The Curious Case of Markelle Fultz

In December 2017, retired big man Charlie Villanueva’s toilet was stolen. In the early 2010s, Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman inexplicably became best friends with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Former All-Star Gilbert Arenas pulled a gun on his teammate in the Wizards’ locker room in 2009. The NBA is a strange place filled with strange stories. But there is one story that may be stranger than the rest: 76ers point guard Markelle Fultz forgetting how to shoot.

For me, a stereotypical Philadelphia-native sports fan, living through years of embarrassing Philadelphia 76ers basketball has burdened me with an intense love-hate relationship with the team.

After the Sixers drafted Fultz, I eagerly anticipated his contributions to the team. Like all sports fans, I want my teams and players to succeed. So when Fultz lost the ability to shoot, I was devastated.

During the 2016-17 collegiate season, Fultz shined on the court. A 6-foot-4-inch guard with an impressive 6-foot-9-inch wingspan, Fultz averaged 23.2 points, 5.7 assists and 5.9 rebounds per game on 47.6/41.3/64.9 shooting splits in his lone season at the University of Washington. He was named a Third-Team All-American and was the consensus No. 1 player for the 2017 NBA Draft. Fultz had scouts buzzing.

“Fultz is a franchise lead guard, future All-Star and a player any organization can build around,” draft analyst Mike Schmitz of DraftExpress and ESPN said. “He’s … a tremendous pick and roll player who can score at all three levels and facilitate with creativity.”

The 76ers, looking for their third young star to pair with point guard Ben Simmons and center Joel Embiid, traded the third pick in the draft and a future first to the Boston Celtics for No. 1 pick and drafted Fultz.

Finally, the Sixers had a player that could create his own shot and create for others. Many thought the acquisition of Fultz would complete the Sixers’ famous “Process” — the years of intentionally throwing games in order to obtain high draft picks through the NBA Draft lottery.

In the 2017 Summer League, Fultz sprained his ankle in the second game, but still showed potential as the No. 1 pick.

Then, Fultz showed up to training camp with a broken jump shot. In college and the Summer League, Fultz’s jumper was smooth, and the ball found its way into the basket at a high clip. Now, his shot looked stiff.

Fultz played the first four games of the NBA season and averaged a massively underwhelming six points on an abysmal 33 percent shooting from the floor before being shut down indefinitely with a mysterious shoulder injury that has no official cause to this day. Weeks later, after seeing multiple shoulder specialists, Fultz was diagnosed with scapular muscle imbalance.

Never heard of it? Neither had I.

Fans speculated that Fultz would miss the rest of his rookie season, but he eventually returned to the court 68 games later. Though his jump shot was still broken, and he attempted just a single three-pointer, he managed to become the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double.

Fultz saw limited minutes in the Sixers’ playoff run and did not see the court in their second-round matchup against the Celtics. However, the Sixers were hopeful that with an entire summer to train, Fultz could justify comparisons to reigning NBA MVP James Harden.

An entire summer with renowned NBA Strategic Skills Coach Drew Hanlen and a reported 150,000 shots later, Fultz started in the Sixers’ matchup against the Celtics in the season opener. But the NBA community was quick to notice that something wasn’t right with Fultz.

His shot still lacked fluidity, and he was reluctant to shoot any shot past 15 feet and posted a -0.3 net rating.

After the Sixers acquired guard and forward Jimmy Butler from the Minnesota Timberwolves, Fultz moved to the bench, where he saw his minutes gradually decline until he played just seven minutes in a game against the Phoenix Suns. After that game, Fultz did not practice or play in any more games, as he sought opinions from multiple shoulder specialists.

Shortly after, The Athletic published a report alleging that Fultz wanted a “fresh start” with a new team. After that, another story surfaced saying that Fultz had requested a trade, a claim his agent adamantly declined. Then, Sixers Reporter Keith Pompey revealed that the Philadelphia front office no longer considered Fultz as a part of their long-term plans and were open to trading the former No. 1 overall pick.

Fultz was diagnosed with Neurogenic Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (NTOS), a nerve compression disorder, on Dec. 4, per Brothers. Fultz is set to begin physical therapy treatment immediately, and the Sixers are optimistic that he could return to the court in three to six weeks.

The Fultz situation is among the most puzzling in NBA history. From a franchise cornerstone for which the Sixers traded two first-round picks to a player who may not suit up for the Sixers again, his story is one of the quickest reversals of fate I have ever seen.

Fultz’s value is virtually zero, and trading him for cheap would make little sense for the Sixers. However, if Fultz does actually want out of Philadelphia, then the team has a duty to get the disgruntled Fultz off the team.

I’m worried for Fultz. I fear time is running out for the former All-American. His story is truly disheartening, and I would do anything to see him succeed. Hopefully his physical therapy works, and he returns to action.

Perhaps I am too emotionally invested in a 20-year-old’s jump shot, but hey, what else would you expect from a Philly sports fan who cried after the Eagles won the Super Bowl and wore a Sixers jersey to his high school graduation?

Fultz needs to turn it around, and fast, or else his time in the NBA could be coming to an end sooner rather than later.