ORLANDO – Not that he necessarily knew it at the time while trapped in what seemed like a basketball purgatory but Markelle Fultz actually missed the lows of a long NBA season as much as he did the highs. He’s fully aware now, following two years of mostly being away from the game that he loved, that the searing frustration following a difficult loss, the perseverance required to get through tough times and the joy of bouncing back complete competition and they make the whole experience something athletes long when the game is snatched away from them.
Finally healthy and happy on the basketball court again, Fultz has been a beacon of positivity and hope for an Orlando Magic team that has gotten off to a less than ideal start to the season. Though the Magic sit at a disappointing 3-7 prior to taking on the rugged Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday at the Amway Center, Fultz fully embraces the challenge of helping Orlando weather this difficult stretch and ultimately become better for it over the long run.
After all, the 21-year-old Fultz has plenty experience in doing just that. And he isn’t about to back down from a challenge now and he welcomes the fight needed to get the Magic on track.
``It’s everything that comes with basketball; a lot of people just miss the high road, the happiness and the cheers, but I missed the grit and grind stuff that people don’t see, like practice, competing and getting after it,’’ Fultz said on Tuesday after his Magic wrapped up their prep work for Wednesday’s game against the 76ers. ``For me, it’s just about competing. I’ve got a chance to do something that I love every day. And one of the things that I love about this game is that it’s not always going to be positives every day. It’s about fighting though adversity and getting better.’’
The Magic know full well about fighting through adversity after being forced to deal with a slump they likely never saw coming. After closing last season 22-9, reaching the playoffs and returning 12 players, the Magic were expected by many to pick up where they left off. However, massive shooting and scoring struggles bothered them early on and those issues even bled into their usually reliable defense on Sunday – a 109-102 loss to Indiana. After reviewing the footage of that game, head coach Steve Clifford came away with the assessment that if the defense doesn’t return to form by Wednesday, things might get unthinkably worse for a Magic team with high expectations this season.
``I don’t know if it was shocking (that the defense struggled), but what we have to understand is that if we’re going to be a good team – which we should be – we’re going to have to be able to defend at an elite level,’’ said Clifford, whose Magic defense ranks in the NBA’s top 10 in most major statistical categories. ``We’re more than capable (of being solid defensively), but we’ve got to have the mindset of, `No matter what, we’ve got to defend’ … whether we’re scoring or not.’’
That Magic have scored much better since Clifford made the decision to promote the 6-foot-4, 209-pound Fultz into the starting lineup back on Nov. 2. In Fultz’s five games as a starter, the Magic have posted an offensive rating of 104.8 (points per 100 possessions, 19thin the NBA) – significantly better numbers than the offensive rating over the first five games (95 points per 100 possessions, 30th in the NBA) with veteran D.J. Augustin starting at point guard.
Still, Fultz feels he can do much more and he will ultimately have a much greater impact on the Magic as he regains more rhythm and his playing time is steadily increased. Because he still deals with occasional soreness from the Thoracic Outlet Syndrome injury to his shoulder – the malady that sidetracked his first two NBA seasons and limited him to 33 NBA games – Fultz’s playing time has been kept at roughly 24 minutes a night. In 10 games of playing in mostly short bursts, he’s averaged 9.7 points, 3.1 assists and 1.3 steals. The Magic are far more delighted about his overall field goal percentage (47.1 percent) and his free throw form (78.6 percent) than his continued struggles from beyond the 3-point arc (18.2 percent), though the lack of a reliable outside threat does somewhat muck up the offense and sap his effectiveness.
Fultz said he’s eager to get to a day when he’s asked to do more for the Magic, but if the repeated false starts to his career taught him anything, it’s that patience is often needed. Through 10 games, he’s driving the ball into the paint 9.3 times a game – a number he ultimately believes can soar up into in the rarified air of NBA leaders like James Harden (22.5 drives a game), Luka Doncic (19), DeMar DeRozan (18.8) and Trae Young (18.6).
``Not at all and (his aggressiveness) is only going to get better and better,’’ Fultz said when asked if he is attacking defenders as much as he wants to. ``When I say aggressive, that doesn’t mean me scoring the ball every time; it’s about making winning plays – like getting somebody an open shot, drawing two defenders and cutting off the ball.
``I get more and more comfortable every time that I’m on the court and I see things that I didn’t see last time,’’ he added. ``I’m learning stuff every time I go out there – from my mistakes and the stuff I do good. I get excited because I want to go out that next game and try to be even more comfortable (than before).’’
Fultz was anything but comfortable during his first two seasons in the NBA while with the 76ers, the team that traded up to select him with the first overall pick of the 2017 NBA Draft. Because of issues with his shoulder and rampant concerns over a waning confidence in his outside shot, the guard played just 14 games as a rookie and 19 games last season.
Feeling Fultz could someday recapture the touch that made him a highly coveted high school player, the MVP of USA Basketball’s Under-19 team and the first pick in the 2017 draft, Orlando made the brazen move to deal for Fultz last February at the NBA’s trade deadline. Also, they refused to rush him onto the court last season and stood by him over the summer as he worked to regain strength and mobility in his right shoulder.
All those starts and stops, trials and tribulations and being widely dubbed as ``a bust’’ by fans and media tested the mental resolve of Fultz. But those struggles also made him stronger, he said, and he often looks back on them now when he’s going through tough times such as this shaky start to the season by the Magic.
``Any time that I feel down or I get a little bit frustrated with myself, I look at where I came from, how far I’ve come and where I’m at today,’’ said Fultz, who has repeatedly said that his mother, Ebony Fultz, has been his biggest motivator and supporter throughout his struggles. ``I don’t look where I want to be or where I think I should be. I look at where I started, before my injury, or even before that, and I just laugh and smile and say, `I’m truly blessed. I can’t really complain.’ It helps me get over stuff faster so that I don’t stay in those hard moments too long.’’
Fultz is confident that the Magic, too, will get over their hard moments once they combine their improving offense with a usually stingy defense on the same night. No better place to start the recovery than Wednesday against the championship-hopeful 76ers, a game that holds obvious significance to Fultz because of his history in Philadelphia.
When the Magic and Sixers faced off in the preseason, Philadelphia coach Brett Brown and star guard Ben Simmons spoke glowingly about the character and potential of Fultz and admitted that they are pulling for him afar. For his part, Fultz gave them a glimpse at his immense growth in Orlando by totaling 12 points, five assists, two steals and a no-look, over-the-shoulder pass to teammate Aaron Gordon for a dunk.
Fultz admitted afterward that he was a little extra hyped to face his former team in the preseason, and undoubtedly, he’ll be the same way on Wednesday in the first regular-season meeting.
Whether Wednesday’s game goes well or poorly for the Magic, Fultz promises that he will find joy in the process because he’s healthy again and he’s back competing. For where Fultz is now in his career, still trying to stabilize himself after being knocked off his feet for two seasons, the journey is just as important as the result. For Fultz, it clearly is about him working his way through whatever challenges basketball throws at him and embracing the competition that he so dearly missed.
``Just the competing,’’ Fultz said when asked what he craved most while out of basketball. ``The moments like (Sunday against Indiana), when we were down, trying to come back … the moments when we’re up and we’re trying to finish out the game. Just being out there to compete, feel that energy from the crowd, the boos, everything. There’s just something I have about the love that I have for the game and competing.’’
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