Magic Need Fultz to be Dynamic Playmaker This Season

Fultz's ability to break down the defense key for Magic
by John Denton

ORLANDO – In a matter of a few breathtaking seconds on Sunday, point guard Markelle Fultz showed just how devastating and dynamic his ability to penetrate into the middle of the defense can potentially be this season for the Orlando Magic.

After intercepting a Ben Simmons’ pass, Fultz furiously pushed the ball up court and right at the Philadelphia 76ers. Instead of pulling up because the numbers weren’t necessarily in his favor, Fultz used his speed and explosive burst to get right into the heart of the defense. Guard Matisse Thybulle chased only to fall further behind, forward Al Horford twisted and turned because he didn’t know which way Fultz was headed and Simmons desperately swiped at the ball only to come up empty. Fully aware that he had captured the attention of three defenders, Fultz casually flipped a no-look pass over his right shoulder to waiting Magic forward Aaron Gordon, who finished the play with a thunderous dunk.

In an instant, many members of the Magic started dreaming about the infinite possibilities in the season ahead while having a playmaker as special as Fultz at the point guard position.

``His strength is one that was one of our real weaknesses last year – we struggled to get the ball going to the basket, so hopefully … (Fultz can do that),’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford raved. ``The one thing we did (on Sunday) was, we shot 26 free throws (because of Fultz’s penetration). If you shoot 26 (per game) for the year, that would be top five in the NBA, which is a good thing. That’s one of the many reasons why he’s so valuable to our team.’’

Added veteran forward Al Farouq-Aminu, who is in his first season with the Magic after spending the previous four seasons playing alongside of all-star point guard Damian Lillard, referring to Fultz: ``It’s amazing to see a guy that big be that fast and moving like the way that he does. I’ve got to get my running shoes on so that I can get some of those dimes that he throws. It’s fun to see.’’

The Magic, 3-2 in the preseason and off until Thursday’s exhibition-season finale against Miami, certainly have had fun this preseason seeing Fultz use his rare blend of size, quickness and herky-jerky ball-handling to get almost anywhere he wants on the court and set up baskets for both himself and others. Fresh off Sunday’s 12-point, five-assist, two-steal performance against his former Philadelphia team, Fultz now leads the Magic in assists (4.4 a game) this preseason.

Some might find that surprising considering that Fultz is still shaking the rust off his game after missing most of the past two seasons with a thoracic outlet syndrome injury in his right shoulder. Despite playing just 33 NBA games, the Magic felt the former No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft was worth the risk and brazenly traded for him last February. Now that Fultz is fully healthy and having fun again on the basketball court, big things could be ahead for both the guard and the Magic in the season ahead.

Using his ability to penetrate, attract the focus of the defense and set up others for easy baskets is just one of the ways that the 21-year-old point guard has already endeared himself to his new teammates. And being a playmaker, he said, is one of the ways he can be a dynamic difference-maker for the Magic.

``I think that (ability to drive) is one of the big things in my game and one of my favorite things to do is be a playmaker for others,’’ Fultz said last week following a strong showing against the Detroit Pistons. ``I have the ability to draw two defenders and then I can get my teammates easy shots. That ability to get in the lane and get to the rim just helps us create space and I think it can help the team.’’

Can it ever? Last season, the Magic had just two players rank in the top 60 in the NBA in drives into the lane a game – D.J. Augustin (10.2 drives) at 42ndand Evan Fournier (8.9 drives) at 58th. Those drive numbers were nowhere near what the best penetrators in the league, such as James Harden (19.6 drives), DeMar DeRozan (18.7 drives), Russell Westbrook (18.4 drives), Trae Young (17.6 drives), Donovan Mitchell (16.9 drives), John Wall (16.8 drives), Kemba Walker (15.2 drives) and Luka Doncic (14.7 drives), pulled off nightly. Often, those drives set up points for others as players like Westbrook (2.8 assists per game off drives), Young (2.4), DeRozan (2.3) and Harden (2.2) racked up big assist numbers off their dynamic forays into the paint. As for Augustin (1.4 assists per game off penetration) and Fournier (1.1), their team-best assist numbers off drives into the paint paled in comparison.

Tracking numbers aren’t available for NBA preseason games, but Fultz has virtually lived in the lane thus far through five games. Fourteen of his 15 field goals and 28 of his 35 points thus far have come from inside the paint, and the same goes for many of his 22 assists. Many within the Magic feel that those assist numbers will increase – and his 2.6 turnovers a game will decrease – as the other players on the team better understand Fultz’s ability to break down defenses with his penetration and passing.

``He’s so comfortable and you saw him (Sunday night) with the drop-offs (to Magic big men),’’ Clifford said of Fultz’s ability to hit gaps in the defense and drive. ``Frankly, in these past couple of games he’s had a couple (of passes to Magic players) where they would be layups or fouls, but our big guys are just now learning that he’s going to drop it off early and sometimes he’s going to drop it off at the last minute. The more that they play with him, I think that (chemistry) will be better, too.’’

One potential issue for Fultz, of course, could be his lack of a reliable jump shot. If defenders don’t fear his perimeter jumper, they are likely to go ``under’’ on screens in order to better cut off his penetration into the lane. In five games, he’s made just 15 of 47 shots (31.9 percent), has hit just one field goal outside of the paint and has yet to connect on a 3-pointer in five tries.

Still, those numbers haven’t prevented him from routinely blowing past defenders, getting into the teeth of the defense and creating looks for both himself and his teammates.

In addition to his quickness and crafty ball-handling, Fultz believes his 6-foot-4 height and 210-pound frame allow him to have a strength advantage over most guards. Also, he can often still see over the defense when bigger defenders are switched onto him, allowing him to find open teammates.

``It’s just about instincts and going out there and playing freely,’’ Fultz said of his knack for getting into the paint. ``If somebody cuts me off, I just use another move and I’m really comfortable with my ball-handling because I’ve put in the work. And I think (his size) is a big advantage for me because most of the time the guards I’m going to be playing against are smaller than me. It just about me reading the defense, reading the help, playing my game and finding my teammates. Just using the gifts that God gave me, being bigger and stronger (than most guards), that helps me a lot.’’

Aminu, who has played with star point guards such as Chris Paul and Lillard throughout his nine-year career, has already fallen in love with Fultz’s willingness to pour himself fully into the game. In many ways, Fultz is a basketball junkie, Aminu said, because of how open he is to taking direction from others and constantly looking for ways to better his own game.

``He’s a big body who puts pressure on the defense every time that the ball is in his hands,’’ Aminu said. ``We just have to learn how to utilize him, and I’ve got to make sure that I’m trying to find him on the break (with outlet passes).

``And he talks a lot too, which I like a lot,’’ Aminu added. ``He came up to me and with a little nuance and I saw it, too, and he came up and talked to me about it. Some young guys are so in their head that they can’t communicate. He comes over and says, `Hey, this is what I saw,’’ and I think that’s really going to help him. When you can look at somebody and have that connection, it makes things a lot easier out there on the court. When we can read stuff together, then we can all get easier baskets.’’

Simmons, the first overall pick of the 2016 NBA Draft and Fultz’s teammate in Philadelphia over the previous two seasons, likes what he saw from his fellow point guard on Sunday. Simmons was there the past two years when an unhappy Fultz had the game of basketball mostly taken away from him while trying to figure out the cause of the nerve and blood vessel malady in his right shoulder. Finally, he is seeing his friend and former teammate happy and productive again. Because of that, Simmons predicted, Fultz’s abilities as a dynamic playmaker and scorer will flow out of his fingers once again.

``He looks like he got his flow back,’’ said Simmons, who spent time with his former teammate earlier in the day on Sunday catching up. ``He looks like he’s happy, so I’m happy for him.’’

``Happy’’ would be an apt way to describe the Magic, too, about the possibilities that Fultz brings to them as a dynamic penetrator, passer and scorer.

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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