Philadelphia 76ers: A healthy Markelle Fultz is all the Sixers need

(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) /

The Philadelphia 76ers had an uneventful offseason, missing out on high profile free agents like Lebron James and Paul George. But the return of Markelle Fultz appears to be definitive, and his presence on the court should pay huge dividends this season.

The Philadelphia 76ers had quite the offseason. After their electrifying run to the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals which ended in a gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the Boston Celtics, many predicted that the Sixers would be one of the front-runners to land a mega free agent, perhaps Lebron James.

That caliber player never made it to Philadelphia, as the Sixers struck out on James and Paul George, the two biggest names who were believed to be on the move. James signed with the Lakers in a shocking move, while George surprisingly re-signed with Oklahoma City. The Sixers then tried hard to pry Kawhi Leonard away from the Spurs but to no avail. The asking price was apparently too much for Philadelphia.

Some of the fan base saw the lack of added free agents as a failure of the organization, that the Sixers were talked about so heavily leading into free agency, only to come out with nothing. And while it was disappointing to feel so close to signing the greatest player of a generation, it’s easy to forget that this Sixers team has a few budding superstars of its own, and they’ve only just begun to taste success.

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Oh, and just in case you forgot, they also have Markelle Fultz, the number one pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.

Fultz had an interesting first season in Philadelphia, where he spent most of the year with a mysterious shoulder injury that not only kept him sidelined but allegedly disrupted his shooting mechanics to the point where his shot had to be “reworked”.

Fultz did get some limited time in at the end of the regular season when the Sixers had already clinched, and he looked pretty good in those games, to the point where fans began to wonder aloud why he spent the entirety of the postseason riding the bench.

There’s no doubt about it: The Sixers haven’t had it easy in regard to their high-level draft picks. All three of Ben Simmonds, Joel Embiid, and Fultz essentially missed their first seasons on the court. Simmonds played a bit at the end of his rookie season, but not enough to qualify as a true rookie. Embiid was brought along painfully slow while rehabilitating a fractured navicular bone in his foot, which gave fans nightmare flashes of Andrew Bynum all over again.

Simmonds and Embiid took Philadelphia basketball back by storm in 2017-2018,  but the team was still in need of more high-level talent. In addition, the question of whether these three franchise players in Embiid, Simmons, and Fultz would ever get on the court together was beginning to seem pretty fair.

Enter 2018, and that narrative appears to have changed in Philadelphia’s favor. With the Sixers mostly the same in terms of personnel from last season, they are about to get a big boost in the form of a healthy and motivated Fultz.

As John Clark of NBC Sports Philadelphia recently tweeted, Fultz can be seen showing off his improved shot, which looks fluid and technical. Brett Brown was quoted as saying that Fultz took over 150,000 shots this summer, which hints that Fultz is both healed from his mysterious shoulder injury and has taken a high number of shots without re-injury. The real question will be how Fultz’s reworked shot translates into a regular season game.

Mentally, Fultz seems “like a new man”, as Matt Haughton of NBC Sports Philadelphia writes. He’s more confident and ready to prove that he’s no bust.

Make no mistake, this is a good development for the Sixers. It’s true, they didn’t bring in any high-level free agents, and they didn’t draft a top three pick. But they should be getting a player back who has a bright future in the league, and hopefully, one who is going to surprise a lot of people this year.

Fultz should have plenty of opportunities to shake off the rust and test out both his shoulder and his shot. The Sixers are hoping that he will be the missing link, and there’s really no reason to think that Fultz can’t or won’t be just what Philadelphia needs to compete with Boston for the conference finals.

The question of where Fultz will play is probably a reasonable one, but that’s for Brett Brown to decide. He’ll need to figure out how to get both Fultz and Simmons on the court at the same time, as both players prefer to handle the ball. Simmons is not a true point guard, though he played that role for most of last year.

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At times, Simmons was dominant bringing the ball up the court but faced difficulty against better defensive teams like Boston, who clog the middle and force outside shooting. Simmons is not yet comfortable as a shooter, although Brown has stated that he has been working on his shot as well. Fultz’s newfound comfort with his shot could pave the way for a different role this year, but again, that decision remains with Brown.

Brown did a fine job last year of managing his personnel, as Philadelphia was one of the best teams in the league off the bench. They’ve lost some of that as guys like Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli will not be back with the team, meaning that the Sixers’ franchise triumvirate will need to carry the load moving forward. They’ll also be able to rely on guys like J.J. Redick and Robert Covington, who’ve both proven to be reliable playmakers.

A healthy version of Markelle Fultz is what this team needs this year, not a mega free agent. There may come a time when Sixers management decides that they want to throw their hat in the ring for the next big free agent signing, but that won’t be this year. No, this team belongs to Simmons, Embiid, and to Fultz.

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The former number one pick out of Washington has a chance to go out and prove to the masses that he’s the only addition the Sixers truly need to compete for a championship. It’s a tall order, but one that Fultz will hopefully embrace this year.