Fultz Should Be Able to Thrive in Magic's Offensive System

Josh Cohen
Digital News Manager

MILWAUKEE – Markelle Fultz could be weeks or even months away from playing his first games with the Orlando Magic, but there’s already a growing sentiment that not only a change of scenery, but also a change of system could help him get back to the form that helped him become the No. 1 pick of the 2017 NBA Draft.

In Philadelphia, where Fultz mostly struggled because of injuries and a wayward jump shot the last season-and-a-half, the 76ers run mostly a motion-based offense where the first option is to pound the ball inside to 7-footer Joel Embiid. As a result, the Sixers have run the fewest pick-and-roll plays in the NBA this season (656) and the second-fewest pick-and-pop plays, according to analytical data from Second Spectrum. Last season – Fultz’s first in the NBA – the Sixers also ranked last in pick-and-rolls and second-to-last in pick-and-pops.

As a result, Fultz was rarely allowed to play to his strengths from college – operating out of pick-and-roll sets. He ran just 57 pick-and-roll plays in the 2017-18 season where he was the ball-handler and 49 pick-and-pop plays. This season, in the 19 games that he played before being diagnosed as having thoracic outlet syndrome, Fultz handled the ball in 63 pick-and-roll plays. Many of those plays were disrupted by defenders going ``under’’ on screens because of his shooting reluctance and struggles from beyond the 3-point line.

The Magic boldly traded for the 6-foot-4, 200-pound point guard prior to Thursday’s trade deadline, feeling they could help Fultz get back to the type of play that had scouts raving about him prior to the 2017 NBA Draft. In his one season at the University of Washington, Fultz averaged 23.2 points, 5.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds a game while shooting 47.6 percent from the floor and 41.3 percent from the 3-point line. In addition to having 10 games with at least 20 points, five rebounds and five rebounds, he became the first freshman in 25 years to average 20-5-5 while shooting 40 percent from 3-point range.

By comparison to the style of play used by the 76ers, the Magic rank ninth in the NBA in the number of pick-and-roll plays this season. Some 55.1 percent of those have ended with the ball-handler shooting – the 16th-highest percentage in the 30-team NBA, according to Second Spectrum. Also, they have run 683 pick-and-pop plays, 20th most in the NBA.

Magic coach Steve Clifford is using some of his downtime on his team’s five-night, three-city road trip to watch some of Fultz’s NBA games and analyze his play in his short time with the Sixers. Clifford said as of Saturday night, he had watched ``four-to-five games.’’

Clifford and Philadelphia’s Brett Brown have been close friends for decades, and Clifford said he intends to eventually reach out to Brown for some deeper analysis on Fultz.

The first orders of business for Fultz, of course, will be getting his shoulder healthy and working to improve his shooting form. Undoubtedly, Fultz will work extensively with Magic assistant coach and shooting guru Bruce Kreutzer and fellow assistant Steve Hetzel – coaches who Charlotte all-star guard Kemba Walker has credited with helping to make him an elite shooter.

``How you fit with your teammates is a big deal, and the best players can play with anybody in any system,’’ Clifford said. ``To me, if you want to say a different city, new start, different teammates, things like that (might help Fultz). But, to be frank, the issue has been (Fultz’s) shoulder and his shooting and if you’re not a range shooter, you’re not going to be a good pick-and-roll player. With that part, we’ll see.’’

DEFENSIVE ANOMALY: In a time when 3-point shooting – and limiting other teams from shooting 3-pointers – has never been more important, the Milwaukee Bucks have crafted a defense that seems to defy statistical logic.

Milwaukee has become the NBA’s top-rated defense (103.8 points per 100 possessions) this season despite ranking last in the league in 3-pointers allowed (12.9 per game) and 3-pointers attempted (36 per game). In addition to being exceptional at protecting the rim and keeping penetration out of the paint, the Bucks are doing a respectable job of hurrying 3-point shooters. Despite the high number of makes and attempts, foes are shooting just 35.7 percent from beyond the arc (17thin the NBA) against the Bucks.

``Their offense is terrific, but the difference in their team is their defense,’’ Clifford raved. ``In a (basketball) world where everybody is caught up in, `Don’t give up threes and you’ve got to switch everything (defensively)’ and we’re right along that same vain, (Milwaukee) is back to how everybody played it a few years ago. So, it’s very interesting what they are doing.’’

Said Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer, whose squad surrendered 22 made 3-pointers in Friday’s win in Dallas: ``We don’t want to be the team that’s giving up the most threes, to be honest with you. I love that we’re one of the higher-rated defensive teams in the league and that’s something that we take a lot of pride in. We certainly want to take away the paint and take away the basket and it starts with that. … But could we be smarter and give up less threes? That would be the next step toward being even better. But we’re not proud at all about (being last in the NBA in surrendering 3-pointers).’’

Milwaukee held superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo out of Saturday’s game against the Magic because of what the team is calling right knee soreness.
``The soreness and the pounding on his body is pretty significant. I don’t think it’s a long-term thing, but back-to-backs and the loads that he puts himself through, for us, tonight he needs this,’’ Budenholzer said.

UP NEXT: On Saturday, Orlando will face the Atlanta Hawks in one of their most physically taxing back-to-backs of the season. The Magic’s game in Milwaukee on Saturday didn’t tip off until after 9 p.m. ET as Fiserv Forum hosted Marquette’s thrilling defeat of Villanova earlier in the day. After hours of changing the playing court out and cleaning the building, the Magic and Bucks were cleared to play.

Going from Central Time to Eastern Time, the Magic weren’t scheduled to arrive at their Atlanta hotel until 2:45 a.m. Tipoff against the Hawks will be at 7:30 p.m.

``It is what it is, and you acknowledge it,’’ Magic guard Evan Fournier said of having to play games with disadvantages in travel and rest from time to time. ``You know that the energy level, from one game to the next, could be really different. But every team goes through (difficult travel stretches), so you just have to fight through it and try to bring it every night.’’

Orlando is 1-0 against the Hawks this season, winning 122-103 in Atlanta on Jan. 21.

The Magic will wrap up their five-night, three-game road trip in New Orleans on Tuesday. They will be back at the Amway Center on Thursday to face Charlotte in the final game before the break for the NBA All-Star Game.

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