Don’t expect to see Markelle Fultz again this season
With just 27 games remaining and a fight for playoff positioning ahead, it seems extremely unlikely that Markelle Fultz will return to on-court action for the Philadelphia 76ers this season.
The top overall pick from the 2017 Draft has been out for the entirety of the ’17-18 season – save for the first four games – due to soreness and scapular muscle imbalance in his right shoulder - and the resulting deterioration of his shooting stroke.
Fultz has seemingly been inching closer to a return for months now, but despite consecutive positive press releases from the team – on December 9 the Sixers said Fultz was “no longer experiencing soreness in his right shoulder and the scapular muscle imbalance is resolved,” and on January 2 they said that he had begun “the final stage of his return-to-play program” – there is still no concrete timetable for Fultz’s return, or a clear consensus of what exactly was/is wrong with him in the first place.
While a healthy Fultz could potentially help the Sixers in their playoff push, at this point in time the best – and most likely course of action – is for Fultz is to stay sidelined, work on getting himself completely right – both physically and mentally – and focus on becoming a key contributor for the franchise starting next season.
From a team aspect, fitting an unfamiliar Fultz into what has become a tight rotation for Brett Brown, while also battling for playoff positioning would be pretty difficult,* especially considering that it would likely take Fultz several weeks just to get in true game shape. Inconsistency is expected for rookies, and at this late stage in the season the Sixers can’t afford to lose possessions – and in turn games – as a young, inexperienced player finds his footing.
From an individual aspect, inserting Fultz back into the lineup at this point in time would put an enormous amount of pressure on him, as all eyes would be on him – and his every shot. Unfortunately for Fultz, the narrative is already against him, as he has been prematurely labeled as a bust by many outside of Philadelphia. Those that have bought into that narrative will be searching for any opportunity for affirmation; every missed free throw or wayward jumper will be made into a Vine video and used as a punchline at Fultz’s expense.
By subjecting him to that type of scrutiny, the organization would run the risk of doing legitimate long-term damage to his psyche; not a great risk considering the price that they paid to land Fultz, and his overall import to the franchise’s future.
Affording Fultz the rest of the season and the entirety of the offseason to get completely comfortable with his new (old?) mechanics, get his body up to game shape, and get accustomed to playing with his teammates, [maybe even playing in Summer League again], would be an approach that sets him up to succeed in the long-run. Considering the organization’s history of patience when it comes to injury issues, this is the approach that they will likely take.
The addition of Marco Belinelli after the trade deadline seemed to indicate that the team didn’t think that Fultz would be back and able to consistently contribute at a high level this season, because if they did, they wouldn’t have needed to add another complementary scorer.
Why Fultz hasn’t just been ruled out for the season by now is not known, as such a move would seemingly eliminate what has devolved into a distraction for the team, as the players – and especially coach Brown - are peppered with consistent questions about Fultz’s status and when he will be back. If Fultz was simply just ruled out for the remainder of the season, those questions would be delayed to the offseason – a much more opportune time to deal with them, rather than in the midst of a playoff push.
Regardless of his official status – or how good he looks in practice - it makes much more sense for the Sixers to again practice patience, and that’s likely what they will do.
*The days of ample low-pressure, in-game experience for young players that ‘The Process’ afforded the Sixers are in the rearview.
Follow Michael Kaskey-Blomain on Twitter @therealmikekb.