Markelle Fultz is Officially Good Enough to Have an NBA Career

It's been a strange few years for Markelle Fultz, but now that he's starting at point guard for the playoff-fringe Magic, things are looking up for him. And thank goodness.

February 7, 2019 doesn't mean much to most people. For NBA people, it was the 2019 trade deadline, and Markelle Fultz was an afterthought on a day that featured trades involving Tobias Harris, Kristaps Porzingis, Harrison Barnes, Jabari Parker, Otto Porter Jr., Marc Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, and Jonas Valanciunas, among others. And while the Gasol trade was a major factor in an NBA title, and the Porzingis trade could reshape the league for years to come, it was the Markelle Fultz for Jonathon Simmons trade that may wind up being the most fascinating of the bunch.

Prior to February 7, 2019, Markelle Fultz had been each of the following things, according to either reports, provable facts, or the court of public opinion:

  • A McDonald's All-American in high school
  • A 41% three-point shooter in his lone year at the University of Washington
  • A third-team All-American in college
  • The #1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft
  • A starting guard in the NBA for a total of 15 games
  • A guy who had "the yips" and could not shoot a basketball
  • Someone suffering from injuries that nobody had ever heard of
  • A bust in the making, thanks to missing 60+ games in his rookie season
  • Worse than the guys picked behind him
  • A -0.1 Value Over Replacement Player (meaning the average NBA backup would be more valuable)
  • Doomed to be out of the league by the time his rookie contract ended
  • A disaster
  • 20-years-old

But February 7, 2019 opened the door to change some of these things. On that day, Philadelphia traded Markelle Fultz to Orlando for Jonathon Simmons and two second-round picks. Philadelphia had had enough and chose to cut their losses.

Prior to arriving in Orlando, Fultz's bizarre track record (painstakingly detailed by The Ringer's Haley O'Shaughnessy here) featured eye-popping advanced stats in addition to the general thoughts listed above. He was in the 12th percentile in offensive efficiency in his second season in Philly and the 14th percentile in defensive efficiency. Granted he only had 15 games as a sub to grade, but being near the bottom of the league for a #1 overall pick is a frightening prospect. Nevertheless, Orlando was willing to take a chance.

The Magic didn't need to be picky. They were 22-32 when they made the trade, on the outside looking in at the eastern conference playoffs. Orlando was fine with taking a flyer for the future. They ultimately earned the 7th seed behind Nikola Vucevic's career year, but Markelle Fultz was a non-factor. Fultz sat out the rest of the season with what is called Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, not playing a single minute down the stretch-run for Orlando.

If the truth really was that Fultz just needed time to heal and rehabilitate his shoulder, Orlando, rarely on any win-now timeline, could make that happen. The only remaining question was whether or not the time and rehab would work.

Where Are We Now?

Markelle Fultz played in the preseason and looked like a mostly-formed NBA player. This was a relatively big deal. When the regular season started, Fultz came off the bench in the first five games of the season, and he looked OK! It's hard to stress just how surprising it was that he looked OK, because experts - people who analyze basketball for a living - correctly wondered if he would ever play in the NBA again. Starting with game six, Markelle moved into the starting lineup, and, frankly, it doesn't appear that he's looking back.

I don't want to oversell this, as Fultz is not putting up All-Star numbers, but his statistics are in-line with what an average NBA player should be doing. His per-game numbers are respectable - over 11 points and 4+ assists as a starting point guard - and his eFG% (just over 48% on January 1) is miles ahead of where it was in Philly (42%). And he's 21-years-old. 21-year-old #1 picks are not supposed to be worrying about whether or not they'll ever play in the NBA again. They are supposed to be doing stuff like this...

What has improved?

I'm not a doctor, so I can't say whether or not his shoulder is completely healed or what was going on physically, but the proof may be in the (mediocre-but-still-encouraging) pudding. Orlando picked up Fultz's player option for the 2020-21 season in September, so they clearly thought he was on the right track. So far, they were right.

Offensively, while the numbers aren't eye-popping, Fultz is becoming respectable as a point guard. 

In the pick and roll, Markelle Fultz ranks in the 54th percentile (per Synergy) in points per possession at 0.832. While that's not a huge number, it puts him ahead of guys like Devin Booker, Jimmy Butler, and Jrue Holiday. Finding something that Fultz can do well is an integral part of his growth as a player, and the pick and roll is an enormous part of modern-day basketball. To show a little more about his prowess, when factoring in his assists, Fultz ranks in the 69th percentile in points per possession overall in pick and rolls - an outright good number, even though the stat skews in favor of guards.

An added wrinkle is that Markelle is not surrounded by a team that scores easily, so his 4.3 assists per game undersells him a little bit. The Magic are ranked 29th in the NBA in FG%. Fultz creates 8.5 possible assists per game (per NBA.com) and his teammates convert just 4.3 of them. To pick an extreme example, Tyus Jones in Memphis creates 7.6 looks per game for his teammates and they convert 4.8 of them. So while Fultz is giving teammates a chance to score, they're not always coming through. 

The takeaway, however, is that Fultz is doing well with the ball in his hands as a traditional point guard. He's working a solid pick and roll - it helps to have Nikola Vucevic around to set screens - and making defenders pay when they try to fight over the screen. Synergy shows us that Fultz is scoring 1.00 point per possession when defenders try to go over a screen and just 0.816 when the defenders go under the screen. That may not seem like a huge difference, but that's one point over the course of a game, and Orlando has two 1-point games already this season (one win, one loss).

But that last stat also brings us neatly into the next section.

What has not improved?

Markelle Fultz was a good shooter at the University of Washington, where he made 41.3% of his three-pointers. His shooting was a big part of why he was taken first in the 2017 draft, and it was the undercurrent of his whole shoulder-injury situation; his shot had broken. While we can speculate whether it was entirely mental or physical (the smart money says it was a combination of both), he's at least back to playing NBA basketball.

But that jumper is not back. 

The reason Fultz's PPP is so low when opponents go under a screen is because he can't shoot. Of the 143 guards who have appeared in 20+ games and average 15+ minutes, Markelle Fultz ranks 125th in catch-and-shoot attempts per game at 1.3 per contest. Some of that could be that he's the point guard and doesn't receive a lot of passes (for example, Chris Paul is below Fultz on the list) but the bigger culprit is that Fultz is shooting an obscene 23% on those catch-and-shoot attempts. That ranks 139th, with only Russell Westbrook, Jarrett Culver, and Treveon Graham worse (sorry, Wolves fans).

Here is a link to his full night against the Blazers from earlier this month. Take a look and tell me if you think his shot is fully healed. Fultz is shooting 27% on three-pointers. NBA.com has him at 36% between 5-9 feet. If you prefer 8-foot groupings, he's 36.4% from 8-16 feet, and 37.5% from 16-24 feet. All of these numbers are rough.

What's next?

The nice thing about Orlando - and what everyone was saying when the trade happened - is that there's minimal pressure. Orlando is currently the 8th seed in the east, and with only DJ Augustin challenging for starting point guard minutes, Fultz can breathe relatively easy. He can learn on the fly, he can take some risks, and he can get used to the role of starting at point guard. In all likelihood, the spot is his until he's ready to give it up. The poor shooting numbers are tough, but The Process isn't on his head, and there are no sold-out arenas demanding to know what's going on.

The Magic are 13-16 with Markelle as the primary ball-handler, and while that's not great, it's good enough for that 8th seed. For Fultz, and for Orlando, good enough is good enough.

For now.

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