Winning Was Only Thing on Fultz’s Mind Ahead of Sixers Game

by John Denton

ORLANDO – It’s only human nature that Markelle Fultz would go into Wednesday’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers – the organization that drafted him first overall in 2017 and traded him to the Orlando Magic less than two years later – eager to prove himself.

However, Fultz stressed in the hours prior to tipoff that his only motivation was to win the game. After all, he said, winning would always be the ultimate trump card and it would beat trying to prove something to the 76ers’ coaches and players who he still considers to be friends.

``Like I’ve said, when I’m out there it’s no grudge and I’m trying to win,’’ Fultz stressed. ``I’m doing whatever I can to win. If I get the `W’ that will satisfy that grudge match for me. If I don’t get the win, I didn’t win in my eyes. So, that’s my goal – to go out there and get the win and have fun.’’

The 21-year-old Fultz played just 33 games in two seasons with the Sixers – 14 as a rookie and 19 last season – while being hampered by a right shoulder injury that was ultimately diagnosed as Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. His timeline for growth didn’t seem to line up with a Philadelphia organization that believes it is poised and ready to win a championship, so it made the decision to cut ties with the 6-foot-4, 209-pound guard.

Orlando boldly traded for Fultz last February, feeling that if it could ever get the 21-year-old guard fully healthy his raw talent would shine through again. Fultz, who came into Wednesday averaging 9.7 points, 3.1 assists and 1.3 steals while playing limited minutes in 10 games, feels he’s made tremendous progress in his game since joining the Magic. The franchise assisted Fultz through his road to recovery late last season and throughout the summer. Now, at long last, Fultz feels he is starting to blossom into being the player many thought he could become when he was the top pick of the 2017 NBA Draft.

``I just think, first of all, I took the time to recover and make sure that I was healthy,’’ Fultz said. ``Second of all, I just think it’s a matter of opportunity and the place that I’m in (mentally) when I’m on the floor. I think it’s just a combination of both, really. And I’ve just gotten the opportunity to do what I wanted to do and I’m taking advantage of it.

``It’s all a business, so it’s no grudge hold or nothing like that, but there’s definitely going to be an edge of, `This is who I am, this is who you drafted,’’’ Fultz added, referring to facing Philly. ``I think we all know that, but it’s about going out there and having fun and playing.’’

NO EMBIID, STILL PLENTY OF TRASH TALK: Fultz might have been the only member of the Magic who was hoping that all-star center Joel Embiid would play on Wednesday at the Amway Center. However, those hopes were dashed when the Sixers’ withheld the 7-footer from the game because of a diagnosis of ``injury maintenance, left knee soreness.’’

Embiid capped a 27-point effort on Tuesday when he dunked with 13.2 seconds remaining to lift the Sixers to a 98-97 defeat of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Through the years, the Sixers have been judicious in their use of their star big man, and by resting him on Wednesday in Orlando, he should be ready to return to action when they play next on Friday in Oklahoma City.

Veteran power forward Al Horford, Philadelphia’s primary pickup in free agency from last July, was slated to play against the Magic after being rested a night earlier versus Cleveland.

Fultz considers Philadelphia stars Ben Simmons and Embiid to be friends and he was looking forward to facing the gregarious 7-footer, in particular, because of the invariable trash talk that would flow between the two. Fultz figured that even if Embiid didn’t play on Wednesday, he’d still have plenty of trash talk for him from the Philadelphia bench.

``He’s going to be telling me to shoot it and talking trash. That’s what we did all the time when we were in practice together,’’ Fultz said of Embiid, who was suspended for two games earlier in the season following a fracas with Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns that began with trash talk. ``I’m ready for it and I’ve got some stuff for him, too. But it should be a fun, entertaining game tonight. … I’m going to talk trash regardless (of whether Embiid plays), no matter where we’re at. It just goes back to having fun.’’

ROSS’ REVIVAL: One of the bright spots to come out of Orlando’s loss to Indiana on Sunday was the return and the shooting revival of guard Terrence Ross.

Ross, who re-signed with the Magic in July in free agency, missed two games last week because of a sore right knee. Ross practiced on Saturday and returned on Sunday to score a season-high 12 points in 19 minutes – his fifth double-digit scoring performance of the season.

Said Magic coach Steve Clifford of Ross, referring to an Achilles’ tendon injury that hit the guard in the preseason and knocked him out of rhythm: ``That’s the best he’s looked since the third preseason game.’’

Ross drilled his first four shots – all on curling jump shots after coming off pin-down screens. For the game, he made five of six shots, drilled two of three 3-pointers and registered one steal. However, he wasn’t able to fully enjoy the night because of the Magic’s sagging defense and their struggles in a one-sided third quarter.

``When our offense isn’t going, we can’t let that dictate how we’re playing defense,’’ said Ross, who boosted his shooting to 32.5 percent overall and 22.2 percent from 3-point range with Sunday’s strong showing. ``We have to have that understanding of how we play, and we have to sustain it longer. We’ve got to figure out ways to sustain things in the third (quarter) and keep that energy and pace up. We had better figure it out now and not wait until later.’’

UP NEXT: Orlando’s season-long five-game, 10-day home stand continues on Friday when it hosts the San Antonio Spurs. Tipoff is just after 7 p.m. and the game will be televised by Fox Sports Florida.

The Magic split two games with the Spurs last season, winning in San Antonio, but losing at the Amway Center in a game that all-star center Nikola Vucevic missed following the birth of his first child.

Orlando opened the exhibition season in San Antonio back on Oct. 5 and thumped the Spurs by forcing gobs of turnovers and beating San Antonio badly on the fast break.

The Magic’s five-game home stand ends on Sunday when they host the rebuilding Washington Wizards.

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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