Fultz Cleared for Start of Training Camp, Excited to Join Teammates on Court
ORLANDO – Not long after releasing a high-arching 3-pointer from the left corner and seeing his shot swish softly through the net, Markelle Fultz playfully spun around and flashed a toothy grin at the Orlando Magic teammates standing behind him.
Finally, at long last, the former No. 1 overall pick said the game of basketball – and the success that he is starting to enjoy – is bringing him unbridled joy once again.
Of course, it’s been a couple of years since that’s been the case for the 21-year-old Fultz, who has had to deal with a puzzling shoulder injury that threatened to derail his promising career and one that often had him branded him as a bust after being the top overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. However, now that he has been pronounced as fully healthy and he’s been cleared for the start of Magic training camp on Tuesday, Fultz said he’s happier than he’s been in years and excited about his prospects for the season ahead with Orlando.
``I always have joy any time that I step in here (at the Magic’s practice facility) because, as I’ve learned, you can’t take any of this for granted because you never know when it’s going to get taken away from you,’’ Fultz said on Wednesday after completing an optional workout with the Magic. ``I’m trying to have fun now every time I step out on the court and enjoy every moment.’’
The Magic certainly will enjoy the sight of the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Fultz joining them on Tuesday for the first day of training camp with no physical restrictions. Following months of rehab, strength-building exercises and patience, Fultz has been pronounced as fully recovered from the Thoracic Outlet Syndrome injury in his right shoulder that made shooting nearly impossible and simply lifting his arm difficult. The Magic plan to continue to monitor his progress on a daily basis, but they are eager to see how much of an impact he can have on a team that went 42-40 and reached the playoffs last spring.
``We don’t have any restrictions right now placed (on Fultz) for training camp,’’ Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said. ``Obviously, that being said, we’ll continue to move forward cautiously under the direction of our Performance Staff. Obviously, he hasn’t been through this in a while, so it’ll all be new terrain, but as of now there aren’t any restrictions and we expect him to be fully participating.’’
Fultz’s shoulder injury limited him to just 33 games in his first two seasons in the NBA, and he hasn’t played in an NBA game since Nov. 19, 2018. Still, the Magic took a gamble on the big guard with the explosive quickness off the dribble last February, trading reserve guard Jonathon Simmons and a protected first-round pick to the Philadelphia for Fultz.
The Magic never activated Fultz over the final 2 ½ months of last season, instead allowing him to focus on the rehabilitation work on his shoulder. What they did do was have Fultz join the team in Orlando not long after the trade – something that Weltman feels was important in helping the impressionable young guard learn head coach Steve Clifford, his new Magic teammates and his surroundings in Orlando.
This summer, the Magic sent assistant coach Steve Hetzel and physical therapists to work with Fultz while he lived in Los Angeles and they supported him during his many offseason workouts in Orlando. Additionally, the Magic showed more faith in Fultz’s potentially enormous promise by picking up the fourth-year option on his rookie contract, meaning he is signed with the team through the 2020-21 season.
``From the moment that we got him, he embraced the work and he said, `I have an injury and I’m going to lick this thing,’’’ Weltman said. ``And we said, `However we can put the right people around you and do that, we’re here for you.’ With Markelle, who he is as a person and his ability on the court, and he’s just 21 … all of that made (picking up the fourth-year contractual option) an easy decision.’’
Said Fultz of the physical and emotional support provided by the Magic: ``It was huge. When I first got traded (to Orlando) I didn’t know what to expect. But as soon as I got here, I could tell the different energy that they were showing me and the love that they were showing me. As time went on, the trust they showed me, and they saw my hard work and it grew more and more. So, like I said, I thank them for this opportunity and I just hope to continue to work as hard as I can.’’
After having months to reflect on his injury and the subsequent struggles that he went through while a member of the 76ers, Fultz feels he made his injury worse last season by keeping quiet about the pain that he was experiencing. As he’s had to learn the hard way, doing more doesn’t always help when it comes to a tricky injury that involves nerve and deep muscle pain.
``For a lot of people, they never would have gone and played with what I had (in terms of pain and stiffness in his shoulder), knowing that they couldn’t shoot the ball,’’ said Fultz, who averaged 8.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists while shooting 41.9 percent from the floor and 28.6 percent from 3-point range in 19 games with Philadelphia last season. ``Of course, I was frustrated that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, but I also knew that there were restrictions. I had to talk to the training staff and talk to my agent and figure out what I could do to get control (of the shoulder injury) before it got worse.
``But as far as me being upset or people on social media making jokes about me, it didn’t worry me. I was the No. 1 pick for a reason, I worked hard, and I knew what I could do on the basketball court,’’ he added. ``Even last summer, I was going three times a day (in workouts) and what I found out from the doctors is that I needed rest. With your nerves you can’t keep pushing and pushing and that was partly on my trying to push. But I learned that I needed the right amount of rest and I had to take some time off in order for me to get my nerves to calm down and my muscles to calm down. I was irritating the nerves more and it was going into my muscles. I had to learn, for the first time, to take time off. One thing I was raised to do was to work your way through your problems and that’s what I tried to do. But it’s about working smarter more so than just working harder.’’
Fultz has put in plenty of work this summer, splitting his time in Orlando and Los Angeles. In addition to spending time in the weight room and playing pick-up with his teammates, he’s had plenty of skull sessions with Clifford about the plan for his usage this season. Clifford raved recently about Fultz’s high basketball IQ, competitiveness and love for the game and he’s anxious to give the guard a shot at being the difference-making offensive creator that the Magic have lacked at times in recent seasons.
As for Fultz, he said he’s already built a close relationship with his new coach. And he’s eager to try and add to a young core of Magic talent that includes Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba, Wes Iwundu and Chuma Okeke.
``Me and Cliff almost talk like every day,’’ Fultz said. ``Cliff is a great coach and I’ve talked to him about stuff that I can do off the court and on the court to help this team win. We’ve had great conversations and he’s given me lots of great, helpful topics, and I’ve been trying to work on those things every day.’’
During his time away from basketball, when his resolve and patience were thoroughly tested, Fultz admitted to popping in videos of when he played at the University of Washington and was widely considered the most complete player in the country. Those trips down memory lane were used by Fultz to remind himself that, when healthy, he has the talent to be a dominant, difference-making player. In college, Fultz often did as he pleased on the basketball court, using his big body to get into the lane and his blinding quickness to blow by defenders.
It was, quite frankly, the most joyous time in Fultz’s basketball life. He is confident that he will be able to regain that love for basketball and the joy it produces now that he is fully healthy. And if he’s right about his prediction, he’ll be an even more dominant player this time around.
``Where I’m at now mentally, I think I’m going to be better because I’ve learned so much and I have a different mentality that I didn’t have in college,’’ Fultz said. ``My mentality wasn’t to kill everybody (on the court) and I was just out there enjoying the game. Now, I have a different mentality and I don’t take the game for granted because it’s been taken away from me. I’ve learned, every time that I step onto the court to give it my all and dominate when I can.’’
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