Philadelphia 76ers: Taking another look at the Markelle Fultz-saga

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

The drama surrounding Philadelphia 76ers guard Markelle Fultz took another dramatic turn this week.

Being the number one pick in any sport will carry loads of expectations with it. Every move you make will be watched closely and each fault you make will be heavily scrutinized. This couldn’t be any more true for Philadelphia 76ers guard Markelle Fultz.

When the Sixers traded up in the 2017 draft to select Fultz number one overall, many praised then-general manager Bryan Colangelo for making the aggressive move to potentially get that “final piece” for the Sixers.

Giving up what the Sixers gave up to get Fultz, pundits on the outside made it very clear that this better be a slam dunk of a pick. At the time, Fultz was the apparent best player in that draft. A year and a half later, the pick looks like a colossal mistake.

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Nobody could have ever predicted the roller coaster ride that Fultz and the Sixers would go on over the next 17 months following the draft. Whoever would have thought that a guy who shot over 40-percent from three in college would suddenly forget how to shoot before his NBA debut.

Well, that is exactly what happened. For a team who has only had one top pick be healthy in the last six years (Jahlil Okafor), it just seemed like the Sixers’ luck that something like this would happen. But as we learned, this was a lot more than an injury (if you even want to call it that).

Very early in the 2017 season, Fultz was pulled from action and diagnosed with a scapular imbalance in his shoulder. It appeared that was the reason for his broken shot. Fultz was to then be re-evaluated in three weeks, and another three weeks, and so on and so forth.

Well, three weeks eventually turned into over five months, and Fultz would not return to action until the final two weeks of last season. An injury that was only supposed to take maybe a month to heal took almost half a year to get Fultz back onto the court.

So just like every Sixers’ top pick in recent history, Fultz’s rookie season was a wash. It also still was not apparent whether this was really an injury or there was something more. Fultz and the 76ers planned to go into the summer and put all of this behind them. Or so we thought.

Fultz worked with personal trainer Drew Hanlen for the entirety of this past summer, putting up over 100,000 shots. For someone with a so-called injury, that is a lot of stress to put on a shoulder. But nonetheless, it appeared a more confident Fultz was ready to take a big step forward when this season started.

When the season began, Sixers’ coach Brett Brown opted to start Fultz alongside Ben Simmons and over JJ Redick. Early returns were okay, but Fultz was still nowhere close to the prospect he was coming out of college.

So the 2018-19 season got underway, and there were some highs, but also plenty of lows. There were some good-looking jumps shots and good-looking foul shots, and sometimes it appeared that maybe Fultz was back. But then there were some ugly shots, like the ugly pump fake free throw down in Miami.

That was the shot that put the already scrutinized Fultz under a lot more fire. Then mere hours after that free throw debacle against the Heat, Fultz’s trainer, Hanlan, apparently told sources that he and Fultz had parted ways.

Weird huh? Very interesting that this report came out during that game, just after that ugly free throw attempt. This already murky situation had gotten a whole lot more confusing. And this was only the beginning.

Following that debacle, we began to see Fultz start to tinker with his free throw form, that looked totally fine just days prior to this all going down. There was then this shot, which looked like Fultz never wholly controlled the ball and just chucked it up at the rim.

The only guess behind the thought process of this shot is that Fultz is trying not to think too much. When Fultz takes a catch and shoot threes or pull up jumpers off the dribble, his form looks totally fine. It is only when he is at the line when his shot form gets funky.

When you take all of those things into consideration, it gets hard to believe this whole injury story. You have to think there is so much more to this that we just do not know. There has to be something mental behind all of this.

There may have been an injury last season that altered Fultz’s form, but Fultz who was supposedly healthy heading into this season has not looked that way. His shot shouldn’t have gone from fine to ugly as fast as it did without some form of new injury, in which there is no evidence to prove that is the case.

So if it is not the shoulder, then what could it be? There was the whole nerve damage idea that floated around Twitter in the last week. While that is, of course, a possibility, his pull up shots have been fine, and everything else he has done on the court doesn’t look to be impacted. It is his free throw that is impacted, and that is why this situation is so weird.

So the Sixers and Fultz have gone through all of this over the past 17 months, and so much just over the last ten days. It can’t get any worse? Right? Well, after Monday night’s win over the Phoenix Suns the Fultz saga added another chapter.

Obviously, following the Jimmy Butler trade, Fultz was relegated back to a bench role as the immediate backup to Ben Simmons. In Monday’s game, Fultz played a bit in the first half when Simmons went to the bench. But in the second half, Brown opted to use TJ McConnell as the backup point guard over Fultz.

It appears that right now, McConnell is the better option to back up Simmons, rather than Fultz backing him up. Well, after some news came out today, it appears that Brown won’t even have those options to consider.

So now apparently just one day after Brown opted to sit Fultz in the second half, he was advised by an attorney to see a shoulder specialist. Weird timing, unless the shoulder was injured Monday night, which there was no evidence of that. This just adds another mysterious question in this whole Fultz conundrum.

The timing on just everything is so bizarre. Hanlen saying he is no longer associated with Fultz after the ugly free throw and then Fultz seeing a specialist the day after being replaced in the rotation by McConnell. There has to be something more to this.

The big question now is: where do the Sixers go from here?

Before this news came out on Tuesday, the Sixers were already in a tough situation. They had to balance Fultz’s development with winning now. This isn’t 2015 or 2016, where the Sixers could have afforded to throw Fultz out there and let him play through this.

But this is 2018, and the Sixers are running two superstars out there in Joel Embiid and Butler. In addition, a top-20 player in the league in Simmons. At this point, the Sixers can’t afford to play around with Fultz. This team is competing for a conference championship, and that has to be this team’s number one priority.

Even before this news came out, the Sixers best option was to not play Fultz and opt to use McConnell over him as Simmons’ immediate backup. There is something wrong with Fultz, whether it be mentally or physically and that needs to be fixed before he is ready to contribute.

But now it looks like Fultz it taking a step away from the team. How long will that be? Was Monday night the final time he will wear a Sixers uniform?

We all know the upside Fultz has, and we all saw what he did in college. He shot over 40% from three in college and was able to hit free throws, so obviously, he has done it before. No one knows what has happened since then though.

Should the Sixers just write Fultz off and move on? It is hard to do for a 20-year old who you took with the number one pick just 17 months ago. Should Philadelphia just move Fultz for a second round pick and maybe he will get a fresh start elsewhere, while the Sixers get this headache off of their hands.

That is a tough question, and no team wants to write off a number one pick and admit it is a mistake. It may be easier for the Sixers just because the man who drafted Fultz in Colangelo isn’t here anymore, so Elton Brand wouldn’t get as much flack for it.

It is not like the Sixers need Fultz. If he gets back to his old self that would be a huge addition for the Sixers, but if he doesn’t, it won’t negatively impact the team. He is only 20-years old, so there is always a chance this can get better, and he can prosper. But it’s just a bizarre situation.

There is obviously something wrong with Fultz, and you can’t help but feel for the guy. Sixers’ fans can only hope he gets back to where he was because it would only benefit the Sixers. He has played less than 50 games in the NBA, so there is hope.

But for the immediate future, it appears that Fultz will not be apart of the Sixers plans, which may be for the best right now. Fultz can focus on getting himself right, while the Sixers can continue to move forward without the headache of Fultz. If Fultz is fixed and ready to come back down the road, the Sixers will surely welcome him back with open arms.

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For now, there are a lot of questions that are left to be answered, and all we can do is assume things. It is a crazy situation that may never be solved. We’ll see what happens, but for right now, Fultz and the Sixers are off on their separate ways.