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Markelle Fultz slowly regaining confidence with Magic

ATLANTA — You can see glimpses of it, flashes even, of the bounce and instincts that made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 Draft.

It’s still there. The lift off the floor to battle with players four and five inches taller for rebounds, the behind-the-back, no-look pass on a dead sprint that a teammate couldn’t finish.

It’s not as consistent as he might like it to be, not yet. And there are still those awkward moments, those times when he looks like he’s leaning back as he rises to shoot a jump shot or that hitch he’s worked so hard to eliminate from his form causes a momentary pause in his motion.

He’s working through the process every moment and every minute on the floor. This is how it’s going to be for Markelle Fultz, at least for the foreseeable future.

The restoration process the Orlando Magic guard is immersed in right now won’t be completed overnight, no matter how badly Fultz or the Magic want it to turn out that way.

Patience is the key right now for Fultz because he still doesn’t play with the freedom his mercurial talent suggested he would when the Philadelphia 76ers made him the top pick.

If it takes moments to rebuild the confidence lost throughout his struggles in his first two seasons in the league, so be it. There’s no added pressure from a Magic team that returns the core of a roster that won the Southeast Division last season and battled the Toronto Raptors in a first-round playoff series.

“It’s like that, yeah, 100 percent,” Fultz said of the moments he’s experiencing now after having played in just 33 games in his two seasons with the Sixers. “But I put in a lot of work for this moment and I’m just glad to be on the court. But I’ve always had confidence, growing up where I grew up you always had to have confidence. You just got to have an edge to you and every time I step on that court I believe in myself and I believe in my teammates and I just go out there and play.”

He acknowledged that playing off the bench for a team and organization that won’t pressure him to skips any steps in the rehabilitation process is the best place for him to continue plotting his course.

And so far, so good, Fultz is the Magic’s third-leading scorer (12.0) behind Evan Fournier and All-Star big man Nikola Vucevic after two games.

He wasn’t shy in the Magic’s 103-99 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday night at State Farm Arena. He took seven shots in his first 11 minutes on the floor, going 3-for-7 overall and 2-for-5 from beyond the 3-point line.

“I shot all my shots with confidence,” Fultz said after finishing with 12 points (4-for-11), three assists, three rebounds and no turnovers. “And it’s only a matter of time before they start falling. A few fell tonight and I’m just going to keep shooting.”

Watching Fultz and second-year Hawks point guard Trae Young work against one another for the final four minutes at State Farm Arena Saturday night was an interesting contrast of how things can work when the circumstances are optimal, and when they are something far less than that.

Young is already the undeniable leader of a young team in the foundational stage of their process. He’s in complete command of what Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce wants done, while still needing to smooth out the rough edges of his game as he continues to mature physically.

Young’s belief in his own abilities and what he can do on the floor, however, shines through in the way he plays. (Two games into this season he’s averaging 38.5 points and shooting 58 percent from the floor and 55 percent from beyond the 3-point line to go along with nine rebounds and seven assists).

He put the game away for the Hawks in the final minute, driving past Fultz for a layup and then banking a 3-pointer over Fultz’s outstretched arm with 25.1 seconds to play, back-to-back plays that had the crowd roaring and punctuated Young’s masterful 39-point, nine-assist, seven-rebound night.

“We made two big mistakes on him in the last two minutes, things we had done the whole second half,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said. “We let him get away from a screen once and we went under once and he hit both shots. And those are mistakes you shouldn’t make.”

Fultz, of course, is still working on that part of his game. Clifford’s decision to go with him, instead of starter D.J. Augustin or former Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams, speaks volumes about the confidence being placed in Fultz this season.

And if what he’s shown early on, both in training camp and the preseason as well as the Magic’s first two games, is any indication, those flashes, those bursts of the breathtaking play he’s capable of might stretch into something much more significant.

“It shows the trust and it shows the work I put in,” Fultz said of Clifford’s decision to go with him for those final four, crunch-time minutes. “And for me, it’s learning experiences. Every time I can step on the floor and learn and just be the best player I can be. And down the stretch, that’s one of the best times to be on the court, when all the pressure’s on you. I definitely learned a lot out there tonight being out there in that time. But again, it just shows the trust and shows that I have to keep working.”

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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