Eyebrows across the NBA raised in September when the Orlando Magic picked up the option on Markelle Fultz’s rookie contract.
In a vacuum, retaining a player who just two years ago was good enough to be the No. 1 pick would be a no-brainer. But not only had Fultz failed to prove he was worth a $12.3 million fourth-year salary, the strange circumstances surrounding his shoulder injury made it fair to wonder if he would ever even develop into a viable NBA rotation player.
Not three months later, it’s become clear that the Magic knew something the rest of the basketball world didn’t. Fultz may not ever be the superstar he was once destined to become but has already taken the reins as Orlando’s point guard in the early going of his first full NBA season.
Most preseason forecasts for the Magic made nary a mention of Fultz. While that seems a ridiculous oversight now, it was nevertheless defensible given his body of work coming into 2019-20.
Fultz played just 33 games over the past two seasons, beset by a shoulder problem suffered during the pre-draft process that eventually became one of the biggest stories in sports. An electric guard lauded for his effortless shooting ability in college suddenly and inexplicably overhauled his stroke, essentially leaving him unable to shoot accurately from outside the paint.
Fultz, finally, was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome last December, ending rampant speculation that his newfound shooting struggles amounted to a basketball version of baseball’s yips. Even his subsequent trade from the Philadelphia 76ers, though, hardly suggested he’d be a factor for Orlando this season.
Fultz didn’t play in Summer League, and rumors of his performance in offseason workouts vacillated wildly. Grainy footage of a jumper that still looked a major work in progress failed to spark much confidence, too.
Fultz reached double-figures in the first three games of the season while coming off the bench. Though his shot was clearly far from fixed, he was at least taking open threes. Plus his explosion with the ball provided the offense-starved Magic with some much-needed offensive oomph.
With his team off to a 2-4 start, Orlando coach Steve Clifford replaced DJ Augustin in the starting lineup with Fultz. While adding another shaky shooter to the mix compounded problems for the Magic in theory, Fultz’s playmaking dynamism has muted those concerns.
Since his first start on Nov. 2, Fultz is averaging 12.4 points, 3.9 assists, and 1.6 steals per game while shooting 50.7 percent from the field. More importantly, Orlando’s offensive rating is 112.1 with him in the game and 94.0 with him on the bench – the difference between a top-five offense and the league’s worst by a significant margin.
Encouragement gleaned from the Magic’s far superior offensive output with Fultz on the floor is boundless. Even without a semi-reliable shot from beyond the arc and playing on a team sorely lacking for spacing, he’s been able to make an objectively positive impact.
Just imagine how much better Fultz will be if he ultimately comes even somewhat close to regaining the jumper that helped propel him to the top of the 2017 draft.
But that prospect is still rooted most in wide-eyed optimism. Fultz is shooting well from mid-range and has attempted at least one three in every game this season but is still at an ugly 21.6 percent from deep. Chances are he’ll always be a liability in that regard.
Still, the jaw-dropping athleticism, innate ball handling instincts, and dogged defensive disposition Fultz has put on display for the Magic will persist. And while they may not vault him to superstardom, those attributes are already proving enough to cement him as Orlando’s franchise point guard.