You likely have not watched the Orlando Magic very much this season. They are last in the Eastern Conference and despite having a number of intriguing young players on their roster, they do not appear to be built for inevitable future success either. However, if you are one of the few who did fire up League Pass and watch the Magic in the last few weeks, you had the chance to see Markelle Fultz play in his first games back after missing over a year due to an ACL tear. And if you had watched Fultz play in these games, you would have seen more than a returning player triumphing over adversity; you would have seen a dynamic athlete.
You would have seen him create space off the dribble out of a pick and roll before stepping back and making a three in Georges Niang’s face. You would have seen him heave a full court outlet pass to Moe Wagner for an easy dunk. You can look up the highlights and watch him pull up for mid-range jumpers that effortlessly float into the net. You can watch him post up Tyrese Maxey before spinning, jumping, and executing a baseline bounce pass to Mo Bamba that was either a brilliant display of court vision or dumb luck, but very cool either way.
Finally, you can see him against the Wolves, driving around a screen and putting up a lay-up in the faces of Naz Reid and Jaden McDaniels, absorbing contact from Reid, and converting the shot. Any one of these plays would be enough to inspire confidence that Fultz’s return is worth celebrating for more than sentimental reasons; together, they make the case that he could really be good.
Acknowledging each and every caveat about small sample size, his first six games back have been delightful and promising. Over 80 percent of his field goals have been unassisted, which shows that he is having no issue creating his own looks – an important and relatively rare skill. This is combined with a greater playmaking ability than he has displayed in the past; his current assist percentage of 56 is nearly twice his previous career high of 33. Most impressive is his ability to get to the rim, slipping through and past defenders with a variety of off-speed dribbles. Nearly half of his field goal attempts have come from within 5 feet of the basket, where he’s converted them at a 63 percent clip. His shooting form still looks a tad unorthodox if you look at it closely, and he appears more comfortable driving than pulling up, but this has not kept him from converting a respectable number of his jumpers so far. Altogether, it’s very encouraging.
Despite this technically being Fultz’s fifth NBA season, it feels as if fans are still just getting to know him and understand what he may still be capable of. Only once in his first four seasons did Fultz play more than 20 games and even if he plays in every Orlando contest the rest of the year, he will not again reach that benchmark. For five years, questions and uncertainty about his health have hounded him. Assuming he can stay healthy, those questions will finally be answered.
The Magic are not so much an NBA team with concrete aspirations as they are a bundle of potential, an island of misfit toys that could someday become a legitimate team but is not yet there. Of the ten players who have logged at least 500 minutes for Orlando this season, just two – Gary Harris and Terrence Ross – are older than 24. And even among their young players, it’s impossible to label any of them as bona fide future stars. Mo Bamba, Wendell Carter Jr., Cole Anthony, and the Brothers Wagner are all various shades of promising and intriguing though it’s hard to foresee exactly how any one of them will figure in the team’s future. While there’s obvious drawbacks to such a roster construction, for Fultz, this is the perfect chance for him to see what works and explore his capabilities with minimal pressure. I can’t wait to see what comes of it.
I have not noticed much discussion about Fultz’s return to the court. It has not seemed to be a leading story with many writers and talking heads content to focus on the Lakers’ struggles, the MVP race, or the drama in Brooklyn. This bums me out for more than one reason, but the benefit is that Fultz is able to rise or fall on his own, without every jumper or practice shot broken down and analyzed. The pressure of being the final piece of a championship puzzle is gone, as are most of the expectations that come with being a number one overall pick.
The gap between hope and expectation is a subtle one – thin enough to effortlessly traverse but still massive enough to upend and dislodge one’s path if one is not careful about navigating it. I then do not want to make any grandiose claims about the player Fultz is and may become, but I think there’s a difference between allowing for hope to exist and expecting something to be inevitable. I still believe in Markelle Fultz and I still want to see him succeed, even if the terms of such success are different than they may have been when he first entered the league. For perhaps the first time in his NBA career, Fultz is free. He is able to forge his own path, one that may not align with what was initially imagined, but one that can still be electric and satisfying in its own distinct way.