Most considered Markelle Fultz a score-first point guard when he was a freshman at the University of Washington. That was a more-than-fair assessment at the time, as he averaged 23.2 points, while shooting 50.2 percent overall and 41.3 percent from 3-point range in those 25 games with the Huskies.
Some back in 2017 compared him to Kyrie Irving; others to James Harden (Rockets version) or Isaiah Thomas (Celtics version). But at this stage of his career, he shows more Chris Paul-like or Rajon Rondo-like characteristics, just based on his exceptionally good court vision, instincts, and basketball IQ.
While certainly capable of creating his own shot off the bounce, the 6-foot-5 floor general is now at his best when he’s surveying the floor and setting his teammates up for high percentage shot attempts.
This was not documented enough earlier in his career, which is why some may have written him off while he was in Philadelphia. In many games since coming to Orlando, he's looked like the smartest player on the court. There aren’t many players in the game today more cerebral and visceral than Fultz, who’s still just 23 years old.
After returning from a nearly 14-month long absence while recovering from a severe left knee injury, Fultz’s per-36-minute assist average was 9.9. Only Paul and Trae Young had better per-36 assist averages among players who appeared in at least 10 games.
Among players who averaged 20 minutes or fewer a night, Fultz had the highest potential assist average – meaning he averaged the most passes to teammates who shot it within one dribble of receiving the ball.
His dishes came from literally everywhere on the floor. Of the 104 passes he made that directly led to a made basket, 16 went to a player attacking the hoop, 10 to someone on the interior, 30 on a kickout after he got in the paint, eight on pass-aheads, and 31 around the perimeter. The rest were miscellaneous.
Great ball handlers keep their defenders guessing. They don’t care about how fast they move with the ball in their hands and are not concerned with how showy it looks. It’s all about manipulating defenders with constant change of pace and direction.
Fultz is an expert on this. He’s like a freestyle dancer when dribbling around. He’s unchoreographed and spontaneous.
By not having incredible blow-by speed or much lift when exploding toward the basket, he’s more dependent on having supreme balance, body control, creativity, and impromptu game plotting.
It’s kind of like when giving a public speech. You don’t want to read a script word-for-word when addressing the audience. You, rather, want to have notes in front of you on an orator lectern and extemporaneously deliver your message. This way it comes off more natural and not irritatingly robotic.
Staying with this analogy, like a great public speaker, Fultz incorporates pauses at the right times. This creates that start-stop, start-stop effect that confuses defenders, but impresses spectators.
On many of his drives toward the basket this season, he glided around defenders with crafty, natural movements. It’s like the offensive player in soccer during a penalty kick. You make the goalie think you’re kicking it one way toward the net but end up kicking it the other way.
Inside the Arc Shooting
Considering he only played in 18 games this season, the sample size is small when reviewing Fultz’s shooting numbers. From two-point range, he shot 50 percent.
Within five feet of the basket, he shot 64.6 percent on 65 attempts. That was well above the league average for point guards. Outside of that range inside the arc, he shot a collective 39.8 percent, which is obviously relatively low.
Nearly half of his shot attempts were pull-ups, making 39.5 percent of them. On drives, he shot 49.4 percent.
He tended to get hot in the fourth quarter, making 62.5 percent of his total shot attempts within those final 12 minutes.
He made 58.6 percent of his shots in transition and shot 50 percent out of the pick-and-roll.
Areas to Improve
Amazing about Fultz is that his per-36-minute scoring average was 19.5 points – and that’s with making just four of his 17 3-point attempts and only 25 free throws.
It’s no secret that 3-point shooting remains the big unknown with Fultz. Obviously, the thoracic outlet syndrome injury had a big effect on his outside shooting. Only time will tell whether a consistent 3-point shot will become part of his scoring arsenal.
The free throw thing is interesting as well. One would think with more minutes his free throw rate will significantly increase. He’s strong and unafraid of contact.
Defensively, he’s decent, but not exceptional. Most important, though, is that he hustles on that end of the floor. In fact, he led the Magic in defensive loose balls recovered per game this season. Since joining the Magic, however, he’s only drawn three charges.