by the Philadelphia 76ers, Fultz appeared in just 14 games and, worse, appeared to mysteriously lose the ability to shoot a basketball. The Sixers, remember, had to trade a future first-round pick to Boston to move up two spots from No. 3 to select him.
Season No. 2: After 19 games, Fultz was finally diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, which is the compression of the blood vessels or nerves between the collarbone and uppermost rib. The Sixers abandoned hope of a recovery and traded him in February to the Magic, who also could not get Fultz on the floor for the final two months of the season.
And now it is Season No. 3: As recently as July, I’m told, Fultz had remained restricted to shooting jumpers from a maximum distance of 15 feet. The Magic weren’t sure until September that he would be able to participate in training camp. Then on Nov. 2, with Orlando’s offense sputtering, Coach Steve Clifford moved Fultz into the starting lineup ahead of the veteran point guard D.J. Augustin.
“It was a goal I had, but I wouldn’t say it was like the best thing that ever happened,” Fultz said in Dallas last week, insisting on a modest tone as we chatted at his locker.
The Magic are still sputtering, mired at 3-7 after Sunday’s play and ranked a dismal 29th in offensive efficiency (at 99.8 points per 100 possessions) after last season’s playoff breakthrough as Southeast Division champions. Yet they are seeing sufficient flashes from Fultz to believe he really is rebounding.
“I think 30 games from now, he’ll be at another level,” Clifford told me. “He just hasn’t played a lot of basketball in a couple years.”
‘His game is coming back to him.’
That is about as deeply as the Magic will analyze Fultz for public consumption. Team officials have been careful to try to keep expectations low and details scarce regarding his work behind the scenes, not only to rebuild his game but also to restore the self-belief that made him such an enticing prospect during one season at Washington.
The scouting report on Fultz is still rife with warts. He has good size at 6-foot-4, attacks fiercely to his right, routinely creates opportunities for others when he drives and generates shots for himself around the basket. Yet opposing teams still consider him to be a reluctant shooter with a low push-and-hope release, even though he is up to 2.2 3-point attempts per game after hoisting just 15 total shots from deep in his first two seasons.
The Magic understandably point to the positives after picking up Fultz’s $12.3 million contract option for next season. Orlando has not been a free-agent destination for years, and the team has a clear need for a front-line floor leader and penetrator. The team wants to believe that Fultz, at the very least, has turned a significant corner.
“He still has shoulder soreness from time to time, and he still has some issues with his knee,” Clifford said, referring in the latter case to an injury Fultz had in college. “But from the day he’s gotten here, he’s worked.”
Some of those sessions are overseen by the Orlando assistant coach Bruce Kreutzer, who worked with Boston’s Kemba Walker on his shot when Walker was Clifford’s star in Charlotte. Fultz’s shot, Clifford insisted, is “getting better and better.”
“It’s all working together,” Clifford said. “As he’s getting better physically, his game is coming back to him.”
Fultz, for his part, doesn’t want to grade his shot or any other element of his repertoire at this juncture of his comeback. Asked to share his individual aims for the season, Fultz said: “My goal is just to play this game.”
‘When you lose your confidence, you can’t do anything.’
That’s an understandable sentiment for a 21-year-old whose last of 33 games on the court as a Sixer came on Nov. 19, 2018, and who has lived through months and months of “draft bust” noise.
Fultz believers would surely counter that he is hardly Orlando’s only liability on the perimeter. They would likewise argue that his overall 47.1 percent shooting from the field and 78.6 percent shooting at the free-throw line are indicators that maybe developing a passable 3-point proficiency is next.
After seeing the new version of Fultz in person for the first time last week, I spoke with one of those supporters — someone who can identify with Fultz’s travails better than most.
Steve Sax was the National League Rookie of the Year for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1982. By the All-Star break of the following season, Sax had made 24 errors, suddenly spooked nearly every time he had to make the short throw from second base to first. Sax was ridiculed and constantly questioned about the supposed mental block that, without warning, cropped up and threatened to derail his career.
“My thing was not a mental block at all,” Sax said in a telephone interview. “It was just a loss of confidence. When you lose your confidence, you can’t do anything. Conversely, when you have your confidence, you can do everything. It’s the loneliest feeling in the world when you throw the ball away from 40 feet away on the throw you’ve made your whole life.”
As Sax would later explain his book, “Shift: Change Your Mindset and You Change Your World,” it was his father, John Sax — on his deathbed — who convinced Steve that the problem was a “temporary loss of confidence.” John made up a story about enduring the same throwing issues in high school and overcoming them. It helped Steve relax.
“He was absolutely right, and that sucker went away,” Sax said. “It had nothing to do with mechanics, with an injury, your approach. I figured it out by trusting that I already knew how to do it. I just had to get my confidence back.”
‘Trials and tribulations’
No two situations are the same, and baseball isn’t basketball. Another key difference here: Throughout Fultz’s stint as a Sixer, no matter how often skeptics branded him a modern-day Sax, Fultz attributed what he calls “all the trials and tribulations” to an injured right shoulder.
In a November 2018 examination of Fultz’s struggles, The Athletic reported that a hitch in Fultz’s shooting stroke and the bizarre free-throw rituals he adopted were byproducts of a failed attempt to expand his 3-point range and ultimately indicative of what had become “as much a mental hurdle as it a physical one.” Yet, as the Magic prepare to host the Sixers on Wednesday night, Fultz’s new coach simply wants to see him cut himself some slack.
“If I would say one thing, and I’ve told Markelle this, he’s very difficult on himself,” Clifford said. “He’s a harsh critic of himself.”
‘It can definitely change.’
Sax was the same. With his father’s help, he eased up and eventually earned five All-Star selections to go with two World Series rings as a Dodger. By 1989, in his first season as a Yankee, Sax led American League second basemen in fielding percentage.
“It became a quest for me as a person, not even as a player,” Sax said. “I was too pigheaded to not let this wreck my career. I would have done anything within an inch of selling my soul to the devil to conquer this thing. And I did.
“I knew deep down this thing was going to pass someday. It can definitely change.”
Even a crusty old sportswriter — all rules aside — cannot help but root for Fultz’s sustained health. His epiphany, too.