There likely isn’t a player in the NBA this season who’s had a more drastic turnaround than Markelle Fultz. A year ago, the former No. 1 overall pick was written off as the latest draft bust, while questions remained about his shoulder injury that limited him to just 33 games over two seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers. However, a trade to the Orlando Magic provided the 21-year-old with new scenery and a fresh opportunity to grow with a new franchise.
Before the league announced an indefinite hiatus of the 2019-20 season due to the coronavirus pandemic, Fultz was averaging 12.1 points, 5.2 assists and just over three rebounds a game. It’s still not what draft prognosticators envisioned for the University of Washington product coming into the league, but his first year in Orlando proves that he’s far from a bust, with the potential of becoming a building block for the Magic’s future.
A quick look at Fultz’s numbers over his three-year career shows significant improvement in Orlando. Aside from his 3-point shooting, which is perhaps the biggest remaining concern about his game now, he’s improved in every other offensive category.
Markelle Fultz career stats
Sure, Fultz’s numbers this season might not look any different than any of the other average point guards the Magic have had in recent years. However, there were doubts that he’d have any impact in Orlando this season, much less be the starting point guard, so what he’s been able to accomplish in 64 games should be seen as a huge success.
At his best this season, Fultz is attacking the rim at full speed, using his bullish strength and quickness to finish drives at a 49 percent clip, which ranks in the top 20 in the league among point guards. He has the finesse to finish around bigger defenders in the paint and through contact, and his size gives him an edge over smaller guards trying to check him:
It’s an encouraging sign to see Fultz be so aggressive on offense, and while he still needs to find his shot from 3-point range, he’s at least showing the confidence in taking those looks. His ability to change pace and stop on a dime to shake his defender frees him up to knock down mid-range shots. However, he’s not incredibly efficient at making them. On all mid-range jumpers, Fultz is shooting just 41 percent, which puts him in the 59th percentile among guards in the league, per Cleaning the Class.
Those numbers aren’t ideal, but given the fact that Fultz was unable to lift his arms above his head to even shoot a basketball three seasons ago, it’s a decent foundation to build upon. His shooting may not be where it needs to be in order for him to be a consistent threat on offense, but his playmaking has become crucial to the Magic’s success this season.
His assists create the most points for the Magic per game (13.7), which essentially means his passes have the most value on the team. He’s able to squeeze passes through tight windows in the post to make life easier for Nikola Vucevic, or drive and kick it to an open Evan Fournier on the wing for three:
You can tell that he sometimes catches his teammates — as well as the defense — off guard with the passes he makes, displaying how gifted of a playmaker he is, and can become. None of this should be surprising, though, given that Fultz was heralded as a player who could create in a lot of ways, not just for himself but for his teammates. His shoulder injury didn’t hinder his vision or awareness on the floor, and while he still has a long journey to go in getting his 3-point shooting up, his ability to attack the rim and get open looks for his teammates should make the Magic feel comfortable in knowing that the player they traded for isn’t a bust, and can be a valuable contributor to this team going forward.
Nothing points to what Fultz can become more than his final three games before the league’s hiatus. The Magic went 3-0 before the season was postponed, with the third-year guard averaging 18.7 points, 5.3 assists and three rebounds while shooting 59.5 percent from the field. In one of those wins, he put up 24 points against the Timberwolves, showcasing the full breadth of his offensive game. He got to the rim at will in transition, knocked down mid-range jumpers from everywhere on the floor and tacked on five assists and four boards.
In another win against the Grizzlies, Fultz showed he could come through in big moments. With the Magic up by two with three minutes left and everyone inside FedEx Forum on their feet, he used his speed and strength to blow right past Jonas Valanciunas and finish through contact at the rim to increase Orlando’s lead to four points. He’s become the Magic’s go-to scorer down the stretch in clutch situations, leading the team in total clutch points (48) in the last five minutes of the game.
On defense, he remains engaged and active, and ranks in the 86th percentile among guards in steal percentage (2.0 percent), per Cleaning the Glass. A lot of that is a testament to Magic coach Steve Clifford’s defensive-minded philosophy. In the two years since Clifford’s been in charge in Orlando, the team’s defense has ranked in the top 10 in defensive rating. Fultz has bought into what Clifford is preaching defensively, and it’s resulted in him becoming a reliable defender in the backcourt.
The Magic are currently eighth in the Eastern Conference standings, and if the season does resume with some form of a postseason, they would be part of it for the second year in a row. However, the focus for Orlando and Fultz should be on next season. The next step in Fultz’s journey is making sure he doesn’t plateau, and can improve his shooting and scoring numbers across the board. Orlando has been in search of a franchise point guard for quite some time, and while Fultz’s numbers this season have been an eye-opener, they’re no different than what D.J. Augustin and Elfrid Payton accomplished over the past five years.
The difference, though, is that Fultz has a far higher ceiling than those two. Remember, he was the No. 1 overall pick for good reason. For him to take that leap and resemble the player he showed he can be right before the season was postponed, he’ll need to seriously work on his shot and take his playmaking to the next level.
Regardless if the NBA season is canceled or not, Fultz’s first fully healthy campaign should be considered a success. He shed the bust label that followed him for the first two years of his career, and continuously improved from month to month. Now, the Magic will have to decide if they want to attach themselves to Fultz long term, as he’s due for a rookie scale extension in July. The Magic will likely see how next season plays out before making any decision, but if he’s able to show significant improvement from this year then Fultz might get some long-term security and the Magic could finally stop searching for the franchise point guard they’ve been missing.