What a Difference a Year Makes; Fultz Looks Back on Trade a Year Ago

ORLANDO – On the day that his basketball life changed for the better with a trade – one year ago today, to be exact – Markelle Fultz’s initial fears quickly dissolved into comforting relief following a phone conversation with Orlando Magic President of Basketball Operations, Jeff Weltman.

Just minutes prior to the Feb. 7, 2019 trade deadline, Fultz was stunned to hear that he had been dealt by the Philadelphia 76ers – the team that selected him No. 1 overall in the 2017 NBA Draft – to the Magic. Out of basketball at the time because of a serious shoulder injury, and in Los Angeles for the tedious rehabilitation program that would ultimately save his basketball career, Fultz didn’t know exactly what to expect from a Magic team that brazenly traded for him.

What the 20-year-old Fultz soon heard after NBA league office made the trade official was especially comforting and assuring for him.

``As soon as I got traded, some thoughts were in my head were like, `Man, I don’t know if they’re going to try and get me to play (immediately),’’’ said Fultz, whose career had been put on hold last year by a condition known as Thoracic Outlet Syndrome in his right shoulder. ``It was my first time ever being in that situation (of being traded). But when I heard that (the Magic planned to be patient with him), it was a big relief and it really showed the belief that they had in me.

``From that point on, I was just locked in (on healing his shoulder),’’ Fultz added. ``It just shows you this organization and how much (the Magic) care about the health of the players and care about doing stuff the right way. Again, it just made me add more fuel to my fire.’’

Fast forward to a year later and the now 21-year-old Fultz is not only healthy again, but he’s thriving on the court for the Magic. By averaging 11.6 points, 4.9 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.3 steals in 51 games for the Magic (22-30), Fultz has become one of the NBA’s true feel-good stories of the season. Already this season, he’s set new career highs in points (25 against Brooklyn on Jan. 6), rebounds (11 versus the Los Angeles Lakers on Jan. 15), assists (14 at Charlotte on Feb. 3) and steals (six versus Miami on Jan. 3), and he recently authored a thoroughly complete triple-double performance (21 points, 10 assists and 11 rebounds) in Orlando’s stunning defeat of the Lakers last month.

Those numbers are even more awe-inspiring when considering that the 6-foot-4, 209-pound Fultz wasn’t even allowed to attempt jump shots from beyond the foul line until the end of July because of the strict rehabilitation program he was on. Even now, Fultz has to go through a series of stretches and strength-building exercises daily to keep his shoulder ready for the rigors of an 82-game NBA season. His range shooting is also very much a work in progress, but it is something both he and the Magic feel will improve by leaps and bounds following a full offseason of work.

The enormous progress that Fultz has made already has some with the Magic wondering what he will eventually look like as a finished product over the coming seasons. At the guard’s current rate of improvement Magic head coach Steve Clifford feels that Fultz could very well be on a collision course with greatness in the near future.

``A year from now, who knows?’’ Clifford said on Thursday when asked about how good he thinks Fultz will be in the future. ``Listen, he plays better and better, and every two or three weeks, he makes another jump. There’s a reason that he was the No. 1 pick in a really talented draft class.’’

Limited to just 33 games with the 76ers because of the difficult-to-diagnose injury where nerves and blood vessels are constricted and ultimately shoulder movement is limited and painful, the Magic promised Fultz from the moment he was traded to the franchise that they would stand by him during the rehab process and not rush him back onto the court.

The Magic then backed up those promises with actions that showed their complete support for Fultz and his injury plight. Orlando hired famed Southern California-based physical therapist Dr. Judy Seto and had her travel with the Magic last spring when Fultz joined the team. Seto, some sports fans might remember, worked with late Lakers’ legend Kobe Bryant in the summer of 2013 when he famously battled his way back to the NBA after tearing his left Achilles’ tendon.

Throughout the summer, the Magic had physical therapist Sameer Mehta and assistant coach Steve Hetzel regularly travel alongside of Fultz – whether he was in Southern California for rehab or back in his native Upper Marlboro, Md., visiting family – to provide continuous medical and basketball support.

Looking back on it, Fultz said the persistent patience that the Magic exhibited and their support for him made all the difference in helping him fully recover from his shoulder injury. He said he considers himself incredibly fortunate to have gotten a ``fresh start’’ with the Magic.

``(The trade) was huge, and for me, it was another opportunity and a fresh start with unfamiliar faces and a chance to leave a new impression,’’ said Fultz, whose Magic will face reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the East-leading Milwaukee Bucks (44-7) on Saturday afternoon (5 p.m.) at the Amway Center. ``For me, (the trade to Orlando) was a blessing. I’m extremely grateful for it and I think I show it every time I step out on the floor, trying to play as hard as I can. I appreciate the opportunity because you never know when (basketball) is going to end, what could happen or that you’d move on to another team. But, again, I’m just thankful and I’m blessed.’’

Because this is, in many ways, the equivalent of Fultz’s rookie season, there have been the usual ups and downs often synonymous with young point guards. Whereas he carved up the Hornets on Monday with 14 assists, 12 points and two steals, his play was mostly uneven in games against Boston (four points, five assists, three rebounds and three turnovers) on Wednesday and New York (16 points, six assists, four rebounds and five turnovers) on Thursday. Still, Clifford marvels at Fultz’s high basketball I.Q. after playing little more than the equivalent of one NBA season (84 games) in three years.

``He, to me, is like a throwback player,’’ Clifford raved recently.

``He knew a lot of our terminology and stuff just from the time that he spent here last year,’’ continued Clifford, referring to the point guard intently paying attention to all the drills and film sessions that the team went through late last season while out of action – to the point that he had much of the schematics of Orlando’s offense and defense down pat prior to training camp even starting. ``When we started doing optional (workout) stuff in September, he amazed me with how much he knew.’’

Clearly wise beyond his years, Fultz knows that the health of his shoulder and his willingness to work will ultimately determine how much of a dynamic and difference-making point guard he can be for the Magic. He fully believes that he is just starting to scratch the surface of being the player that he can become as his shoulder gets healthier and his game grows.

One thing is certain, Fultz said, about his future: From the start of their relationship a year ago, the Magic have stuck to their word about supporting him and not rushing him. Ultimately, they have put him in a position to succeed, Fultz stressed, and he wants to do everything in his power to repay their faith in him by fulfilling his massive potential in the coming years.

``Honestly, I don’t think I have one,’’ Fultz said boldly and candidly when asked what he thinks his ceiling is as a player. ``I feel that I have so much to improve on, and with my skill set, I feel that I can only get better as long as I stay locked in and working hard. So, I feel like my ceiling is as high as I want it to be and I’m going to go as far as I work.

``It’s as simple as that,’’ he insisted. ``As long as I keep asking questions and have the resources that I have now, I think I can go as far as I want.’’

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.