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NBA Daily: The Curious Case of Markelle Fultz

The top overall pick somehow forgot how to shoot a basketball, but don’t give up on him just yet.

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By now, chances are you’ve become aware of Markelle Fultz’s curious rookie season.

After the Philadelphia 76ers traded picks with the Boston Celtics just days before the 2017 NBA Draft, they used the top overall selection to take Fultz, a smooth combo guard out of Washington.

Known for his shooting and scoring prowess, Fultz displayed many of the traits that made him the top overall pick in summer league action. From three-point shooting to penetrating the lane, and of course, his “hesi pull-up jimbo,” Fultz had it all this summer. Which made the arrival of training camp and preseason so confusing when the first pick in the draft showed up with a different (and bad) shooting stroke.

As the story goes, Fultz then gets shut down by the Sixers just four games into the regular season after shooting the ball like the aliens from Space Jam stole all of the talents that made him capable of doing so in the first place.

The team announced Fultz had a “muscular imbalance” in his shoulder and would be rehabbing until that problem is fixed.

It’s now Jan. 13, the imbalance in Fultz’s shoulder is gone and he’s cleared for five-on-five practice, inching toward his return. There’s still one problem though.

Fultz’s shot still looks like this:

That is, well, less than ideal for a player taken ahead of every other player in the draft. When it comes to Fultz and what is actually going on (let’s be clear, no one actually knows for sure) the speculation ranges all the way from his injured shoulder to a severe case of the “yips” and being in his own head so much so that he’s forgotten how to shoot a basketball.

The latter argument is hard to buy. If you take a look at the path Fultz rode to the NBA you’ll find the story of a kid who wasn’t playing varsity ball full-time until his junior year of high school, and then subsequently used his growth spurt from 5-foot-9 to 6-foot-5 to develop into one of the best players in his recruiting class.

Bottom line, Fultz didn’t cakewalk into the league. He worked to get there. So the narrative that he’s afraid or nervous of the moment is a tough sell. From an injury standpoint, at this moment the Sixers say Fultz is healthy. There is no clear explanation for the way Fultz’s shooting mechanics look.

And yet, despite all of the skepticism and poor shot attempts, you shouldn’t even be close to associating the word “bust” with Fultz.

It’s easy to forget at this point that Fultz was the consensus top pick. While there are players who are performing at a high level right now, like Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell, neither were truly considered to go in Fultz’s slot. Summer league was a reminder that Fultz belongs in the NBA. Even during this four injury-ridden regular season games, Fultz displayed the ability to get where he needed to be on the court.

Scouts around the league are confused about Fultz’s shot, but as NJ Advanced Media reported, some still believe Fultz can contribute.

“He should be contributing by now,” a Western Conference scout told NJ Advanced Media. “He’s still good enough, for sure.”

A similar sentiment was shared by another scout out west as the report highlights.

“It just all seemed odd … (but he’s still) a dynamic scorer who can really complement a pass-first point guard.”

For the Sixers’ head coach, Brett Brown, he’s now in the unfortunately familiar position of being without his organization’s top pick for an extended period of time. First Nerlens Noel, then Joel Embiid, then Ben Simmons and now Fultz.

Even in the wake of his absence, and the funky shooting stroke, Brown is still gleaming with optimism about what the scoring-guard can bring to the team once he finally hits the floor.

“I’m excited,” Brown said prior to the team’s matchup with the San Antonio Spurs about Fultz’s return. “Because he completely connects the dots to what we don’t have. Anybody that can create their own shot, anybody that can create something for somebody else, is of extreme value to the collection of what we have, and that is his skill set. And what we can get out of him, how is he going to be integrated into the team when he gets back, that’s yet obviously to be seen, but I remain highly positive and highly optimistic.”

Through Philadelphia’s 20 losses thus far this season they’ve displayed one glaring weakness. When Embiid is off the floor, the team doesn’t have a one-on-one scorer. Simmons can’t, and won’t, shoot outside shots at this point in time, and the rest of the roster consists of spot-up complementary shooters. Fultz represents an opportunity for the Sixers to have someone that puts the ball on the floor, forces a defender to commit to him and then opens up the rest of the offense as a result.

Even with a shaky shot, Fultz is still very much the player that was taken first overall.

The jury is still out on Fultz and every player in the rookie class for that matter. No career can be defined by one half of an inaugural season. There’s time for players to develop and work on their games. Most of the top picks are still just teenagers, they may even need time to mature into their own bodies.

Tatum and Fultz will continuously be linked throughout their careers because of a trade that neither of them had any say in. With the way Tatum is currently playing, it’s easy to give in and say Fultz is a bust, or the Sixers shouldn’t have made the trade with Boston.

But before definitively taking a stance one way or the other, give the top overall pick the benefit of the doubt he’s earned up until now to take the court and actually play before writing him off.

Dennis Chambers is an NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. Based out of Philadelphia he has previously covered NCAA basketball and high school recruiting.

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