On Sunday, the Philadelphia 76ers clinched a playoff berth for the first time since the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, but the buzz at the Wells Fargo Center Monday night was not about an imminent playoff series—rather, viewers were eager to see rookie Markelle Fultz take the court for the first time since October.
The first overall pick of last year's draft, Fultz has had a bizarre debut campaign. He was initially sidelined with a shoulder injury, but after missing more time than originally expected, many began to speculate that the teenage phenom had suddenly lost the rhythm of his jump shot or perhaps had lost his confidence in shooting the ball—sort of like basketball's version of the yips.
Regardless of the true reason for Fultz's absence, the 2017 draft's top pick has thus far not come close to making the impact that was expected of him as a rookie. Fans haven't seemed to be upset with him—after all, the team has cruised to its most wins since the Allen Iverson era, so what's there to be upset about? But Fultz's season has nevertheless been strange, confusing, and somewhat frustrating to follow.
Monday night, however, Fultz finally made his return to the court. The crowd in Philadelphia stood and cheered, welcoming the player who may complete “the Process” of rebuilding a once-pathetic roster into a championship contender. Given the questions of his confidence, Fultz was certainly under pressure with all eyes squarely focused on him. But what viewers saw in Fultz's first game back since the season's opening weeks, though sloppy, was ultimately encouraging.
Fultz got off to an inauspicious start, running straight into Denver Nuggets big man Miles Plumlee on his first touch of the game and turning over the ball. Fultz made his first shot of the game, a layup, but things got away from him once he started trying out that infamous jump shot. He air-balled his first jumper and had his next one blocked. At the end of the night, the Nuggets had blocked three of Fultz's jump shots, per Rotoworld—a head-scratching and concerning number for any player. He made just five of his 13 shot attempts, giving him a 38.5 field-goal percentage that wasn't much better than the 33.3 mark he managed over his four games in October.
Despite the rust, Fultz flashed plenty of exciting ability in his return to action. In just 14 minutes, the 19-year-old racked up eight assists and had just that one aforementioned turnover. He added four rebounds and even hit consecutive jump shots late in the game. Fultz often looked fluid when handling the ball and seemed to have a knack for setting up his teammates in the right spots, which is particularly impressive given how little time he has spent playing with them.
It will be interesting to see how the 76ers utilize Fultz throughout the rest of the season. Considering his current skill set, Fultz doesn't seem like a strong fit alongside starting point guard Ben Simmons, another player who excels in running the offense but struggles to hit shots from the outside.
Backup point guard T.J. McConnell has played fairly well this season, averaging 6.5 points on 49.9 percent shooting to go along with 4.2 assists and 1.6 turnovers, but it seems that he will be the most likely victim of Fultz's return. McConnell, who is averaging 23.5 minutes per game this season, played just 13 minutes to Fultz's 14 Monday night, and that could very well become a trend as the 76ers look to capitalize on the tantalizing potential of their coveted rookie. Expect Fultz to see a lot of run at backup point guard with the potential to earn even more minutes as he shakes off the rust.
Currently one game behind the third-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers and half a game up on the fifth-seeded Indiana Pacers, the fourth-seeded 76ers still have something to play for despite clinching the playoffs. As a result, they won't force Fultz into the lineup if he is not contributing positively. That being said, the team has to be encouraged by Fultz's Monday performance, and the young guard certainly adds upside to the team as it gets set to compete with the Eastern Conference's top squads in the playoffs. Getting Fultz into form would be a boon to Philadelphia's chances of making a postseason run, and playoff appearances are generally considered invaluable experience for young players.
The 76ers have nine regular-season games left to play, with just two of them coming against playoff teams. Fultz should have plenty of opportunity to show what he can do, and what he does with that opportunity will be one of the most interesting storylines to follow as the season winds down.