December 08, 2017

Markelle Fultz medical update indicates No. 1 pick is closer to returning

Sixers NBA
102417_Fultz_AP Winslow Townson/AP

Philadelphia 76ers guard Markelle Fultz.

We haven't seen him shoot a right-handed jumper since October, and we've had to follow along on Instagram as he traveled back and forth from Philadelphia to Lexington, KY. But from the sound of things, Markelle Fultz is on the verge of breaking back into the Sixers' lineup sometime soon, and we may finally get to see why the Sixers traded up for the No. 1 pick to begin with.

The formal statement from the Sixers follows below:

Fultz is no longer experiencing soreness in his right shoulder and the scapular muscle imbalance is resolved. He will continue ongoing physical therapy and maintenance, while participating in increased strength and conditioning training and elevated on-court basketball activities. The 76ers medical team, in coordination with Dr. Ben Kibler, will gauge his readiness in approximately three weeks.

This more formal update coincides with a briefing provided by Sixers GM Bryan Colangelo on Thursday evening, when he was pressed on the Fultz situation following the Jahlil Okafor trade. Colangelo said then what was made official on Saturday afternoon, telling reporters that the shoulder soreness plaguing Fultz is behind him.

Things are moving along with him. He's progressing well, he continues to focus on the PT and strength & conditioning aspect of the return. The good news is the soreness is completely gone, and the muscle imbalance is gone, but now it's about retraining those muscles, and it's also about getting in basketball condition and kind of reworking a lot of those mechanisms, muscular and otherwise.

It's encouraging to see what we've seen, there's still no timeline on his return, but we anticipate the end is near and he's doing really well.

At the heart of all this is a question Sixers fans still want to be answered: how soon is soon, and when will we see Fultz back in the thick of an NBA game?

My educated guess is we still see this play out in a fairly conservative fashion compared to fan expectations, but you will see Fultz back on an NBA court within about a month or so. After some discussions with people in the know, I am fairly confident Fultz has already been hoisting right-handed jumpers again, and getting him back on the court is a multi-pronged process that will necessitate reps of all sorts. His conditioning, shooting, playmaking, and damn near everything else you can think of will be put through a barrage of tests at the practice facility, preparing him for an eventual return to action. The Sixers' primary goal is to make sure he is ready to hit the ground running. 

Looking at the Sixers' upcoming schedule, the window to keep an eye on is the very beginning of January. The Sixers finish December with a road trip that will take them out west, and they return to Philly for home games against the Spurs and Pistons before heading to London for a neutral-site game against the Celtics. The Sixers have six days between that Pistons game and the Celtics game in London, and then another four days following the London game before they play the Raptors back on American soil.

I would look at that January 15 home game against the Raptors as something of a worst-case scenario date. Fultz will have had over a month's worth of time to get his legs back under him in addition to the time that has already gone by doing physical therapy. Even after subtracting a couple days from the London lull for pure travel and rest, the Sixers have a unique opportunity to get several practices in on consecutive days. That just doesn't happen often during an NBA season, and if Fultz isn't in uniform by that January 15 game against Toronto, we will need some serious answers from the front office.

Perhaps the more pressing question, in my eyes, is what Fultz will look like when he does get back. Will the form on his jump shot look like it did in college, or will we see some weird hybrid that trends closer to what we saw in the little action he was available for? Everyone is obviously hoping it will be the former, but we simply don't know at the moment. On the rare days the media gets to see Fultz on the court at the practice facility, we mostly see him bonding with teammates and goofing around.

From my vantage point, there have been some hopeful signs while Fultz was sidelined. During a stray November shootaround, we did see Fultz gabbing with JJ Redick as his teammate went through some shooting exercises. This was still at a time Fultz hadn't been cleared for shooting right-handed jumpers, but he was using the time to pick the brain of one of his more experienced teammates. Internally, the Sixers remain confident in the quality of the player they selected, from both a character and talent perspective.

But belief will only take you so far. Fultz's return draws ever closer, and we will know soon enough whether his brutal opening stretch was an aberration or a sign of things to come.