76ers, Markelle Fultz

By Bryan Toporek

Not again.

With Markelle Fultz laying on the floor of the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas clutching his ankle in agony, and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot sitting up dazed with blood streaming down his face, Philadelphia 76ers fans couldn’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu. After Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons all missed their entire rookie seasons in recent years, Fultz appeared to be next in line, grounding the excitement about the 2017-18 Sixers before it could even leave the runway.

Embiid—no stranger to serious injuries—cursed the injury gods as Fultz couldn’t put any weight on his ankle while he hobbled to the locker room.

Thankfully, what at first appeared to be a high ankle sprain (via ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne) turned out only to be a lateral ankle sprain, which carries a recovery timetable of 1-2 weeks, according to the team. Fultz somehow dodged the Final Destination-esque targeting of the Sixers’ top prospects and should be ready to go for training camp.

During his two-and-a-half games before the injury scare, Fultz showed the upside that made him the No. 1 pick as well as the concerns that hounded him throughout the predraft process. His early performance appears to be an NBA Rorschach test, as he encouraged those who liked him prior to the draft while leaving critics wanting.

In his debut against the Boston Celtics in the Utah Summer League, Fultz finished with 17 points on 6-of-16 shooting (2-of-5 from deep), three blocks, two rebounds, an assist and a steal in 22 minutes. He opened the proceedings with a crafty behind-the-back dribble to shake free of Boston forward Jaylen Brown, then deked past Brown and contorted his body to float home his first-ever NBA basket.

Two minutes later, he took a dribble handoff from former Arizona Wildcats center Kaleb Tarczewski and sprinted behind a screen for a step-back three-pointer.

Fultz’s ability to create space for himself drew praise from reigning Finals MVP Kevin Durant, a fellow Maryland native.

(Please don’t ever leave us again, Twitter KD.)

While Fultz hit two triples and two other long-range two-point jumpers against Boston, he struggled inside the arc, finishing just 2-of-7 in the paint. While his aggressiveness off the dribble was a welcome sign, he repeatedly forced up contested attempts around the hoop to no avail. He also coughed up the ball four times and finished as a minus-12 on the night, a trend that would carry over to his ensuing summer-league outings.

Defensively, Fultz was hit-or-miss in his debut. Much like he did in college, he displayed an affinity for highlight-reel blocks, but he also endured some head-scratching defensive lapses, particularly when guarding pick-and-rolls.

Those positives and negatives each carried over during Fultz’s second summer-league outing against the Utah Jazz two days later. Just minutes into the game, he put Jazz point guard Dante Exum into the same blender he did to Boston’s Jaylen Brown, using a slick spin move to carve his way into the paint. He then stepped back to create separation and pulled up for a smooth two-point jumper.

Later in the game, Fultz slipped past Exum courtesy of a screen from Tarczewski, then dipped back into the spin-move well to blow past Jazz big man Tony Bradley. Though Bradley recovered to contest Fultz’s layup attempt, forcing a miss, Sixers forward Alex Poythress flew in for an offensive rebound and putback jam.

The hesi pull-up jimbo also made an encore appearance, as Fultz shed Exum courtesy of a crunching screen from Jonah Bolden, then stepped back and fired away to drill a three.

Mike Schmitz of DraftExpress found himself impressed with Fultz’s ability to create offense for himself against the Jazz.

But what about creating offense for others? After all, that falls under the purview of a traditional point guard as well.

While Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox and Dennis Smith Jr. are drawing most of the summer-league raves due to their respective passing ability, Fultz also put that element of his game on display against Utah.

Dunc’d On podcast host Nate Duncan suggested Fultz’s teammates robbed him of many would-be assists by bricking shots. That should change when he’s flanked by JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid rather than a roster comprised largely of fringe NBA players.

Fultz finished the game against Utah with 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting (4-of-8 from deep), five rebounds and five assists in 26 minutes, scoring 13 in the final quarter to help fuel a furious rally. He went 3-of-4 around the basket, a marked upgrade over his first outing, and two of his seven misses were on last-second heaves from beyond halfcourt at the end of the second and fourth quarters. Just like against Boston, though, his turnovers (six) and plus/minus (minus-11) provided fodder for critics, too.

Fultz sat out of the Sixers’ final Utah Summer League game against the San Antonio Spurs, but he was back in the lineup for their Las Vegas Summer League debut against the Golden State Warriors. Unfortunately, his third-quarter ankle injury spelled a premature end to his night—and summer league as a whole. Prior to going down, though, the No. 1 overall pick busted out his trusty spin move yet again, then stepped back for a one-legged fadeaway jumper.

As the second quarter wound down, he also demonstrated his passing acumen with a bullet pass to the corner after driving to the basket.

Highlights were fewer and further between for Fultz against Golden State, as he finished with eight points on 3-of-12 shooting (0-of-3 from deep), two rebounds and an assist in 15 minutes. He turned the ball over twice and had a team-worst minus-16 rating on the night, whereas his backup, Larry Drew II, finished with a team-high plus-23 and chipped in six assists in 23 minutes.

If those turnovers and plus/minus differential woes carry over into the regular season, they’ll be cause for concern, but Sixers fans shouldn’t fret too much about either at the moment. There’s a night-and-day difference between playing pickup-caliber basketball with mostly G-League-caliber players and running well-coached, structured sets with Redick, Covington, Simmons and Embiid. The youth and inexperience in the Sixers’ lineup will lead to some boneheaded mistakes at times, but the shot-creation savvy Fultz demonstrated during his short summer-league stint will give Philadelphia a much-needed offensive boost.

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While speaking with reporters after his injury, Fultz spoke about his big takeaways from his three-game run.

“I definitely think I accomplished just being a leader,” he said. “Talking a lot, I’ve been talking a lot. [On the] offensive end, of course, scoring, getting my teammates involved. [On the] defensive end, I think I improved a lot and I learned a lot of just how to guard the screen and how to get into my man and just knowing that everybody on this level is gonna be faster and quicker and knows how to play.”

Looking ahead to the regular season, the biggest question about Fultz is how he’ll mesh with the rest of the Sixers’ new-look starting lineup. Speaking of which…

On the “Ben Simmons, Point Guard” faux controversy

Simmons made headlines Sunday when he declared, “I think you can move me anywhere. But I’m a starting point guard.” Since Fultz likewise profiles as a point guard, that quote raised eyebrows about whether the two can co-exist.

Here’s the deal: Barring an unforeseen injury, the Sixers will trot out a starting five of Fultz, Redick, Covington, Simmons and Embiid. Simmons should begin the season as the Sixers’ de facto floor general, while Fultz will serve as a complementary ball-handler and an off-ball, spot-up threat. Fultz and Redick will guard opposing backcourts, while Simmons primarily figures to draw power forwards on defense.

Him saying he’s a “starting point guard” wasn’t a shot at Fultz or a promise he’ll be chasing speedy guards like Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook all game. It’s a sign the Sixers recognize his passing ability is what makes him unique. Take one look at his summer-league footage from last year and it becomes clear that the Sixers would be criminally neglectful not to try him out as a floor general.

In this increasingly positionless NBA, the “point guard” label is less important than ever. It behooves teams to have multiple capable ball-handlers and passers, particularly if one is a forward—look no further than the Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. If the Houston Rockets can overcome the “not enough balls to go around” problem with Chris Paul and James Harden, Fultz and Simmons will learn to work alongside one another as well.

Seeing as Fultz shot 41.3 percent from three-point range during his lone season at Washington while Simmons attempted a grand total of three triples as a freshman at LSU, it makes sense for the Sixers to use Fultz more frequently in an off-ball role. Until (unless?) Simmons’ shooting range comes around, he’s better suited to direct traffic at first, as Fultz, Redick, Covington and Embiid are all plenty capable of knocking down treys off drive-and-kicks. Seeing as opposing power forwards aren’t accustomed to guarding ball-handlers full time, Simmons will contort defenses in a way Fultz—a more traditional point guard—will not.

“One of the talking points from speakers at the Pro Scout School conference during the week was there is nothing more important than shooting,” CBS Sports’ Matt Moore wrote. “Being able to operate as a point guard just isn’t as important with how all five positions have been bent in recent years.”

When speaking to NBA.com’s Scott Howard-Cooper last summer, Sixers head coach Brett Brown described point guard as “the hardest position to play in the NBA as a first-year player,” adding it would be “quite reckless” to throw Simmons headfirst into that role, “almost unfair.” With a year of behind-the-scenes seasoning now under his belt, he’s perhaps better equipped to handle that role than Fultz right off the bat.

In April, Brown told reporters that the Sixers were still committed to trying Simmons at the point. When discussing the team’s offseason needs, he immediately honed in on “somebody that can guard the other point guard… somebody that can make a three and can bring the ball up the floor from time to time. It’s a combo guy.”

In other words, Fultz.

Both Simmons and Fultz have already expressed confidence about their ability to work together, with each praising the other’s unselfishness and willingness to share the ball. The Sixers have plenty to worry about this upcoming season—including whether everyone can avoid suffering a major injury for once—but the “Simmons as point guard” experiment ranks far lower on the list.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com or Basketball-Reference.com.

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Bryan Toporek

Bryan Toporek is just talkin' about practice. He writes about the NBA at BBALLBREAKDOWN, FanRag Sports and The Step Back. He also helps curate NBAAsesets.com.

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