The Rise and Fall of Markelle Fultz

Writer: Marcus Carr

The quiet 6’5” guard attending Dematha Catholic School was one of the most intriguing prospects of 2015-16, and he wasn’t even on varsity until he hit a growth spurt that bolstered him to his frame. Markelle Fultz decided to attend the University of Washington to continue his basketball career out of high school.

Fultz quickly became a player highlighted on NBA scouts’ radars to potentially be a first round, first overall pick. Yet, it never felt like Fultz was a first pick type of guy. While in college he played for a subpar Washington team that was eliminated from tournament consideration early on. He also wasn’t a vocal guy in college like his Philadelphia teammate, Ben Simmons, by making criticizing comments about the NCAA, and he wasn’t a player who could jump out of the gym and make the crowd erupt like Zion Williamson can do now. He was a guy who would give you 20 points a game at will, make his bad teammates look better than they were but never had the typical NBA superstar attitude or flashy play style to be on Top 10 plays on a night to night basis.

With the help of his outspoken father, Lonzo Ball was the talk of most media outlets, never Fultz. De’Aaron Fox also created a lot of buzz around his name approaching the draft by dominating Lonzo Ball in both of their matchups, yet Fultz was still left out of the picture.

The Sixers traded up to the first pick days after Danny Ainge said Fultz would be a Celtic. There were even the pictures of Fultz touring TD Garden looking up at the rafters, which makes this story so strange: why would Danny Ainge trade the No. 1 pick less than 72 hours after publicly stating Fultz would be Celtic? Was it a smoke screen or did something scare Ainge and company away?

The Sixers went on to select Fultz with the No. 1 pick, but there still wasn’t a whole lot of talk around Fultz. He joined a young, promising core of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, with a role to solve the Sixers shooting problems and be a combo guard that would make the 76ers lethal. He drew some Harden-esque comparisons with his ability to create and score. At the time, it looked like Sam Hinkie set the Sixers up to be similar to the 2011 Oklahoma City Thunder that featured Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

Fultz tweaked his ankle during Summer League and ultimately was shut down for the rest of the summer for precautionary reasons, which makes sense with the lengthy injury history Philadelphia had with their prior picks.

And then, things took a strange turn for Fultz and the Sixers - Fultz would only play 20 games during his rookie campaign plagued by a nagging shoulder injury. During his 20 games, Fultz showed flashes of promise, with even a few triple doubles. The Sixers never released what was actually going on with Fultz, and the public got a report that he was getting his shoulder drained, but the Sixers soon retracted their comments saying he got a shot in his shoulder, leaving most of NBA fans and media confused on the situation.

The rumors of Fultz changing his shooting motion began to arise, nobody really knew what was wrong with him, we just knew he couldn’t and wouldn’t shoot the ball. Fultz would be seen in various videos shooting while sitting down, laying down, and many times actually dunking and shooting three pointers. He made it a point to put it on his snapchat story every time he made a series of three pointers or dunks while working out or practicing. But Fultz wasn’t ready for what was about to transpire in his career.

Fultz came into the 2018-2019 season with still a big question mark around him. He was seen in the starting lineup of the Sixers for a few games and that’s when it became more apparent than ever that he couldn’t shoot the ball outside of 15 feet. It started with a series of videos of him missing shots, then it became viral videos of him “pump faking” a free throw that he later on claimed the ball slipped. Then followed a week later of him nearly juggling the ball before shooting a free throw, and during the same week he missed a wide open three pointer that hit the front end of the backboard. Fultz instantly dropped his arms after shooting that ball, and it seemed from that moment on, he knew something was seriously wrong.

Raymond Brothers, Fultz’s agents and lawyers, told the media that Fultz would be shut down with no timetable of return to see various shoulder specialist, which was also news to the 76ers organization. The diagnosis came back as thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS) between his shoulder and neck, almost restraining him from lifting his arms further than a 90 degree angle. Typically, TOS is caused by lifting too much overhead weight and is common in most MLB players. The injury damages the nerves connecting the neck and shoulder.

The 76ers are hopeful Fultz can return within six weeks but there is still a question mark around Markelle. He draws almost zero trade return, with very few teams interested in him. Fultz is in the most difficult position of his career. On top of that, despite being drafted No. 1 overall he is the least popular of the top two picks and he is receiving coverage for the wrong reasons. It goes without saying that he isn’t appreciating this type of limelight.

Moreover, his mother has started to receive a tremendous amount of scrutiny for the way she handles Markelle’s situation, raising many more questions. The inner circle around Fultz has gotten tighter since he was drafted, and it seems to be damaging his career.

Markelle might be broken, and relearning having to shoot the basketball is going to be difficult. On top of that, dealing with the media might be the end of Fultz.

The mental aspect of dealing with negative media coverage will be a huge obstacle. The change of scenery could do him well, as it has for many players, and there will be those teams that take a chance on him, but in the back of everyone’s mind there is that one lingering possibility: Markelle Fultz could end up not too far off from former Philadelphia 76er and first round draft pick, Michael Carter-Williams.