This is hack, and I promise I did more research for this installment than simply typing Markelle Fultz’s name into a search bar, but when you do that, Google presents you with these [sic]-tastic People Also Ask options:
—Why is markelle Fultz so bad?
—What disease does markelle Fultz have?
—What happened to Michael Fultz?
—Is markelle Fultz good?
That last item can be considered a marker of progress. People are hearing—secondhand; they’re not watching Orlando Magic games—that Markelle Fultz, first overall pick in the 2017 draft, looking in his darkest hours like he might have to retire to the compound from Safe (1995), can once again play basketball without crippling stagefright. And they’re checking in with their favorite search engine, the one that owns all their information, in order to confirm this, even daring to ask, hopefully and with some trepidation: is markelle Fultz good?
Or, you know, the algorithm is being weird. Let’s assume the first thing instead, and in case you’re one of those curious seekers, the answer is kind of. Fultz has progressed past Not Applicable, Clearly Terrified, and Bad to arrive at what we can definitely call competence. Orlando provided a perfect environment for him last year in that the team was competitive, but not so competitive that anyone paid attention to them. Steve Clifford gave Fultz plenty of minutes, demanded that he play hard on defense, and let him make mistakes with the ball in his hands. The fruit of that approach was a steady steam of 13 and 6s, 10 and 4s, the exploits of a lead guard working on a double mulligan, unafraid to take jumpers, if not converting them at a steady clip, and doing everything else reasonably well. Plus he only missed one game all season. If you weren’t expecting too much out of Fultz, he did alright in 2019-20. If you were worried he might be out of the league soon, you could put that fear away. It took him nearly the entirety of his rookie contract, but he has proven that he can hang.
The style in which he does so is telling. He takes the odd three-pointer, when he’s wide open, but most teams understandably sag off him when he’s on the perimeter, and while it would be better for him if they didn’t, he uses that space to get up a head of steam on his way to the rim, where you remember one of the things draftniks really liked about him was his size and body control. It’s not easy to stay in front of Fultz when he’s running at you, and he’s got the muscle and the length to finish through contact. He is the rare point guard, because he’s built more like a wing, who regularly finishes his drives with two-handed dunks. After which he hollers at the rafters before trotting back on defense.
This affectation feels particularly important for Fultz because he’s been defined by his perceived timidity, the (well-founded) impression that he was a mental wreck in Philadelphia. To watch him play the way he has in Orlando, exploding through the lane like a between-the-tackles running back, is to realize that there is a toughness about him. Of course there always was, nobody gets to the NBA by being soft, but what we saw for the bulk of two years was him sitting on the sidelines in a suit, baby-faced and forlorn, a chyron reading Out (Shoulder, Maybe Something With His Brain), announcers apologizing for him, Sixers fans treating him like an easily frightened dog. It was impossible to admire him, because he didn’t give us anything to admire. Meanwhile, Jayson Tatum was dunking on LeBron in a Conference Finals game.
Establishing that you belong in the league is a high bar, but a rather low one for the supposed best prospect in his draft class. Fultz entered the NBA alongside Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, and Bam Adebayo. It’s hard to see him outperforming that trio, or for that matter De’Aaron Fox, whom the Kings took four picks after him. The optimistic arguments coming out of Orlando, where they would kill for a legitimate star, are that Fultz has pedigree, newfound confidence, and he’s only 22. “The sky's the limit for him,” Magic personnel boss Jeff Weltman has said. “And he's got all the ingredients, not just the physical abilities, to blossom.”
While that tracks, it’s the same kind of thinking that leads you to slap a Dick Gephardt for President sticker on the back of your Toyota. You can talk yourself, step by faintly plausibly step, into the possibility of a lot of stuff that’s never going to happen. It’s less maddening to reckon with what’s in front of you, and imagine how it might improve by a little bit. What the Magic have in Fultz is an unremarkable starting point guard. But he is young and his free throw shooting from last season—a solid 73 percent—would suggest that his stroke is recovering after being completely busted during his time in Philadelphia. Plus he’s already a fine defender. If he becomes great at anything, it’ll probably be on that end of the floor. These aren’t exciting prospects, on their own, and they’re much less than you would expect from a first overall pick heading into his fourth year, but Fultz has done the hardest thing he’s ever going to, which is getting himself up to NBA standards after a brutal start to his career. He’s not good, strictly speaking, but he’s given himself a chance. We’ll know he’s hit the next stage of his development when the search engine stops calling him Michael.
More 2020 Futures: Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, Toronto Raptors, Utah Jazz, Washington Wizards
2019 Histories: Atlanta Hawks | Boston Celtics | Brooklyn Nets | Charlotte Hornets | Chicago Bulls | Cleveland Cavaliers | Dallas Mavericks | Denver Nuggets | Detroit Pistons | Houston Rockets | Golden State Warriors | Indiana Pacers | Los Angeles Clippers | Los Angeles Lakers | Memphis Grizzlies | Miami Heat | Milwaukee Bucks | Minnesota Timberwolves | New Orleans Pelicans | New York Knicks | Oklahoma City Thunder | Orlando Magic | Philadelphia 76ers | Phoenix Suns | Portland Trail Blazers | Sacramento Kings | San Antonio Spurs | Toronto Raptors | Utah Jazz | Washington Wizards
2018 Futures: Kevin Love, Manu Ginobili, Marcus Smart, John Wall, Devin Booker, Paul George, Blake Griffin, Trae Young, Kenneth Faried, Joakim Noah, Mike Conley, Ben McLemore, Kawhi Leonard, Aaron Gordon, Danilo Gallinari, Wayne Ellington, Frank Kaminsky, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday, Paul Millsap, Kris Dunn, Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, Victor Oladipo, Kevin Durant, C.J. McCollum, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic
2017 Futures: Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors, Utah Jazz, Washington Wizards
2016 Futures: Atlanta Hawks | Boston Celtics | Brooklyn Nets | Charlotte Hornets | Chicago Bulls | Cleveland Cavaliers | Dallas Mavericks | Denver Nuggets | Detroit Pistons | Golden State Warriors | Houston Rockets | Indiana Pacers | Los Angeles Clippers | Los Angeles Lakers | Memphis Grizzlies | Miami Heat | Milwaukee Bucks | Minnesota Timberwolves | New Orleans Pelicans | New York Knicks | Oklahoma City Thunder | Orlando Magic | Philadelphia 76ers | Phoenix Suns | Portland Trail Blazers | Sacramento Kings | San Antonio Spurs | Toronto Raptors | Utah Jazz | Washington Wizards