Clifford Appreciates Fultz's Willingness to Learn and Adapt to Challenges

by John Denton

NEW YORK – Wise beyond his years in terms of basketball strategy and preparation, 21-year-old Orlando Magic point guard Markelle Fultz rarely ever goes into a game without a detailed plan so that he can quickly adapt to how defenders are guarding him.

As those defenders have started checking him differently – more of them are battling over screens to better contest his improving mid-range jump shot – a well-prepared Fultz has adjusted his game with more drives to continue his effectiveness for the Magic.

With his Magic (24-32) about to face the Nets (26-29) in Brooklyn on Monday night, Fultz is expecting a much different look after he burned them for a career-best 25-point night on Jan. 6 at the Amway Center. With Brooklyn clearly determined to try and coax Fultz into shooting from the perimeter, he drilled two 3-pointers, sank a career-best 11 field goals and added five rebounds, four assists and two steals in the first meeting between the two teams.

Fultz figures to see a different look this time around and he’s already taken precautions in his preparation to be ready.

``I definitely feel like the way that I’ve been playing, guys have started to guard me a little differently,’’ analyzed Fultz, who is averaging a team-best 12.1 drives into the paint a game. ``But I prepare for both – I prepare for when guys go under (screens) and I prepare for when guys guard me up close. It goes back to my preparation going into games and working on everything that I feel like I need to be prepared.’’

The Magic want to be as prepared as possible what with them trying to track down the Nets in the standings. Orlando is currently in the No. 8 spot, while Brooklyn is 2½ games ahead in the No. 7 seed. The two franchises both won 42 games last season, but the Nets got the higher seed because of their 2-1 record in the season series.

By virtue of their 101-89 defeat of the Nets on Jan. 6, the Magic have a 1-0 edge in the series so far. After squaring off on Monday at Barclays Center, the two teams will play twice more – March 23 in Brooklyn and March 27 in Orlando.

``To me, we have to play well, play our way in (to the playoffs) and get better,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said. ``That’s the only thing I tell (Orlando’s players) – we’ve got to win and make progress.’’

The Magic almost certainly will need to make progress with their outside shooting to win on Monday. Orlando missed its first nine 3-point shot attempts and 18 of 19 to open the game in Friday’s 122-106 loss to the Dallas Mavericks. For the game, the Magic made just nine of a season-high 43 3-point tries – with eight of those makes coming from Evan Fournier (five) and Terrence Ross (three).

Orlando will be facing a Brooklyn team that – despite being without superstar point guard Kyrie Irving – ranks sixth in the league in 3-point attempts per game (37.5) and ninth in 3-point makes a game (12.8). Conversely, the Magic are 20th in attempts from beyond the arc (31.8) and 25thin makes (10.6).

Fultz tried to soften some of the sting of the poor shooting on Friday by relentlessly attacking the rim. His 13 drives into the paint paved the way for him to score 14 points and hand out nine assists in just 25 minutes of action before a mini-disaster struck late in the third quarter.

While contesting a Maxi Kleber dunk, Fultz landed awkwardly, and his left calf started painfully spasming. Fultz stayed down on the floor for several seconds before limping to the Magic bench as reserve guard D.J. Augustin checked into the game. With Fultz out of the game, the Magic’s deficit grew to double digits and the decision was made to keep him out of action the rest of the night.

Fultz said he was partly to blame for the series of events that knocked him out of action and impacted the Magic’s chances of winning. Like with game-planning for a foe, Fultz said he has to better prepare his body for the rigors of an NBA game.

``It frustrated me because I wanted to get back out there on the floor,’’ said Fultz, who has successfully overcome the shoulder issues that nearly derailed his NBA career each of the previous two seasons. ``But any time you catch a cramp, there are reasons for it.

``It just showed me that I need to take better care of my body, hydrating and eating right,’’ he continued. ``It happens and I’m playing the most basketball I’ve been played in a long time. (Cramping) is something I’ve always been doing since I was in high school, but it just shows me that there’s more that I’ve got to work on. I’ve been taking the extra steps of drinking more water.’’

Fultz has impressed the Magic, particularly Clifford, with his attention to detail as it relates to his strategic preparation for games. Not long after the Magic traded for Fultz last February, Clifford regularly talked basketball with the point guard to try and gauge his level of basketball IQ. Clifford came away from those conversations with this blunt and flattering assessment: ``He’s a sponge and he’s a very committed, serious-minded guy.’’

While Fultz often watches video and analyzes his own performances with assistant coach Steve Hetzel, the talented point guard got in an extra skull session with Clifford on Saturday, which was an optional work day for the Magic’s players. Clifford appreciates Fultz’s willingness to learn and the questions that he asks in their regular conversations via meetings in his office and over phone conversations and text messages.

``It’s a different position, so you probably talk to (point guards) a lot more, especially about decisions, organization and things like that,’’ Clifford said. ``And, I think point guards, think differently, for the most part. I think they’re more likely to comment and tell you what they think. (Fultz) does that and he was in my office (on Saturday), and he had two or three things that we talked about. Evan (Fournier) came up (to Clifford’s office) yesterday, and he has a couple of things that I thought were very good that we’re going to do. I met with Mo (Bamba), Gary (Clark) and (Nikola Vucevic).’’

Fultz, who has averaged 11.9 points, 5.0 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.3 steals in 55 games (50 starts), likes that he’s able to have a free dialogue with his head coach when he has questions or suggestions about plays.

``I feel like it helps me learn so much about the game and make me a better basketball player and a better person,’’ Fultz said of his candid conversations with Clifford. ``I’m just trying to help this team and this organization get to the next step. I can always go up there and talk about whatever I want when I’m in (Clifford’s) office. When I talk to him, it makes me feel comfortable, here and at home, and it makes me want to work harder for him.

``There doesn’t always have to be agreement; there are going to be times when we disagree, and he understands that,’’ Fultz added. ``I think that’s what makes him a great coach and me an even better player. I’m just very thankful to have a coach who is open and willing to talk about anything to help me out.’’

Undoubtedly, Clifford and Fultz talked about how the Nets might cover him differently on Monday after the guard poured in a career-best 25 points in the first meeting. Fultz said the comfort of feeling prepared allows him to play with more freedom, and he said he’ll be ready for whatever the Nets throw at him on Monday.

``I was just being aggressive and that was my mindset going in there. It’s been picking up since that game,’’ Fultz said of his mindset in the first meeting against the Nets. ``That’s my goal going back in there (to Brooklyn) because they’re going to remember that game just like I do. I know they’re going to have a game plan, not only for me, but for this team. My only mindset against these guys is to play my hardest and try to get the win. I want to be aggressive and if I’ve got my shots, (take them), and get into the paint and create for others.’’

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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