ORLANDO – For a second straight year, the Orlando Magic pulled off a buzzer-beating deal involving a point guard at the NBA trade deadline, acquiring 2017 No. 1 overall draft pick Markelle Fultz from the Philadelphia 76ers.
To land the 20-year-old Fultz, the Magic traded guard Jonathon Simmons, a protected first-round pick (top-20 protected in the 2020 NBA Draft) and a second-round selection in the upcoming June draft.
``I think Markelle’s ceiling – well, put it this way, he was the No. 1 pick in the draft,’’ Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said. ``His ceiling is exceptionally high. I think he’s a 20-year-old player with tremendous potential and I feel confident in saying the league looks at him that way, not just us.’’
Fultz, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound point guard, has played in just 19 games this season because of a shoulder injury that severely affected his shooting stroke. He hasn’t played since Nov. 19 and on Dec. 4 he was deemed to be suffering from thoracic outlet syndrome, an impingement issue in either the blood vessels or nerves that run through a specific space between the neck and shoulders.
The Magic are hopeful that Fultz will play for them at some point this season, but Weltman stressed that the franchise won’t rush the second-year player in hopes that he can regain the form that allowed him to become the No. 1 pick two years ago.
``I had no doubt that he’ll pass our physical,’’ Weltman said. ``We look forward to getting him in here, getting our arms around him and understanding everything that he’s dealing with. Getting him through that, it’s our job organizationally – from the performance directors and the coaches – to put him in a spot to succeed. However long that takes, that’s how long it will take.’’
The Magic’s addition of Fultz was just part of a dizzying bit of transactions prior to Thursday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline. While the New Orleans Pelicans did not deal disgruntled superstar Anthony Davis, there were still seven trades on Wednesday, another nine on Thursday and 29 in totality as Eastern Conference powerhouses Milwaukee (Nikola Mirotic), Toronto (Marc Gasol) and Philadelphia (Tobias Harris) loaded up on top talent and several teams in the West unloaded salaries in anticipation for the July free-agency period that figures to be loaded with star-studded talent.
Magic standouts Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross will be two of the team’s most significant unrestricted free agents in the offseason. Orlando retained those key pieces through the trade deadline and hope that the franchise can make a push toward the playoffs over the next two months. The Magic, who haven’t made the postseason since 2012, opened Thursday tied for the No. 10 seed and four games back of No. 8 Miami.
``(Former Magic coach) Stan (Van Gundy) used to always say, and I’d never heard it before he said it, but it’s such a great point, but he said, `When you start trading away pretty-good players, you can make your team a lot worse,’’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said. ``I think that happens all the time. You watch a guy, you watch a guy and there’s something you don’t like about him and then two weeks later you say, `Oh (snap), this guy isn’t as good as that guy was.’ What’s the old adage, `A lot of times the best trades are the ones you never make.’ That’s a good point and I’d agree with that.’’
Because of his inexperience, injury history and physical gifts, the Magic look at Fultz as something of a project that will undoubtedly require patience and persistence. However, he’s also viewed as a high-reward/low-risk gamble that might give them the dynamic playmaker to solve their issues at the point guard position. Also, there’s hope within Magic circles that Fultz can escape the pressures put on him in Philadelphia as the No. 1 pick and he can start anew in Orlando.
Acquiring an explosive player who can beat defenders off the dribble and cause defenses to collapse – Fultz’s specialty coming into the NBA – is difficult to find and a commodity that the Magic hope he can bring to their team.
``That’s the whole game; that means everything,’’ Clifford said of having a dynamic driver. ``You have to have ways to get two (defenders) to the ball and have guys who can make quick, simple plays. When you have (players who shake defenders off the dribble), particularly in the fourth quarter of games, it’s the most important thing. Whether it’s in the post or in pick-and-roll (sets), that’s what basketball is all about, especially with the 24-second shot clock.’’
Added Weltman: ``His size, his skill level, his vision and competitiveness – this guy has the whole package. And in today’s NBA, where it’s officiated tightly and there’s very little contact allowed, to have the physical profile of a Markelle Fultz – that big, strapping guard who can blow by you, attack the rim and put pressure on you in all ways, it’s something that we’re all looking for. Those are the kinds of guys who dominate games these days. So, it’s our job to get him to his level of potential.’’
The Magic traded Elfrid Payton minutes prior to last season’s trade deadline. They finished last season and opened this season with veteran D.J. Augustin at point guard and he’s done an admirable job this season while averaging 11.7 points and 4.7 assists while shooting 46.1 percent from the floor and 42.8 percent from 3-point range. Jerian Grant, Isaiah Briscoe and even Simmons (for a short period of time) have filled the minutes behind Augustin with little success offensively or defensively.
Orlando signed Simmons away from the San Antonio Spurs in July of 2017 and he had a career year with the Magic in 2017-18, averaging 13.9 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 69 games. However, a late-season injury to his right wrist required offseason surgery and it negatively affected Simmons this season. In 41 games, his production (6.9 points, 2.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists) plummeted while shooting just 36.4 percent from the floor and 26.9 percent from 3-point range.
``Every time it seemed like he was starting to get back in rhythm, he’s had these four-to-five-game (injury) things that have hurt him,’’ Clifford said. ``As much as anything, look at his range shooting. Last year, he was at 32.8 (percent from 3-point range) and this year he hasn’t been able to shoot the ball. In this league right now, your range shooting sets everything up. It sets up your penetration game and where they’re going to close to you at. It’s not like he hasn’t worked at it’ he’s been in here. But it’s just difficult when you miss a whole offseason like (Simmons did).’’
The extra first-round pick that the Magic are giving up is for the 2020 NBA Draft, it is top-20 protected and it will be tied to how Oklahoma City finishes. The origination of that first-round pick was OKC trading it to Philadelphia for Jerami Grant in 2016. The Sixers then traded it to Orlando in 2017 for the No. 25 pick in that year’s draft. Now, the pick is headed back to the 76ers.
In two NBA seasons, Fultz has played just 33 games and made only 15 starts. He averaged 7.1 points, 3.8 assists and 3.1 rebounds in 18.1 minutes a night as a rookie and posted averages of 8.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists this season in 22.5 minutes over 15 games. The Maryland native, who attended college at the University of Washington, is a skilled ball-handler who thrives on his drives to the rim. His outside shot, however, is very much a work in progress and might have been hampered by the wrist and shoulder injuries that he suffered over the past two years.
In his 33 NBA games, Fultz has shot 41.4 percent from the floor and he’s made just four of 15 attempts from 3-point range (26.7 percent). Also, at issue is his form from the free throw line where he has connected on just 31 of 58 tries (53.4 percent). Undoubtedly, the Magic will have Fultz working with assistant coach Bruce Kreutzer, who has helped Orlando youngsters Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba improve their shooting strokes.
``Markelle, even though his struggles, he has shown glimpses of why he was such a high pick,’’ Weltman said. ``He gets shots very easily, he sees the floor, and this is one of those guys who can track you down from behind and block your shot as a guard.
``He’s shown a lot of those glimpses, but clearly he’s had some issues that he’s dealt with, so he hasn’t really been able to establish that rhythm and consistency that I know he’s dying to show. But that’s hopefully coming here.’’
Fultz and Bamba are quite familiar with one another after working out together last summer in Southern California with noted shooting coach Drew Hanlen.
Philadelphia traded a first round pick and the No. 3 selection in the 2017 NBA Draft to Boston so that it could move up to No. 1 overall to select Fultz. However, after playing the first four regular-season games of his career, Fultz was sidelined for the next 68 games because of a wrist injury. He returned for the final 10 games of last season, scoring in double figures five times, but he was only used off the bench in three games of two playoff series.
Fultz returned to health this season and the Sixers used him in the starting lineup over the first month of the season. His finest game as a professional came on Oct. 29 when he had 16 points and seven assists in a Philadelphia win over the Atlanta Hawks. However, less than a month later, Fultz was out of the rotation, determined to have a shoulder injury and has not played in the NBA since.
Fultz was a third-team All-American at the University of Washington where he averaged 23.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.6 steals in one season with the Huskies. He was a solid shooter both from the floor (47.6 percent) and from 3-point range (41.3 percent) during his one collegiate season.
Now, the Magic are hopeful that allowing Fultz to recover from his injury and develop at his own pace in a new environment will help him return to the dominant play that he showed to become the No. 1 pick in 2017.
``Change of scenery probably does all of us good sometimes,’’ Weltman said. ``He’s been through a lot. He was the No. 1 pick so there’s that (pressure) associated with what he’s going through. I think that hitting that re-set button of coming to an organization that will put him in the best possible position to succeed, we’re hoping that’s the first step in getting him where he needs to be.’’
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