Both Healthy, Fultz and Bamba Thankful to Be Able to Play the Game They Love

Magic's 21-year-olds each made big shots during win in Cleveland
by John Denton

ORLANDO – Healthy and happy on the basketball court again after recovering from injuries that could have completely derailed their young careers, Markelle Fultz and Mo Bamba know they have plenty to be thankful for today.

The gratitude that the two young Magic players have for their new realities was on full display late Wednesday after they both played big roles in Orlando’s much-needed victory in Cleveland.

Fultz and Bamba had two of the biggest shots of the game when they drilled consecutive 3-pointers midway through the fourth quarter after Cleveland charged to within eight points of the Magic’s lead. On this night, however, Fultz and Bamba were thinking much more macro than simply lifting Orlando to a 116-104 victory for its first road win of the season. In this time of giving thanks for the many blessings bestowed upon them, Fultz and Bamba talked about their unadulterated happiness in being able to once again play the game that they adore.

``This is the love of my life, so I’m just thankful to be out here and thankful to be able to compete again,’’ said Fultz, who poured in 15 points for his sixth straight game scoring in double digits. ``I’m thankful for this opportunity and I just love it all.’’

Like Fultz, who saw all but 31 games of his first two NBA seasons taken away from him because of a puzzling shoulder malady, Bamba spoke of the joy of being back in the mix after his rookie year was cut short by a leg injury last season. On Wednesday, Bamba looked nothing like the skittish player bothered each of the past two years by a stress fracture in his left leg as he was equaling his career high of 15 points and drilling all five of his 3-point shots.

``I’m super happy and I didn’t let (the struggles) make or break me because things can change pretty fast in this league – as I’ve been told,’’ said Bamba as he had his left ankle dunked in ice and his shin wrapped with another ice pack. ``Now, it’s just time to capitalize on this and do whatever it takes to help this team win.’’

Fultz and Bamba were in perfect position to help the Magic win on Wednesday, confidently knocking down shots when Orlando needed them most. After Cleveland trimmed a 17-point deficit to 98-90 with 5:43 to play, Fultz confidently drilled a straight-on 3-pointer that sent a hush over the crowd inside the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.

Though he was just an 18.8 percent 3-point shooter (six of 32) prior to the game, Fultz privately hoped the defense would dare him to shoot with the game on the line. All the time away from basketball, while rehabilitating the Thoracic Outlet Syndrome condition in his right shoulder and re-working his jump shot, readied him for this particular moment, Fultz said. When it came along on Wednesday, he never flinched.

``It’s all about preparation because I’ve put in a lot of work in my off time and I’ve been doing that my whole life, looking for the big moments and making big shots,’’ said Fultz, who is averaging 11.3 points and 3.5 assists while shooting 50 percent in 17 games (12 starts). ``I was just playing within the flow of the game, that was the shot that was available to me and I just stepped up and shot it with confidence.’’

Bamba also played with plenty of confidence – a feeling he hopes to carry over to Friday night when the Magic (7-10) face the Toronto Raptors (12-4) at the Amway Center. Though he had recently gone through the worst stretch his young career in terms of his play, Bamba shot the ball with confidence and conviction on Wednesday. He had two 3-pointers in the second quarter when Orlando broke the game open, two more in the fourth when it sealed the victory and a career-best five in all. To put that number into proper perspective, Bamba had made just three 3-pointers in the 10 games prior to Wednesday’s performance.

``I really just corralled around my teammates and the message was simple and it was, `It’s coming, and things change really fast,’’’ Bamba said of the support provided by his teammates throughout his early-season struggles. ``I felt like crap after a few games, but things really picked up after a while.

``It was very difficult because people are super reactionary, and I was actually super reactionary, too,’’ Bamba said of how he dealt with his recent struggles. ``I just went back to, `What am I doing well right now? What am I not doing well right now?’ After I sat down with Coach (Steve Clifford) in Indiana (on Friday) and he told me, `You’re not necessarily playing that bad. It’s just that we believe you can do so much more.’ After he told me that, it gave me a ton of confidence.’’

As far as Bamba’s confidence in the left leg that he fractured last January and one that still gives him the occasional soreness, that’s still a work in progress. Slowly, but surely, Bamba said he’ll get over the mental hurdle of realizing he is completely healthy and can let loose again.

``I’m thankful to be back playing, but I’m also thankful for that (stress fracture) injury because I know how to do the little things now like (icing his shin after games) to really take care of my body,’’ he said. ``I have to be responsive to our staff and really stay on top of things.

``I’m not dealing with anything (physically wrong), but it’s just a matter of telling myself mentally that I can do things,’’ added the 7-footer who is averaging 5.0 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.33 blocked shots in 15 games. ``It takes me a second to get off the ground, but it’s just mental. As soon as I get over that mentally, I’ll be back to dunking and swinging on the rim.’’

Quite possibly no person in the NBA understands the mental challenges of recovering from a debilitating injury more than Fultz, the player who was almost universally labeled a bust after being the No. 1 pick of the 2017 NBA Draft and getting traded last February by the Philadelphia 76ers. The Magic, who made the bold move of dealing for an injured Fultz, stood by his side last season and again throughout the summer as he worked to regain the strength and flexibility in his right shoulder.

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome is a compression of the nerves and blood vessels near the collarbone area of the shoulder and it often goes undetected – as it did for the first two years of his career. It took Fultz hundreds of hours of tedious rehabilitation and plenty of patience to regain a full range of motion and strength in his shoulder. Getting through that terribly trying process and getting his career back on track – all while being publicly flogged on the TV talk shows and on social media – has Fultz more thankful than ever during this holiday season.

``It’s just a blessing and you’ve got to give all the glory to God, being healthy again and out there competing in this game that we all love,’’ Fultz said with conviction. ``This is a good (Thanksgiving). We got to play basketball today, the day before (Thanksgiving), and I’m just glad to be living, glad to be playing this game and glad to be healthy. So, it’s up there.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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