Fultz Says Friday’s Mistakes Will Help Him Grow as Player

by John Denton

SACRAMENTO – Just as he’s done all season as he’s repeatedly turned ordinary performances into great ones later on, Orlando Magic point guard Markelle Fultz spoke with conviction about his need to also learn from a Friday faltering and use it as fuel for the future.

Throughout much of Orlando’s game in Phoenix, Fultz was a dominant presence by repeatedly getting to the rim and using his strength and length to finish with authority – both while setting up baskets for himself and his teammates. But in the final seconds, Fultz’s fatal flaw came with the game on the line and it cost the Magic a potential victory in a crushing 98-94 loss to the Suns.

To his credit, the 21-year-old Fultz didn’t run from the turnover that he committed with 39.4 seconds remaining and the Magic leading by one at the time – an ill-advised and passive pass from under the rim that was picked off and led to Devin Booker’s game-winning 3-pointer. Instead, the promising point guard vowed that Friday’s otherwise forgettable moment will make him better – not bitter – in the weeks, months and 43 games ahead for the Magic (18-21).

``I’m definitely going to learn from it,’’ Fultz said confidently above the eerie silence of a Magic locker room still stunned that it had squandered a four-point lead over the final 58.1 seconds of the game. ``Just don’t make the same mistake twice (or) you’re a fool.

``Again, I’m upset that we lost, and I felt like I could have done better,’’ Fultz added. ``But at the same time, it’s a learning experience and I’m going to move on and get ready for the next one.’’

Fultz’s error was one made often, quite frankly, by young point guards with little experience in tense, late-game situations. And, as both he and his coaches have said repeatedly this season, this is basically Fultz’s rookie season after he saw much of his first two years as a pro wiped out by a debilitating injury to his right shoulder. Already this season, Fultz has started as many games (33) with the Magic as he played in his first two NBA seasons (33) with the Philadelphia 76ers, the franchise that selected him No. 1 overall in the 2017 NBA Draft.

Admittedly, Fultz fell victim on Friday to a curse that often trips up young players in tight moments: He let his brain and his good intentions get in the way of his enormous, but raw talent. Rather than exploiting his size and quickness advantage against Ricky Rubio – as he had done much of the night – Fultz allowed himself to become indecisive late in the night and it cost both him and the Magic.

``I had a quick step on (Rubio), and I just overthought it,’’ admitted a candid and culpable Fultz, who had 15 points, six rebounds, six assists and a steal, but also committed four turnovers. ``I had the layup and I wanted to go up, but the second thought on my mind – me being an unselfish person – I wanted to try and find somebody else because I had (Nikola Vucevic) rolling and Evan (Fournier) coming back (up top).

``I was thinking too much,’’ Fultz added. ``If I could go back, I’d go with my instincts and go up (for the layup) and live with it. But at the end of the day it’s a learning experience and I’m glad I was in that situation.’’

That has to be music to the ears of an Orlando squad that is still in the early stages of a six-game, 12-day road trip that will feature games against Sacramento (Monday), the Los Angeles Lakers (Wednesday), the Los Angeles Clippers (Thursday), Golden State (Saturday) and, finally, Charlotte (Jan. 20).

Coincidently, the Hornets were also in Phoenix late on Friday night after arriving in the Valley of the Sun following a loss to the Utah Jazz. Like Orlando, Charlotte is in the midst of a grueling West Coast trip and will play the Suns on Sunday. The Hornets will host the Magic next week with little rest before departing for France to face the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA’s inaugural Paris Game 2020.

As for the Magic, Fultz was pressed into late-game duty on Friday because of the many injuries that Orlando has been forced to endure of late. On Friday, the Magic were without point guards D.J. Augustin (left knee soreness) and Michael Carter-Williams (sprained left shoulder) and forwards Aaron Gordon (right calf tightness), Jonathan Isaac (left knee sprain and a bone bruise) and Al-Farouq Aminu (right knee surgery).

That left them with just 10 healthy bodies and it pressed Khem Birch (six points, 11 rebounds and one block in nearly 30 minutes), Wes Iwundu (four points, three rebounds and one assist in almost 28 minutes), Josh Magette (three points, two assists and two rebounds in 17 minutes) and Amile Jefferson (two points, five rebounds and a blocked shot in 16 minutes) into extended action.

``I settled in after the first couple of minutes and that’s what this game is about – it doesn’t matter how many opportunities or chances you get, you have to be ready to take advantage of them,’’ said Magette, a 30-year-old two-way guard who has spent most of his season starring at the G League level with the Lakeland Magic. ``Timing and opportunity are everything and you’ve got to make the most of every chance you get.’’

With a day off on Saturday and a practice session scheduled for Sunday, Orlando is hopeful that Augustin, Gordon and possibly even Carter-Williams will be able to return by Monday against the Kings. Augustin had played the past three games with a sprained ankle and a sore knee, while Gordon had his calf muscle lock up on his in the third quarter of Wednesday’s home win over Washington and found no relief on Friday morning. Carter-Williams missed his 10thstraight on Friday because of his shoulder injury, but he described himself as ``close’’ following a Friday morning workout with coaches.

If those players can’t return, the Magic will again have to try and make do with what they have available. That’s what they did on Friday with a game-turning 17-5 burst in the third quarter that allowed them to take their first lead of the night. And that’s what they did late in the night when Vucevic buried a tying 3-pointer with 2:31 remaining and another with 58.1 ticks left that gave them a seemingly safe 94-90 lead.

``It shows how deep our team goes down into the bench,’’ Fultz said. ``I think everybody is always ready to play and no matter who is out there on the floor and we’re always competing at a high level. We stick to our routines and rituals and we’re sticking to what we stand for. It’s something that I already knew (about the team), but we’ve got a team of fighters.’’

Booker, a player Phoenix coach Monty Williams referred to prior to the game as ``a dog’’ because of his competitiveness, showed plenty of fight late in the game. After he had buried a 3-pointer with 52.1 seconds remaining, Booker saw the indecision on Fultz’s face after he drove down the lane, passed up a point-blank look and threw the ball back up top. Booker intercepted the pass, shook off Iwundu in transition and buried the go-ahead 3-pointer with 35.4 seconds left.

That 17-second flurry left the Magic wondering what had just hit them. As for Fultz, none of the rest of the game mattered to him. He didn’t care about the referees’ non-calls when Vucevic was corralled in the post by Booker with 15.5 seconds remaining or when Fournier didn’t get a whistle after drawing contact from Deandre Ayton on a potentially tying 3-point heave with nine ticks left.

To Fultz, the game came down to Booker making a host of dynamic plays and him committing a devastating turnover at the worst possible time. But, as he stressed again and again after the game, Fultz said Friday’s finish will not only stick with him for days, but it will make him better in the weeks and months ahead in this NBA season.

``(Booker) made a big shot, and then we came down and made a crucial turnover and he made another shot,’’ Fultz recounted. ``Then, we were playing catch-up.

``I have to use this as a learning experience,’’ he continued. ``We’ve just got to be better. I’m not going to kill myself over it, but it definitely hurts that we were up and had a chance to close out that game. So, I have to use it as a learning experience.’’

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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