Embiid, Simmons, Redick, Covington, and Fultz. That’s the starting five that had every Sixers fan salivating as soon as the trade with Boston became official. With his ability to play both on and off the ball, Fultz seemed to be an ideal offensive fit next to Simmons. During his lone college season, Fultz showcased an ability to create his own offense and score at all three levels. His pick-and-roll play was like poetry in motion as he shifted gears and contorted his body to create space with ease.
Fast forward a few months, and the then-consensus number one overall pick has lost some of his luster. A summer league shortened by injury combined with a less-than-stellar preseason debut have left Fultz out of most Rookie of the Year conversations. Meanwhile, the hype continues to build around his peers—like fellow point guards Dennis Smith Jr. and Lonzo Ball. Is it already time for Sixers fans to question the trade for their Chick-fil-A-obsessed guard? In the words of Aaron Rodgers, “R-E-L-A-X.”
A year after Embiid shattered rookie expectations by dominating on both ends of the floor, Fultz is simply reminding everyone why those expectations existed in the first place. Like most young guards, Fultz has a lot of room to grow as a defender. On offense, he has all the tools to be spectacular. For some reason, however, he decided to tweak his jumper during the summer without notifying anyone on the coaching staff. In his first preseason action, he shot 2-13 from the field—with the two makes being a layup and a dunk. Aside from missing shots, Fultz had trouble creating for his teammates. His out-of-control drives were likely a sobering reality check that NBA defenders are much bigger, stronger, and better than the kids in the PAC 12. Again, this is all ok. It’s par for the course. Let’s not forget that Fultz also added plays like this to his offseason highlight reel:
Luckily for Markelle and the Sixers, he landed in an ideal situation. No one is looking to the 19-year-old to emerge as a franchise savior ala Ball in Los Angeles. Fultz isn’t even the most scrutinized rookie on his own team. That distinction belongs to Ben Simmons, who is eager to re-introduce himself to anyone who forgot why he was a no-brainer choice as the top pick in the draft two years ago. And with Simmons operating as a true point guard through two preseason games, it appears that Fultz won’t be asked to do too much.
Maybe Fultz has shown Brett Brown enough that the fantasized-about starting five will be intact at the start of the season. These days, it’s rare that a top overall pick comes off the bench. On the other hand, there’s a chance that he just isn’t quite ready to start for a team with real playoff aspirations. Should Brown opt to sit him early, Fultz would likely be disappointed while other lottery-drafted point guards are given the keys to their respective franchises, but it’s all about his long-term development. The Sixers have the pieces in place to help Fultz get his feet wet before diving in headfirst to battle the likes of Kyrie Irving and John Wall on a nightly basis.
If Fultz doesn’t start on day one, who will? Last year’s starting point guard, T.J. McConnell, is an awkward fit with Simmons. One ball-handler who can’t shoot is problematic. Two could be disastrous. Nonetheless, for some reason, Brown wanted to see how the two would work together during Friday’s preseason game against the Celtics. Then there’s Dario Saric, who many casual NBA fans—and even NBA media members—believe will be starting anyway in place of Robert Covington (he shouldn’t). Like McConnell, Saric isn’t an ideal fit with Simmons unless his shot improves more than expected. And defensively, a lineup that includes Saric has a big question mark in terms of defending opposing point guards. Perhaps Simmons or Covington is up to the challenge, but that’s asking a lot of players who are used to checking forwards.
A less-discussed option would be veteran Jerryd Bayless. Bayless doesn’t solve any defensive issues, but the Sixers will likely struggle to contain point guards no matter what. On offense, Bayless looked extremely comfortable playing off of Simmons against the Celtics. He made 3 of 5 three-point attempts on his way to a team-high 15 points. He clearly understands his role and can help spread the floor, something that Fultz should be able to do as well—once he has a consistent approach and confidence in his shot. Putting J.J. Redick aside, who will obviously step in right away as an incredible floor spacer, a second veteran like Bayless could make point guard life easier on Simmons. Last year, Ersan Ilyasova helped Embiid grow as an offensive centerpiece by giving the big man an extra deep threat. When defenses would collapse on Jojo, Ilyasova had the ability to make them pay.
Maybe Markelle Fultz will start and deliver on his promise right away. Maybe he'll come off the bench while adjusting to this level of play. All that matters is that he continues to get better. The NBA has an embarrassment of riches at the point guard position right now. On any given night, Fultz is more likely than not to be matching up with a dynamic scorer and playmaker. Sooner or later, he'll be more than up to the task. It's up to Brett Brown to decide if he needs more seasoning before being thrown into the fire. This kid has everything necessary to become a special player in this league. Getting there just might be a bit of a process, and Sixers fans know what to do with those.