Happy and Healthy Fultz Excited to Play in Front of Family and Friends

Magic point guard grew up near nation's capital where Magic will visit Wizards on Tuesday
by John Denton

WASHINGTON, D.C. – There is no physical list scrawled on a notepad at his house or one taped to his dressing stall at the Amway Center for motivation. Instead, Orlando Magic point guard Markelle Fultz stores this very personal and prioritized list in his memory bank so that he can get to it quickly and check off accomplishments throughout this NBA season.

Get himself healthy and ready for training camp – check.

Make it through the NBA preseason while knocking the rust off his game – check.

Become a dependable and solid rotation player who delivers for the Magic on a nightly basis – check.

Move into the starting lineup and start to show off the dynamic qualities that made him the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft – check.

Quiet the many vociferous doubters who were so quick to label him a bust while he struggled through two injury-plagued seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers – not with words, but instead with his dynamic talents as a scorer and a playmaker – check.

Now, 20 games into this season – deeper than Fultz has ever been before because of the Thoracic Outlet Syndrome injury in his right shoulder that threatened to derail his career before it ever really got started – comes another item on the list that is near and dear to his heart. It goes something like this: Go back to the Washington, D.C., area where he was born and raised and show everyone who played a major role in his life just how healthy and happy that he is once again with basketball back in his life.

``With me, I’ve got goals and one of my goals was to get this far,’’ said Fultz, a native of Upper Marlboro, Md., whose Magic (8-11) will face the Wizards (6-12) in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday (tip time: 7 p.m.). ``I’m just marking (each accomplishment) off my calendar. Every time I get the chance to go out there and play, it’s a blessing. To have played this many games, it feels good. I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing, focusing on what’s ahead and taking good care of my body.’’

Fultz has taken good care of the Magic of late as their starting point guard, averaging 13.3 points and 4.5 assists while shooting a stellar 51.9 percent from the floor over the last 10 games. He capped that run on Sunday with one of his best all-around performances in a Magic uniform by delivering 14 points, nine assists, four rebounds and zero turnovers in 30 minutes in Orlando’s 100-96 defeat of Golden State.

A solid indicator of just how comfortable and confident that the 21-year-old Fultz has become came with 3:30 to play on Sunday and the Magic trailing by three points. Fultz calmly worked his way to the right baseline where he drilled a 17-foot jumper off a step-back move. Seconds later, he bulled his way into the paint for a driving layup that gave Orlando a lead that it would not surrender on its way to a much-needed victory.

``He’s tough, tough as nails,’’ Magic forward Jonathan Isaac said when asked about Fultz’s willingness to take big shots with the game on the line. ``Mentally tough and just a strong guy. He just continues to put it together. From the circumstances that he’s been through and his ability to take it one day at a time and bounce back, it’s a big reason why he’s doing what he’s doing and it’s commendable.’’

It’s certainly commendable that Fultz has gotten back to the level where he is now considering just how jarring his first two NBA seasons were to his psyche. After arriving in Philadelphia to the fanfare that usually accompanies a No. 1 overall pick, Fultz’s potential appeared to fizzle out as he played only 14 games as a rookie and just 19 as a second-year player because of a mysterious malady in his right shoulder. While some questioned his mental and physical toughness, Fultz knew deep down that he just needed to get healthy to become the player he feels he’s been destined to be since becoming a prep star at famed DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md.

That opportunity has come with the Magic, the franchise that brazenly traded for Fultz last February when he was too injured to play and surrounded with doubts. The Magic worked with Fultz late last season and throughout the summer, sending therapists and coaches to build up his body and his confidence even when he was 3,000 miles away on the West Coast.

Now, the Magic are reaping the rewards of their patient and practical approach. After bringing Fultz along slowly and bringing him off the bench early in the season, they have slowly started nudging his minutes closer to 30 minutes a game. Through 19 games, he’s averaging 11.7 points, 3.8 assists, 2.4 rebounds and 1.3 steals a night while shooting a solid 49.5 percent and 80 percent from the free throw line.

His perimeter shooting – he’s just eight of 37 (21.6 percent) from 3-point range – is still very much a work in progress, but he’s been able to mask it with his abilities as a dynamic driver into the paint. Using his powerful 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame and a herky-jerky dribble, Fultz has averaged 11.2 drives per game (40thin the NBA) and those furious forays into the paint have led to 5.5 points and 1.2 assists a game.

Fultz had a whopping 18 drives into the paint on Sunday against the Warriors, doing so without turning the ball over even once. Over his last five games, Fultz is averaging 16.6 drives a game – a number that is good for fifth in the NBA since Nov. 23 behind only Trae Young (23.8), Luka Doncic (19.8), Spencer Dinwiddie (18.4) and Ja Morant (16.8).

As he’s learned to not be so demanding on himself, Fultz’s aggressive personality on the court has taken over and he’s evolved into being a dominant player.

``It’s about not getting so frustrated with myself,’’ Fultz admitted. ``There were a couple of games earlier (in the season) when I was really hard on myself when I was missing easy ones. But it’s (Head) Coach (Steve Clifford) talking to me and (Assistant) Coach (Steve Hetzel) just saying, `You’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing.’ And `in order for us to go where we want to go, you have to do stuff like that.’ All of the great ones keep shooting and that’s what I’m going to keep doing.

``I’m just being aggressive, and I’m not too concerned about making mistakes,’’ he added. ``All of the greats who lead in assists also make turnovers. My teammates and I are getting better about getting to the open spots and it’s just about me delivering. I’m focused on not turning the ball over, but I’m not letting it keep me from not taking risks.’’

Fultz took a big risk the first time the Magic faced the Wizards on Nov. 17 by dropping down on a Bradley Beal drive to the rim before reading the play and reacting. Ultimately, Fultz batted a pass into the air, knocked it away from close friend Isaiah Thomas and dunked over Davis Bertans to seal Orlando’s 125-121 victory. That play capped a career-best 19-point effort.

Now, on Tuesday he’ll face the Wizards back in Washington, D.C. for just the second time in his professional career. The first instance came on Nov. 18, 2017 in Fultz’s first-ever NBA game, and in 18 minutes that night he scored 10 points, grabbed three rebounds and handed out one assist.

Much has happened since then, primarily him going through two injury-plagued seasons before bouncing back in a big way this season with the Magic. Going back home, he said, will allow him to visit his boyhood home and see many of the familiar faces who supported him during his struggles while away from basketball.

After all, playing in D.C. against the Wizards – the team he grew up rooting for as a kid – is one of the most important items that he has on that mythical list in his head. The fact that he’s going there as not only a starting NBA point guard, but a dominant one makes the moment even sweeter, he said.

``Man, it’s another huge one on that list,’’ Fultz said with a laugh. ``One, just to be able to play the game that I love. Two, just to be there and have a lot of family there that isn’t (able) to travel and can come and see me will be big. It will be good to see them, go home and maybe lay in my bed for a few seconds. Everybody knows going home feels good.’’

What also has to feel good is quieting the numerous talking heads and social media trolls who questioned his abilities and questioned his toughness while he was down, and nearly out, the previous two seasons. On the eve of going back home as an unquestioned player on the rise, Fultz was asked about what message he had for those who predicted that he would never amount to much as an NBA point guard following a rocky first two seasons. His answer, he insisted, will continue to come with his effectiveness as a dynamic scorer and playmaker for the Magic. For him, the silence of those critics is golden, and it allows him to check another item off that list in his head.

``Man, I ain’t really got too much to say to the people who doubted me and stuff like that,’’ he said with conviction. ``I let my game do the talking and I think it’s steady showing (the critics wrong). I just worry about myself and the team. I always knew that I could do this stuff, and it was just about getting healthy and doing what I had to do. But it feels great to see all of the people who were talking being quiet now. It’s like, `Man, keep on doing it.’’’

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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