Fultz Solid in First Game Against Former Team

Shorthanded Magic fall to Sixers
by John Denton

ORLANDO – When the Philadelphia 76ers shocked the basketball world back in 2017 by trading up and drafting Markelle Fultz with the first pick of the NBA Draft, they had to have envisioned seeing the kind of dynamic plays that the 6-foot-4 point guard flashed all over the Amway Center on Sunday night.

The difference, however, is that Fultz’s dazzling play in the present and his suddenly bright future will come with an Orlando Magic franchise that was brazen enough to trade for the embattled guard last February.

Facing his former team for the first time since his trade to Orlando midway through last season, a fully healthy Fultz scored 12 points, handed out five assists and authored a host of other highlights against the Sixers. His Magic were playing extremely shorthanded because of some minor injuries and sloppily lost 126-94 to the Philadelphia 76ers, but Fultz mostly stole the night (before fouling out in the fourth quarter) with his confident and aggressive play on both ends of the floor.

``Every time I get a chance to step out on the floor, it’s an honor and a blessing (after) coming where I came from,’’ said Fultz, who made five of his 11 shots and two of three free throws in nearly 21 minutes of action. ``It was just another game for me (despite facing his former team), but definitely it was just about competing. We came up short and it would have been even better if we had gotten the win. But, again, I’m just happy to be out there on the court.’’

Fultz’s strong play aside, Magic coach Steve Clifford found very little to be happy about following a second straight lopsided loss for the Magic (3-2). Orlando fell 100-75 to the Boston Celtics on Friday, and once again on Sunday it was severely shorthanded with starters Nikola Vucevic (ankle sprain) and Evan Fournier (back spasms) and top reserve Terrence Ross (ankle sprain) out with minor injuries.

``The other night (Friday) was one thing, but this was incredibly disappointing to me. Just how we played – soft, totally no purpose for the majority of the game,’’ Clifford said. ``(The Sixers) shot 37 free throws and that alone tells you that you’re not ready to play. We have enough offense, if we’ll play together, to be a good offensive team, but you can’t play like we played tonight. That’s crazy.

``I just told (the Magic players), it’s not OK and I don’t care if it’s exhibition season, preseason or not, you’re not building the right habits and we didn’t have the right mentality. (Philadelphia) had their way with us. It’s going to start with getting the right mentality. You can talk about the guys that didn’t play, but those guys in the (locker) room can all do a lot better. I’m the person most in charge with how we play and that (Sunday performance) was not OK with me.’’

The injuries to Vucevic, Fournier and Ross are considered to be minor and Clifford is confident that all three will be back at practice on Monday or Tuesday. The absence of three main Magic players did open the door for Fultz to take charge on Sunday, and he did so in brilliant bursts.

In the first half alone, Fultz had a spectacular, no-look pass to Aaron Gordon; he scored his first points of the preseason from outside of the paint when he came off a screen and buried a 16-foot jumper from the wing; and later, he refused to give up on a break-away play, soared high into the air and swatted away a Tobias Harris’ layup attempt. And, twice, he challenged Philadelphia big men Al Horford and Joel Embiid at the rim, converting both layups with a brash bit of confidence.

Most importantly, a confident Fultz looked to be having tons of fun – something that was mostly missing from his game over the previous two seasons when he played just 33 games with the Sixers because of a thoracic outlet syndrome injury in his right shoulder. Now healthy, he continues to show flashes of becoming the difference-making player that NBA personnel and analysts expected him to be following his one collegiate season at the University of Washington.

``That’s just kind of what we’re used to from (Fultz) because that’s how he’s been in practice,’’ Magic center Mo Bamba said matter-of-factly of his teammate.

Added Philadelphia star guard Ben Simmons, who playfully patted his former teammate on the head as Fultz talked to Philadelphia coach Brett Brown following the game: ``He looks like he got his flow back. He looks like he’s happy so I’m happy for him.’’

Philadelphia’s Brown, who was witness to all of Fultz’s struggles, admitted prior to tipoff on Sunday that he was openly pulling for the guard to find success and happiness in Orlando.

``First, (Fultz) is a quality human being and a tremendous teammate,’’ Brown said. ``The adversity that he went through, none of us can ever know, …. To navigate all of that and be under the scrutiny, a microscope or call it as you will, and come out the other side and be with a program that is coached by my close friend (Orlando’s Steve Clifford) … to see (Fultz) back in the mix and playing basketball again, just from a human standpoint, that’s a feel-good story.

``The times he spent with us, me with him, I’m proud of his endurance, perseverance and opportunity, and I think it’s somebody that I personally pay attention to from afar all the time,’’ Brown added.

D.J. Augustin scored 10 points for Orlando, while Aaron Gordon (two of 12, four points) and Jonathan Isaac (four of 12, nine points and two blocks) struggled with their shots in a second straight game.
Bamba, who started in place of Vucevic, picked up three fouls in the game’s first 4 ½ minutes while trying to guard the 7-foot, 280-pound Embiid, a close friend of his from his high school days in Pennsylvania. Bamba, who is back healthy after seeing his rookie season cut short by a leg injury, finished with 12 points, three rebounds and two blocked shots in 19 minutes.

``The message was a tale of the stats,’’ Bamba said. ``They shot 37 free throws, which is unacceptable. Me personally, I’ve got to play with more energy to get the defense moving and get my team moving.’’

Embiid had 15 points and nine rebounds in 22 minutes for the Sixers on Sunday, while Harris added 14 points. Simmons, who famously drilled his first NBA 3-pointer last week in a preseason game against a team from China, didn’t attempt a shot from beyond the arc on Sunday but did chip in three points, nine rebounds and four assists. Former Magic big man Kyle O’Quinn, now with his fourth NBA team, three points, five rebounds and nine assists in 14 minutes.

The ball seemed to find a hustling Fultz in the second half on a couple of instances. He used his quickness and size to play bully ball with Matisse Thybulle in the third quarter, spinning through the lane and stepping through for a layup. In the fourth quarter, Fultz deflected away a Raul Neto pass, chased the ball down before it went out of bounds and then got the ball ahead to Magic center Khem Birch for a rim-rattling dunk.

Fultz dominated the action just seconds after checking into the game midway through the first quarter. After driving hard to attract the attention of Embiid, Fultz flipped a pass back over his shoulder to Gordon without looking. Gordon converted the pass into a dunk to excite the Amway Center crowd.

Seconds later, Fultz came off a screen, surveyed the Philadelphia defense and drilled a 16-foot jumper that proved to be his first points outside of the paint this preseason. Clifford has said that Fultz has the potential to be a dynamic playmaker out of pick-and-roll sets because of 6-foot-4 size allows him to see over the defense.

Later, after a hard drive to the rim past Simmons, Fultz found a cutting Bamba for a basket with another spectacular pass. After effortlessly burying two free throws – something rarely seen in Philadelphia because of his shoulder issues – Fultz drove hard toward the middle of the floor and flipped in a hook shot with his left hand.

``(He feels he’s improving) with everything – my rhythm, figuring out where my shots are going to be, figuring out where my teammates are going to be,’’ Fultz said. ``I’m just trying to learn these guys’ games so I can help them and the team as much as I can. Then, it’s just about knowing my game and balancing the two to help the team and help myself at the same time. I think I’m just getting more and more comfortable out there.’’

Fultz showed off his hustle and determination early in the second quarter when he refused to give up on a play and swatted the layup of Harris for a chase-down block. His most telling highlight of an efficient 10-point, two-assist first half was his willingness to challenge the towering Embiid at the rim. Fultz drove right at the all-star center, hanging in the air just long enough to convert a point-blank look over the Philadelphia big man.

Fultz admitted to looking forward to playing against his former Philadelphia teammates on Sunday, but he stressed that those friendships would be put aside now that he’s playing for the Magic. His focus now, he stressed, is being happy, healthy and productive for an Orlando franchise that believed in him enough to trade for him last February.

``I’m just going out there and (being) happy again,’’ he said. ``I’m just getting back to playing again, so I’m happy being on the court and trying to help my team win. I feel like I’m getting more and more comfortable even though my shot is not falling. And I’m still learning the defenses. I feel like it’s just a matter of time before everything starts to click – not just for me, but the team.’’

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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