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January 17, 2018

Brett Brown opens up on what Markelle Fultz is showing behind the scenes

Practice footage of Markelle Fultz has quickly become the second-hottest ticket in town behind the Philadelphia Eagles. We get no more than 10 minutes of public Fultz access per practice, and the 5-10 noteworthy clips that make their way to Twitter are dissected for days on end.

We've sort of done this routine to death, so at Philadelphia's practice on Wednesday afternoon, I had a different question on the brain than, "What does Markelle Fultz look like shooting a basketball?" For me, the increasingly interesting question is, "What will Markelle Fultz look like when he's actually in uniform?"

Brett Brown's answer may not have come with a highlight reel, but it did paint a picture of the role Fultz is being asked to assume in team scrimmages.

The last maybe five practices, he is the backup point guard. I give him the ball — TJ doesn't have the ball Markelle has the ball — and we play. I coach him like I coach Ben Simmons. We run plays and we run our structure and so on. And he looks good! You can see why he was the first player chosen; stuff he does with the ball, his ability to get in the lane and find people, [and] the hesitancy at times we see with his shot is true, it's real.

He can still impact an NBA game without having to shoot, he really can an impact an NBA game without having to shoot. That doesn't make him whole though, it doesn't make him whole. And finding what the next step is, where he can go into an NBA game and feel more whole than he currently does, is the timeline of okay, when does he go play?

It would have been expected for Fultz to be on the second unit to start after all these bumps in the road, though it's interesting to have McConnell away from the ball given their respective "strengths" coming into the year. Fultz is going to have to excel in an off-ball role over time in order to be the best player he can possibly be and the best fit next to Ben Simmons he can be. For now, it appears the coaching staff wants to put him in situations that remain comfortable for him.

For all the concern over Fultz's shot — and it is absolutely justified — we did see some flashes of what Fultz can bring to the table during his brief period of availability at the beginning of the season. He was not a threat to shoot and yet he continued to probe teams with his unorthodox handle, weaving in between defenders to get good looks for his teammates.

If they're dead-set on getting him out there, they need to empower that part of his game as much as possible in the absence of a reliable three-point shot.

Nothing can duplicate the stakes of an actual game, but for whatever time he has him out there at practice, Brown is doing his best to simulate game pressure for Fultz. His free-throw stroke, which was the red flag that led to this spiral of insanity starting in training camp, has been tested by the coach early and often.

"Today, six times I put him to the free throw line, and say hey Markelle,  you make it you keep it, you don't it's the other team's ball, [the score] is 91-92. And he goes 5/6 and he looked good doing it," said Brown. "Trying to create pressure situations, give him the ball, integrate him with our team, the stuff you ask that what do we see that you don't see, is that. I've seen it now for maybe five practices, I believe."

Fultz's free-throw form is far from perfect, but there's not even a comparison between what it looked like in October and what it looks like now. The form is consistent, if a little legless, and is nothing like the monstrosity that became a national talking point.

For reference, here's what it looked like in the fall:

And here's what it looks like now:

This is a fairly big deal as it pertains to Fultz being a passable player while his jumper remains absent. Fultz didn't avoid attacking the basket altogether — he couldn't with the way he was playing — but there was hesitation to play with the scorer's mindset he showed off constantly as an amateur prospect. 

In the beatdown the Raptors handed Philly early in the season, Fultz had every reason to play free and attack with reckless abandon. Instead, he got to spots he'd normally shoot from and recycled the offense.

Trust in your free-throw form always tends to empower players to attack; just look at Simmons' willingness to go to the bucket the last few weeks as proof of that. It's not going to make up for his missing shot by any means, but it will at least give him a realistic avenue toward offensive contribution.

As for when he's going to offer that contribution, your guess is as good as mine at this point. Fultz has stayed out past the dates I thought were hard cutoffs, and every time we ask the team about it there is a vagueness returned in kind. One thing is certain: the recent injury to JJ Redick won't impact his return to play. Brown insisted Fultz's return would not be tied to the availability of the vet shooter or any other player.

"I think it's more [he'll be ready when he's ready]. I think this doesn't shove anybody into a place that is rushed or expedited because of JJ. We see the world with a far longer lens as it relates to Markelle," said Brown. "It doesn't influence an anxiety on anybody's part to push him back any sooner than he should be."

If you're in the camp of people who just wants Fultz back out there, repercussions be damned, that won't be what you wanted to hear. Patience is running thin on his absence, and it deserves to be. The Sixers have been stringing fans along with three-week qualifiers for the better part of three months now. Enough is enough.

But until they decide to speed up that IV drip of information, this is the best we have. Even the shooting videos are slowing down, with the Sixers running Fultz through drills that are more passing and finishing focused during Wednesday's media availability.

The mystery continues for at least another day. Everyone thought the weirdness in Sixers world was finally over, but they have saved the most ridiculous chapter for last.