Markelle Fultz gives Philadelphia 76ers lift in long-awaited return

Matt Petersen, NBA.com

For the Philadelphia 76ers, “The Process” has featured an unintentional step along the way to completion. For each of its individual members, there is a right of passage of sorts preceded by months of anticipation.

* Sixers 123, Nuggets 104

Joel Embiid enjoyed the ritual two years and two foot surgeries after being drafted third overall in 2014. Fellow 2014 draftee Dario Saric basked in its glow after two years of playing overseas. Ben Simmons received the honor on opening night this season after his own foot issues delayed the debut of 2016’s top overall pick.

On Monday, it was Markelle Fultz’s turn.

After 68 games of waiting for and wondering about last summer’s No. 1 overall pick, 76ers fans welcomed him back to “The Process” the same way they did his predecessors: with a standing ovation.

Initially, it appeared Fultz would not need such ceremony. The biggest question about him was his potential fit next to Simmons, a forward who passed like Hall of Famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson … and shot like former journeyman center Ervin Johnson. That didn’t stop the Sixers from trading their third pick and a future pick for the right to draft him.

As the 2017-18 season began, something was wrong. Fultz couldn’t shoot anymore and when he did, he looked off or broken. A mysterious shoulder injury sacked some of his confidence and after just four games, he was shut down indefinitely.

* Playoff Picture: If the season ended today

Over the next 68 games, Fultz became more myth than man. The 76ers would occasionally issue generic updates of his progress via physiotherapy. Grainy footage of Fultz’s atrocious shooting practices surfaced on Twitter. Last month, Sixers general manager Bryan Colangelo said he was unsure if Fultz would play this season. That statement came less than a week after Fultz had advanced to playing 5-on-5 scrimmages.

Colangelo’s comments in February described the saga best:

“There’s always a chance that he’s going to be out there soon, and there’s a chance that he’s not going to play this year. I can’t answer that question because we don’t know the answer to that.”

On Monday, Colangelo (and the 76ers) could. Fultz was finally playing. When he stepped onto the court for the first time since Oct. 23, the drama over his absence melted away under a wave of applause.

He rewarded that faith with an extremely rookie-like performance. First, he logged a turnover and a foul. Then came a picturesque layup and a behind-the-back pass to Joel Embiid that wowed the crowd.

By halftime, Fultz’s impact had already been felt: six minutes, two points, three assists, one rebound, and a plus-four rating.

In the second half, Fultz picked up steam. He drove into a defender, flipped the ball up with his back to the basket, and banked it in perfectly. Seconds later, he again attacked off a cut, saw a defender rotate, and released the layup a split second sooner than he normally would have to avoid getting his shot rejected.

It appeared Fultz’s night might be done. With the Sixers having blown the game open, however, fans got antsy and began chanting his name. Coach Brett Brown finally relented.

The 19-year-old rewarded his patient fans with perhaps the best proof of having truly come back: a crossover and pull-up jump shot that sent the home crowd into a frenzy.

”I thought they were saying ‘Nick Foles,’ ” Fultz told reporters after the game, speaking about the Super Bowl MVP for the champion Philadelphia Eagles.

”Then I realized it, and it was pretty dope. These fans are great, and I love them.”

Just like that, the rookie’s long-awaited return was over. His final stat line: 14 minutes, 10 points (5-13 FG), eight assists, four rebounds, and an impressive plus-16.

”He looked confident,” Brown told reporters after the game. ”I thought it was a real, sort of bold, gutsy effort that he made given where he was now where he is.”


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