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September 29, 2018

Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons show glimpse of Sixers' future in preseason opener

Few people in the arena were prepared for anything significant heading into Friday night's preseason clash between the Sixers and Melbourne United. With all due respect to the Aussie squad that came a long way to participate in the event, the talent gulf was significant and the outcome never really in doubt. That doesn't make for a sexy story or much of an occasion for fans to turn up for.

Brett Brown injected a little life into everyone with his pregame proclamation that Markelle Fultz would start, and his lengthy explanation let everyone know this look might be here to stay.

"What's the rhythm to how I'm going to play these guys? For me that's as important as anything with the preseason situation, games that we have," Brown told reporters. "I feel like I would rather try stuff like this now, and learn, and feel it out. I'm not married to this, but I certainly hope to continue on if it produces what I think it has a chance of producing. Everything is still fluid, but you need to have a starting point, and this is mine."

The head coach reflected on Fultz's excellent training camp, the professionalism of the man he displaced (JJ Redick) in the lineup, and the wisdom he gathered from Manu Ginobili and Gregg Popovich prior to going through with the decision. But when it comes down to it, this all comes down to one simple reality — the Sixers need to chase a higher ceiling to spar with the Eastern Conference contenders, and the growth of Fultz is the most direct route they can take without external help.

What did we see from Fultz and his running mates against an admittedly weak opponent? Some really positive flashes, and some worrying trends to keep an eye on.

Synergy with Simmons

The jump shot is the first thing that comes to mind if you discuss Fultz, but the Sixers made people forget it could be a potential issue with how they went to work early on. Ben Simmons dominated the ball for a lot of the early going, and when mismatches became apparent for the young Australian in the post, Fultz was happy to collect easy points at the basket.

One of the major concerns floated with regards to the potential partnership was the ability for two supposed "point guards" to coexist together. That's a bit of an archaic way to think about basketball in 2018, but there's some truth nestled in there. How do two perimeter players accustom to dominating the ball coexist, particularly when their jumpshots are both major question marks?

Simmons admitted it didn't come naturally all night as he shook off the rust of the offseason, but that Fultz's style of play makes it easy to incorporate another big piece into the rotation.

"The way he plays the game is unselfish — he can get to the rim, always tries to play the game the right way," said Simmons. "He likes to push the ball, which I love to do, so playing with him is very easy."

"It made everything a lot easier, defense, offense. It felt comfortable. When you have a playmaker like that and a 6-foot-10 point guard, it makes everything easier," Fultz said about playing with Simmons. "You can run the floor and know that you’re going to get the ball if you’re open. And on the defensive end, if your man’s going by, you know that you’ve got a little bit of help with him and Joel. It just made everything a little bit more comfortable for me."

As it did during their long winning streak to close the season, the real benefit of having Fultz back and contributing will come when Brown is able to stagger his playmakers in a way that keeps at least one of them on the floor at all times. The Sixers can build different sorts of lineups around their skills; while both need shooters around them, Simmons' pass-first game is more dependent on having finishers around him, while Fultz is wired to take more of the scoring load himself.

Unfortunately, a hamstring issue for Wilson Chandler limited some of the lineup flexibility the Sixers were expecting to have, so we didn't get to see the diversity we may have otherwise. But the two lead dogs were in sync, with Simmons assisting on four of Fultz's six makes from the field on Thursday night.

And here's the most encouraging part of all — putting another athlete in the backcourt with Fultz's wingspan might pay even bigger dividends on defense, where the duo flashed potential right from the opening tip.

A budding partnership with Embiid

Within the first minute of the game, there was an interesting moment with the core group that would have been a red flag had it held. Embiid had the ball with a bit of space at the top of the key, and Simmons was screaming for the ball in the post, having established a mismatch against Casper Ware. When Embiid decided to settle for a three, Simmons took out his mouthguard and barked at the center for not attacking the obvious weakness.

Without Fultz in the picture, there were two very obvious alpha dogs in stature and skill set. Putting them all on the court at the same time will force them to walk a delicate line of sharing the rock, and this phenomenon is why you see some young teams crumble before they can establish true greatness. There are only so many shots and touches to go around.

But that moment dissipated rather quickly, in large part because Fultz is not waltzing in trying to be a hero. The kid who was a one-man show at Washington constantly looked to create easy shots for his teammates, and Embiid was the beneficiary early and often on Friday, which he acknowledged following the game.

"We've always had a problem as far as when it came to creators. That's what he can do," Embiid told reporters postgame. "I had a couple open shots, easy baskets coming from him, so I was excited and I'm excited for the future." 

So long as opponents respect Fultz's ability (and willingness) to attack, Embiid is going to be the primary beneficiary of Fultz's return. Whether it's out of pick-and-rolls or simply playing fast before defenses can get set, Fultz is going to hunt for opportunities for Embiid.

Embiid probably would have torn Melbourne to shreds either way, but once the defense tightens and the matchups get tougher, the Sixers will thank whatever higher power(s) they believe in that they have another player who can get him easy looks. He poured in 20 on just 11 shots in 23 minutes — not a bad tune-up game.

(And by the way, Simmons and Embiid were jovial throughout the game, laughing with one another both on and off the court. Read nothing into the early testiness beyond it being a sign of Simmons' competitiveness to want to exploit a mismatch.)

A willingness to shoot ... sometimes

First, the good news — Fultz did not shy away from pulling up in the mid-range area, despite a lack of success as a shooter on the evening. Just attempting shots is half the battle for him, and showing enough confidence to let it fly in game is good enough for this writer for the time being. 14 points, four assists and two steals on 6/11 shooting is a stellar start to the preseason.

Here's everything we saw from Fultz the shooter on Friday night (and I left in a clip of him shooting on a play that was blown dead as he was in the middle of going through his shooting motion):

I don't include all the misses as a lowlight reel, but to show a side of Fultz we didn't see much last season. The Sixers will be happy to live with Fultz's misses as long as he is willing to attack like this. The mechanics are consistent, the opportunities he's taking are sensible shots, and his body language is not changing regardless of whether it's a make or miss. Results need to come eventually, but this is yet another important process for the franchise.

If you're looking for a problem, it's that his attempts so far continue to trend toward the areas he was comfortable shooting from last season. We saw Fultz shy away from the three-point line entirely last season, often putting his head down and driving into traffic in spite of considerable space on the perimeter. That ran contrary to his style of play at Washington, where he would hoist anytime and anywhere.

So keep an eye on plays like these if they continue:

If you were expecting UW Fultz to emerge from Drew Hanlen's workshop out of the chute, your expectations might need to be dialed back. Fultz undoubtedly looks better and more confident than he did last season, but evidence of his range will have to wait for the time being. And everyone will suffer if he takes space conceded on the perimeter and rushes into traffic without a plan.

The difference between now and last season? We've seen him working on shots from deep at training camp, and watched him go through brief shooting exercises before the game Friday night. That would have seemed like fantasy at points last year.

Say this much for Fultz's debut — last season's preseason debut against Memphis did little other than create uncertainty and confusion. His performance against Melbourne had the opposite effect, bringing into focus why Brown has decided to make a bet on his talent.

MORE: Brown thrusts Fultz into starting role to kick off preseason

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