Fultz Excited to Have Fresh Start With Magic

by John Denton

ORLANDO – Not long after learning he had been traded to the Orlando Magic and getting the fresh start in the NBA that he craved, Markelle Fultz received a picture from his mother that not only brought back a flood of memories, but it also brought on a revelation.

The picture was of a young Fultz wearing a Magic basketball jersey. Years back, Ebony Fultz said she bought her son a few kids’ jerseys of the teams that she liked at the time, so actually there was no significant meaning to Markelle owning Orlando gear.

To Markelle, however, the image meant much more, especially after the way he had struggled to find his footing in the NBA over the first 1½ years of his career. To him, the picture signified fate finally being on his side and that things in his life – both personally and professionally in terms of basketball – were about to turn around for the better.

``It’s crazy because I was talking to my mom about it, but I always have like little visions, every once in a while, and when I seen that picture, I was like, `Maybe it was meant to be,’’’ Fultz said of being a member of the Magic. ``It was pretty dope.’’

Considering all that he’s been through so far in terms of basketball struggles and wrist/shoulder injuries, it’s understandable that the 20-year-old Fultz might look for signs that his future is about to be brighter. Drafted No. 1 overall in 2017 by the Philadelphia 76ers with the expectation that he was about to become an NBA superstar, Fultz instead played just 33 games – 14 as a rookie and 19 this season – because of a right shoulder malady determined to be thoracic outlet syndrome, which is an impingement issue in either the blood vessels or nerves that run through a specific space between the neck and shoulders.

Fultz, who averaged 8.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 19 games with the Sixers early in the season, hasn’t played a NBA game since Nov. 19 and has spent much of the past three months in Los Angeles working with Los Angeles-based therapist Judy Seto, formerly the Head Physical Therapist of the Los Angeles Lakers and currently a consultant with Major League Baseball’s Dodgers. Few firm details about the timetable of Fultz’s return to on-court action were revealed on Thursday, but the point guard said there’s relief in knowing that the Magic are willing to give him the time and support needed to properly recover from the injury that has sidetracked his career.

``Rehab’s going great. We’re doing stuff the right way,’’ said Fultz, who accompanied on Thursday by his mother, sister and agent, Raymond Brothers. ``I have a great group in LA and the (Magic) staff here is going to be coming out to help me with that. But, right now, everything is going perfectly.

``We’re just worried about doing stuff the right way,’’ he added after being asked about a specific timetable for his return to basketball. ``Right now, it’s just about getting to where we’re all on the same page and we’re all doing the right things.’’

When Philadelphia looked to move on from Fultz, the Magic jumped at the chance to acquire the 6-foot-4, 200-pound guard who was widely considered the best collegiate player in the nation in 2007. Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and GM John Hammond worked with Philadelphia GM Elton Brand to concoct a deal prior to last Thursday’s NBA trade deadline. Weltman and Hammond were of the shared opinion that if Fultz could get fully healthy and start anew in Orlando, he could eventually get back to being the prototypical point guard he was pegged to be coming into the NBA. Explosive, potentially transformational talents like Fultz rarely become available, so the Magic are eager to give him the time that he needs to get right so that he can hopefully shine on the basketball court again.

``I will say that with the NBA trade deadline and the draft – the two big hits where we evaluate who we are – they seldom present obvious choices. This was an obvious choice,’’ said Weltman, who scouted Fultz extensively back in 2017 when he starred at the University of Washington. ``So, we were very aggressive in pursuing (the trade) once we recognized it as a real viable option.

``Markelle’s ability kind of fills all of the places where we look to excel in today’s NBA – his size, IQ, his vision, his skills – and there’s not a lot that Markelle really can’t do,’’ Weltman added. ``As Markelle’s game develops, as his body develops and his experience level develops, in games there’s not going to be too many things that he can’t do. In a person (as a point guard) who you trust to be a quarterback and think of others and to bring a team together, that marriage is something that you don’t see too often.’’

Fultz jokingly pointed out on Thursday that the good vibes he brought to the Magic have played a role in the team ripping off a season-best four-game winning streak since last Thursday’s trade.

When Fultz will get a chance to get back on the court and make a difference for the Magic is up in the air? He will continue to work in Los Angeles with Seto and Magic representatives will be there to monitor and support his recovery.

On Thursday, Fultz gave some insight into the injury that has unknowingly affected him for the better part of two seasons. Hehas played just 33 NBA games, averaging 7.1 points, 3.8 assists and 3.1 rebounds in 18.1 minutes a night as a rookie and 8.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 22.5 minutes over 15 games this season.

Because the nature of the injury is often difficult to detect, the symptoms hidden from the naked eye and the occurrence uncommon in basketball players, Fultz’s struggles seemed mysterious to some. He admitted on Thursday that there was a distinct in relief in getting the diagnosis of thoracic outlet syndrome on Dec. 4.

``It’s hard to lift up your arm and you lose feeling in your fingers. It’s not like you can tell when it’s going to happen and it’s not like (it happens when) you do the same motion every time. But you get tingling in your fingers, numbness and stuff like that,’’ Fultz said. ``It was tough because you hear all the stuff about this, that and the third (with rumors), but you’re trying to figure it out yourself and it’s so hard to describe. If you’ve never been through it, you’re not going to know. But if you talk to anybody who has, they’ll tell you that it changes your life drastically.’’

What it did change was the shooting motion that Fultz used at the NBA level. In college at Washington, Fultz was often seen as an unstoppable force because of his rare blend of size, speed and ball-handling skill while averaging 23.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.6 steals in one season with the Huskies.

With the Sixers, however, Fultz’s wrist and shoulder issues might have played a major role in him elongating his release and creating a noticeable hitch shooting motion. In his two NBA seasons, he has shot just 26.7 percent from 3-point range and he’s mostly shied away from even taking shots from range. What he didn’t lose, he insisted, was his confidence as a basketball player.

``I had an injury and I was out there trying to play through that. I never lost confidence,’’ he said with conviction. ``I love this game dearly and I’ve worked so hard to get here. I didn’t lose confidence and I’m just working hard to be back healthy.’’

Added Fultz’s mother, Ebony, ``To see him hurt…that was very hard because ‘Kelle is a very good kid. He’ll give you the shirt off his back.”

Ebony said she talks regularly with the doctors and therapists who are caring for her son and she has noticed steady improvement to Markelle’s outlook on his recovery.

``We talk about the progress, how he feels better and the things that he does on a day-to-day basis with Judy (Seto),’’ said Ebony, who plans to move from Philadelphia to Orlando to assist her son in his transition to a new city and a new team. ``I talked to Judy (Seto) when she recently came out to Philly when he was there for a few games. She was with the Lakers and Kobe for years. So, we talk a lot about he’s feeling.’’

In Orlando, Fultz will be surrounded by several players who he is already very familiar with because of their ages and rise through basketball. In 2017, Fultz and Magic rookie center Mo Bamba played together on USA Basketball’s Under-18 team that captured the gold medal in Chile. The tournament MVP, of course, was Fultz, who was at his do-everything best as the squad’s lead guard. Bamba, who also spent time last summer with Fultz with working with LA-based trainer Drew Hanlen, saw Fultz’s injury and on-court struggles in Philadelphia wearing on him earlier this season.

``When we played against Philly the last time, I said, `What’s up?’ and asked how things were going and I just said to him, `Focus on being you because we know who you are as a person and who you are as a player. Do what you’ve got to do to get fully healthy and take your time,’’ Bamba recalled. ``I know that it’s tough in Philly with all the outside voices and the things going on, but I told him, `I believe in you, bro!’’’

Fultz knows that to many fans supporting the Magic – who are trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 2012 – he represents great hope. The only way he can fulfill that hope is to get himself fully healthy so that he can be the player he was meant to be.

``All I can assure people of is that they have a young guy who is going to come in here and work hard, push his teammates, love his teammates and love the organization and you’re going to get his best every time he steps onto the court,’’ Fultz said. ``Right now it’s just about getting everything the right way. Rehab has been going great and I’m just taking my time and doing everything the right way so that I can get back to being the ‘Kelle that I know that I am.’’

As for that childhood picture recently sent to Fultz by his mother of him wearing a Magic jersey years ago, he said he can’t wait to slip on the real thing in a game again. (For the record, he’ll wear No. 20 in Magic pinstripes.) Like her son, Ebony Fultz thinks there’s great meaning in the fact that Fultz’s fresh start and clean slate will come in Orlando.

``When I saw the Orlando jersey, I was like, `Hmmmm, it could be the same thing that (Markelle) said, `Maybe it’s meant to be,’’’ Ebony said of being in Orlando. ``When things happen in that nature, you sort of look back and say, `How much of your past dictates your present? How much of it is a coincidence and how much of is it a sign?’ We’re excited his future.’’

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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