Life is funny sometimes. In May, I was compiling a list of prospects to study in preparation for write-ups I was going to do on players the Sixers could potentially take with the third pick in the draft, almost as if I accepted the fact that the Sixers didn't get the first overall pick and in turn, had no chance of getting who I thought was easily the best player in the draft.
The first overall pick has only been traded three times since the 1980 season (four if you really want to count Andrew Wiggins who was traded two months after being drafted in 2014) but little did I know at that point last month that the Sixers were even thinking about trading the third pick to the Boston Celtics in the days leading up to the draft to move up to number one to take Markelle Fultz.
It didn't take long for scouts, writers, and other coaches to see that Fultz was the best prospect in a deep and talented draft. Very few have made cases for players like Jayson Tatum, Josh Jackson, or even Lonzo Ball as the top player in the class, players who all have high upside but have flaws of varying degrees that could stop them from reaching their potential. Some of it, in my opinion, were people just trying to be the draft hipster and not go with the consensus, while some people actually believed it, but to me, it wasn't all that debatable.
Markelle Fultz was in a tier by himself and not only was he the best player, he was also the best fit for the Sixers, which makes sense that they would trade up to draft him. There were other interesting moves the team made during the draft, trading back into the first round to draft and stash a 7'2 Latvian center at number 25, as multiple teams tried to pry away the other Latvian big that is currently rotting away in New York's Bermuda Triangle, drafting Jonah Bolden at number 36, and passing on Semi Ojeleye, who went to Boston the very next pick, making me really sad, trading away the 39th and 46th picks after actually drafting guards I also really liked and drafting a Frenchman at number 50. But, of course, the biggest move, and probably the most predictable, was drafting Fultz, and it's easy to see why.
Statline: 23.2 PPG/5.9 APG/5.7 RPG - 2P% = 50.2/3P% = 41.3/FT% = 65%
Three Level Scoring
There are very few holes in Fultz's offensive skill-set. He is a legitimate three level scorer and scored at an efficient rate despite having really bad teammates around him, and a coach who ended up getting fired after the season. Fultz is a crafty finisher around the basket and has a number of moves to work his way to the rim, whether it be finishing through contact, contorting his body after exploding for a layup or just change of direction. Despite the poor ("poor" is really underselling how bad the team was) supporting cast, Fultz finished 57 percent of his shots at the rim in non-transition possessions, per HoopMath.com, and overall finished 61.3 percent of his attempts at the rim. Fultz is good at attacking the paint already, but you can only imagine how much better he could be in the paint once he has NBA level talent and spacing around him.
For someone who just turned 19 last month, Fultz is already advanced in figuring out ways to get his own shot. He can shoot the jumper in a number of ways as well, off the dribble, to the tune of 1.02 points per 100 possessions, per Draftexpress, off the catch at 1.13 points per 100, from the mid-range area and from the college three, he can even get his own shot in the pick and roll. He needs to get comfortable with the NBA three-point line but when you look at the mechanics in his jump-shot, good elevation, good form, and footwork, it should translate to the next level once he cleans up some of the little things like the slight pause before he releases the ball which is completely coachable. A shot creator from the perimeter is what the Sixers needed the most and it's one of the many reasons Fultz was the perfect fit for the current roster.
Here are some three-pointers off the catch:
Fultz was the first freshman in 20 years to average 20 points, five assists, and five rebounds per game and is one of nine freshmen since 1992 to average more than 23 points per game. The fact that he was able to be efficient with every opposing team knowing that he was the only viable option - some possessions the entire defense had their heads turned to him - is all that you need to know if you're figuring out if his stats are "legit". I know there is still concern that Washington only won nine games, but that doesn't preclude him from being the best prospect in his class. The team was really terrible and poorly coached. Fultz was also supposed to play with the likes of Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss heading into the season, but their NBA draft stock took an unexpected rise and they became first round picks in the 2016 draft, leaving Fultz to fend for himself. Despite that, Fultz stayed committed to Washington because the now-former Head Coach Lorenzo Romar was one of the few who recruited Fultz when he was just 5'9 and had been cut from the JV team at his high school. If Fultz was on a team with more talent, or if he went to a big school then we would not be having these concerns. It was evident watching games that opposing defenses couldn't stop Fultz, it was the team and coaching that failed him.
This play is a microcosm of Fultz's time at Washington
Pick and Roll passing/Feel for the game
Fultz already has an adept understanding of how to run a pick and roll, and his incredible feel for the game combined with his Brandon Roy/James Harden-esqe herky-jerky ability to maneuver through a defense will help him become a deadly force in a league that mainly runs a lot of pick and roll. There were plenty of times watching Washington where the spacing was abysmal, and despite that, Fultz showed that he can score in a number of ways coming off a pick, and while he doesn't have the transcendent-can't-teach vision of fellow prospect Lonzo Ball, or his new teammate Ben Simmons, don't go and short-change how good Fultz is as a passer in his own right. Thanks to his basketball sense and feel, he can run an offense, and that's great when you're talking about splitting ballhandling duties with Simmons.
There are players who predetermine what they are going to do before they get the ball, they have the move thought out without having a counter if the initial plan gets snuffed out by a defense. Fultz does not do that. I've tried to come up with terms for this but, I guess an "Instinctual-Reactionary Offensive player"? Either way, what I mean is Fultz has a series of advanced spin moves, a great handle, change-of-direction lateral steps, euro-steps and craftiness, none of which is predetermined. He has the rare ability to move based on how the defense reacts in that split-second, which makes him really tough to stop. That specific ability is why I invoked Brandon Roy and James Harden earlier. They decelerate when the defense is moving one way and then they change directions in an instant while the defense is leaning. It's uncanny.
This is absolutely absurd. This is something Kyrie Irving does.
Posting up guards
This is where Fultz's 6'4, 200-pound frame, and 6-10 wingspan come in handy. He surprisingly, or maybe not surprisingly given his feel for the game, has shown the chops to post-up smaller guards, which is another weapon Sixers' head coach Brett Brown can try to uncover and refine. Fultz's elevation on his shot combined with his size and length makes him a tough cover for small players. His shots from the post were hit and miss, but the key here is he drew a lot of fouls like in this clip below, and getting to the free-throw line is important, especially in today's NBA.
Needs to improve his defense
No one coming into the draft is perfect, and Fultz isn't excluded from that. His defense was typically hit or miss, which is true for any 19-year-old college player. He took poor angles and was disengaged, but his physical profile gives him the tools to be a good defender, and he puts in effort blocking shots from the weak-side and during the season, he made the chase down block his trademark play.
Brett Brown emphasizes defense, and Fultz is a hard worker who has acknowledged his hit-or-miss defense at Washington, the mistakes he made are correctable, and if he can turn into at least an average defender (that's really selling his defensive potential short, I think he can be good) then that's a success given that he has absurd offensive potential, and given that Joel Embiid and Robert Covington, who are both great defenders, are now his teammates.
Besides the fact that picking Fultz was the right choice because he was the best prospect in the class, this pick was right because he is the perfect player to put alongside Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. The big question mark with Simmons is his jump-shot and whether it will ever develop, and that will undoubtedly limit his ability to play off the ball. Brett Brown is all in on Simmons being the point guard (can we just say primary ball handler? The point guard debate is getting old) and you can now slot Fultz into the nominal "point guard" spot to play off-ball and sometimes initiate the offense. When Fultz came in for his workout with the Sixers on June 17th he talked about how he and Simmons could work together. Fultz could set screens for Simmons, and that would cause all types of nightmare mismatches, kind of akin to the Kyrie/LeBron pick and roll to get the smaller guard switched onto the bigger LeBron, you could have Simmons set a screen for Fultz and have Simmons short roll. There would be deadly dribble hand-offs, and both can fill the lane on a fast break as much as they can lead the fast break. There are all types of possibilities. Embiid is the type of high-level prospect where he can fit anywhere and with almost anyone, but it was going to be tricky finding the right player to fit next to Simmons, a prospect who might be shooting with the wrong hand (The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor has certainly brought up that fact 1000 times).
With this pick signaling the next step in The Process, the Sixers now have a roster where three of their cornerstone players are 19, 20, and 23 and now they can start to grow organically, I honestly still can't believe I'm even typing this article right now. The only thing holding this team back, of course, is health. Embiid has played 31 games, albeit a tantalizing 31 games, a misplaced Shawn Long foot on the last day of training camp caused Simmons to miss the entire year, and Fultz hasn't played an NBA game yet. It will take time, and fight for an 8th seed in the weak Eastern Conference, which now doesn't have Jimmy Butler, and maybe Paul George, would be conceivable if I was wasn't terrified to death of someone getting hurt. But you can't put these guys in bubble wrap forever, they have to get on the court first, and then have the growing pains young teams have.
Either way, this team will be fun to watch grow, and now fans, as evidence of the Sixers selling out season tickets for the 2017-18 season, are rightfully excited, especially pro-Processers who took to Twitter last Monday to retweet old and terrible takes from anti-Hinkie media over the last four years as a part of Retweet Armageddon (Shout out to the Rights to Ricky Sanchez podcast, I said the name).... I may or may not have participated in that in the pettiness.