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NBA Saturday: Is Markelle Fultz Destined to Hit a Rookie Wall?

Sixers’ coach Brett Brown worries about a rookie wall for Markelle Fultz, but elite point guards before him have climbed it, writes Dennis Chambers.

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It’s no secret that the Philadelphia 76ers’ talented rookies will have big roles and will be heavily relied on this season.

Young legs and a high motor are usually things to envy in the world of professional basketball, but for the Sixers, they may have a bit too much of that on their roster. With a bevy of young lottery picks set to fill out its rotation, Philadelphia will be relying heavily on two players who have yet to step foot on an NBA court for a regular season game.

Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz are both poised to make their rookie debuts for the Sixers on Oct. 18 against the Washington Wizards. For Simmons, he’s had the benefit of being in an NBA locker room for over a year now. He has worked with NBA strength coaches, had the benefit of team chefs, and experiencing the day-to-day schedule of what it means to be an NBA player. Granted, he doesn’t physically know the rigors of a full professional basketball slate, but he’s at least been around those who have for over a year.

Fultz, on the other hand, is 19 years old, fresh out of college, and being thrust into the starting lineup of a team that has legitimate playoff aspirations. While Simmons will act as the team’s primary ball handler, and therefore de facto point guard, Fultz will still line up at the one spot for the Sixers and will shoulder his fair share of the playmaking responsibilities.

After playing in just 25 games last season at the University of Washington, and at just 19 years old, it’s not clear if Fultz can handle the workload over an 82 game season.

Brett Brown, the Sixers’ head coach, thinks Fultz will definitely have an adjustment ahead of him during his rookie year.

“It’s two things,” Brown said in reference to Fultz adjusting to the NBA game. “The first is, the athleticism in the men that jump you right from the get-go is relentless. There is no, sort of unforgiving stage. It is very, very ruthless that he’s going to experience. Not so much in preseason, when all of sudden, you know, John Wall claws into him and Otto Porter is alive, that you realize that there is an athleticism and men that catches people off guard.”

Brown is accurate in his assessment from the perspective that Fultz will surely face a higher intensity of defense than he ever has before in his basketball life. When ultra-athletic guards like Wall or Russell Westbrook step in the path of Fultz, the sheer physicality of the matchup will be taxing on the body of someone who is still growing and physically maturing. But this isn’t unprecedented ground for a rookie point guard. In fact, like Fultz, both Wall and Westbrook were once in similar positions as high lottery picks who were expected to step into a primary roles right away and make a big impact.

By scanning the landscape of the NBA, you find that most of the league’s best point guards were once top draft picks thrust into starting roles that demanded heavy production. Westbrook and Wall made their debuts at 20 years old. Kyrie Irving was 19 years old when he hit an NBA court. Stephen Curry was just legally able to drink alcohol, and Damian Lillard was 22 when he suited up for the Portland Trail Blazers.

Coach Brown believes there becomes a specific time frame that may represent when Fultz could begin to slow down due to the physical demands of the game.

“Then we’re going to talk about January the 10th,” Brown said. “And talk about a rookie wall, because of the nature of our league. That evolution, along with other things, most comes to my mind when you say ‘What’s Markelle got to look forward to?’ Those things is what I’ve learned with young guys.”

In accordance with the date Brown mentioned and the obvious hurdles an NBA season presents for a rookie, the wall that the Sixers’ coach mentioned surely impacted some of the league’s best guards during their rookie season, right?

Not so fast.

With the aforementioned guards as examples, when you go back to check their respective rookie season’s, you’ll find almost the exact opposite of what Brown is suggesting. After that Jan. 10 mark, almost all of these guards saw a spike in their production. Curry’s scoring average jumped from 12.3 points a game during the first half of the season to 21.6 points per game. Russell Westbrook’s scoring and assist numbers jumping from 14.1 points and 4.9 assists to 15.6 points and 5.6 assists per game — small increases but still notable.

Certain efficiency traits like shooting percentages didn’t hold up as well, but there was no catastrophic drop off from any of the guards that walked in Fultz’s shoes before him. In fact, despite Brown’s concerns heading into this season, the elite company that the Sixers’ rookie point guard is hoping to join one day all hit a stride in during their rookie campaigns as the second half of the season started to set in.

What Fultz has that most of the other lead guards weren’t fortunate enough to have, however, is the relief of not suiting up as the team’s primary ball-handler each night. Fultz will be able to find his way and develop his rhythm at his own pace while Simmons carries the torch as the team’s primary playmaker.

Having the opportunity to go up against Simmons in practice on a daily basis is a benefit too. Fultz has good size in his own right, standing at 6-foot-5. But with Simmons stretching the measuring tape to nearly seven feet, and playing against the likes of the other Sixers’ big bodies, Fultz feels he’ll have the necessary preparation.

“Our backcourt is kind of big,” Fultz said. “You got Ben, you got Joel (Embiid), got Dario (Saric), everyone out here who is 6-foot-5 and above. Coming out here you’re gonna get a good chance to guard that every day in practice. So with them, trying to get my shot off against them, get layups off against them, also guarding them, all of those will help me get ready for the games.”

Brown notices a certain fire in Fultz that may help him overcome the rookie wall, if and when it comes.

“He is incredible when he wants to please, he wants to learn, he lets us coach him,” Brown said. “Good people, like he’s got a foundation that he doesn’t want to let people down. Then you look at the other side and you say, he’s got a great basketball body. Look how long he is, he’s got those high hips, all that.”

As the Sixers get ready to embark on their first meaningful season in recent memory, they will be trusting a lot of responsibility to a 19-year-old who played just 25 games last season. But despite his youth and lack of experience in a bigger and tougher basketball world, the numbers are on Fultz’s side, to a certain extent.

If Fultz proves to be in the class of Curry and Wall, the Philadelphia 76ers may have a point guard that hurdles the rookie wall and hits his stride this season when they’ll need him the most.

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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