Magic Search For Better Balance By Moving Fultz Into Starting Lineup

Dan Savage
Director of Digital News

ORLANDO – Not long after getting the call from head coach Steve Clifford that made him a starter for the Orlando Magic for the first time, point guard Markelle Fultz laid the foundation for how he wanted to play going forward in other calls and text messages to teammates.

Then, on Saturday night against the Denver Nuggets, Fultz displayed his attacking nature and sharing mentality by repeatedly teaming with the likes of Aaron Gordon to show off his enormous potential as a playmaker.

``I reached out to a couple of guys, asking what I could do to help, and me and A.G. consistently talk,’’ Fultz said. ``We’re trying to get a lob game and play off our penetration by cutting back door and throwing lobs. There’s just a connection there, me communicating and trying to learn these guys’ games and let them know I’m going to do whatever I can to help them win. (The chemistry with Gordon) is going to be something that’s good for us this season.’’

Fultz’s promise figures to be very good for the Magic in both the short and long-term future, but 21-year-old’s elevation into the starting lineup on Saturday failed to shake Orlando out of a shooting slump that has dragged into the first two weeks of the regular season. The Magic (2-4) defended well enough on Saturday – when they weren’t putting Denver on the free throw line – but they couldn’t generate enough consistent offense in a 91-87 loss to the Nuggets.

Fultz, who split time with former starter D.J. Augustin, contributed nine points, two assists and three steals in nearly 25 minutes. He had two stellar baskets in the first half – layups in heavy traffic after driving into the heart of the defense – but his best highlight of the night came late in the fourth quarter to draw Orlando within one of Denver.

Pushing the ball ahead on a delayed fast break, Fultz rubbed off a Nikola Vucevic screen to get into the heart of the Denver defense. After attracting the attention of Nikola Jokic and Torrey Craig, Fultz deftly delivered a no-look bounce pass to a cutting Gordon for a reverse layup.

``’Kelle is a really talented player and he sees the court well,’’ said Gordon, who had two of his baskets set up by the guard’s passes and he even fed Fultz for another score early in the night. ``He’s big and strong and he has a really good feel for the game, so it’s nice playing with him.’’

The Magic will be playing with Fultz as their starter for the foreseeable future after Clifford made the decision to promote him on Saturday morning. Orlando had Sunday off and will return to the practice court on Monday. The Magic will be back in action on Tuesday night in Oklahoma City when Fultz faces off against veteran point guard Chris Paul.

Clifford’s reasoning for flip-flopping Fultz and Augustin is double-pronged. He is hopeful that Fultz’s penetration and playmaking will help create more open looks for fellow starters Jonathan Isaac, Evan Fournier, Vucevic and Gordon. In addition to adding Augustin’s plus 3-point shooting to the second unit, the change allows the two point guards to play in longer stretches and potentially establish more rhythm.

``So, our problem right now, obviously, is scoring and it’s really been that way through the preseason, so this (lineup change) is something that we’ve been talking about and it gives us more balance,’’ Clifford said. ``With (more balance with) both the first and second units, we have a chance to play better. And, the other thing it does is with D.J. and Markelle, we’re not playing five minutes here and six minutes there, which to me is a difficult way to play. So, it gives both of them a better chance to play well and it gives our team more balance.’’

Through six games, the offensive and defensive numbers are about the same regardless of whether it’s Augustin or Fultz at the controls along with Vucevic, Gordon, Isaac and Fournier. In 59 minutes in the five-some that includes Augustin, the Magic have a 96.7 offensive rating and a 101.6 defensive rating. In 48 minutes where Fultz is playing with the other four regular starters, the Magic have a 96.9 offensive rating and a 102.2 defensive rating. Still, there are differences in the styles, Vucevic said.

``It’s a little different dynamic, for sure,’’ said the all-star center, who had 24 points and seven rebounds in Saturday’s loss. ``I’ve played with D.J. for a couple of years now with him in the starting lineup, and with his quickness and ability to shoot, he creates a lot of things for us.

``With Markelle, he has that ability to get to the rim and that creates a lot as well,’’ Vucevic added. ``I think that with the first unit, there’s more shooting, so Markelle can use that driving skill and create more for us. Obviously, it will take some time for us to get used to each other, but I think (Fultz) can really help us out.’’

Fultz admitted that Clifford helped him out by showing enough faith in him to entrust the starting job to him. He started 15 games early last season while playing for the Philadelphia 76ers, but Saturday’s start was his first in a Magic uniform. The No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft saw much of the first two seasons of his NBA career wrecked by a right shoulder injury, but the Magic made the bold move in trading for him last February because they believed in his promise once healthy. Now, they’ve promoted him to a starting spot.

``It makes me feel really good, and it’s more motivation,’’ Fultz said. ``It’s not the end of the world or the best thing ever, but it definitely shows the trust that (Clifford) has in me. It shows the trust and he believes that I can help this team out. I just want to go out there, compete my hardest and help the team win.’’

Through six games, Fultz has averaged 9.7 points and 3.3 assists while shooting 47.2 percent from the floor. He’s made 25 of 53 shots and a rather large chunk of those (14 of 20) have come right at the rim, showing his ability to penetrate almost at will.

The Magic want the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Fultz to break down defenses as much as possible because, ``our biggest weakness last year was driving the ball,’’ Clifford pointed out. The Magic feel that Fultz will have more and more drive chances and abilities to create for others as he grows more comfortable with his starting role.

According to NBA.com’s statistical database, Fultz is averaging 8.7 drives into the lane a game – the third-highest total on the Magic behind only Augustin (11.5) and Fournier (9.5). Fultz is getting 3.7 points and 1.0 assists a game out of those drives, but the Magic are confident that he is capable of much more. Russell Westbrook (19.6), Malcolm Brogdon (18), Derrick Rose (17.5), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (17), Ja Morant (16.2) and Kyrie Irving (16.2) are the NBA’s leaders among point guards in drives per game, and Orlando’s hopes are that their young guard will attack more than he has already.

Fultz said his job as the Magic’s starter is to walk the fine line of staying aggressive while also being cognizant of the need to get teammates involved. That understanding will keep him from pressing and trying to do too much, he said.

``I don’t think that’s a necessary thing and it’s about more of a ball movement thing,’’ Fultz said of staying within himself. ``Once we see where the defense is going to be and swing (the ball) that will open up driving opportunities, open shots and catch-and-shoot threes.

``But, for me, it’s just more about staying aggressive,’’ he added. ``If I’m aggressive, it makes people have to guard me and it opens up things for my teammates. It’s about me being aggressive and helping my teammates out, so it’s a combination thing.’’

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