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January 07, 2018

Markelle Fultz returns to full-court, five-on-five basketball at Sixers practice

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A timetable for Markelle Fultz's return to the court remains elusive. But for those searching for any sign of a Fultz comeback, the Sixers provided a notable update on Sunday afternoon: their No. 1 pick is back on the court and playing full-contact, five-on-five basketball.

Brett Brown was excited to share the news with reporters following Sunday's practice, detailing the extent of the work Fultz was available for.

He didn't go through the full practice today, but he went through the large majority of it. Anything that had transition defense, or playcalls, or slides, or passing drills, he went through the whole thing with relation to me having the ability to do whatever I wanted ... played five-on-five, [got] up and down the floor, in a more detailed, lengthy way. I think that's the thing that stands out the most, that he was just more available to do some things that he had been less available to do in the past.

It was the first time since the team said his shoulder returned to 100 percent on December 9 that Fultz has been able to participate in team activities to that degree. The speed of his progress also appears to be ramping up rather quickly, as Fultz was only involved in halfcourt four-on-four drills as of last Tuesday.

Fultz is set to travel with the team to London, and while Brown would not completely rule out a return during their overseas trip, he does not personally believe Fultz will play in Thursday's game against the Celtics. But this trip is unique in that NBA teams do not usually have this much time to practice in between games during the season. There will be no better time to get him up to speed in a fullcourt context.

He has been missing from team activities for quite a while now, but his coach was encouraged by what he has seen out of Fultz so far. The rookie's ability to create separation with his handle is a skill the Sixers have needed badly all year, and Brown says that's no less evident in a practice setting.

I thought [the fundamentals] looked good. I thought his rise up looked pretty good, he didn't shoot any threes, but that skill that he has connects the dots and when you don't have it you realize even more. He can create a shot for himself, he can create a shot for others, he's got a lot of wiggle to his game. That was different, he's different than all of our players. To watch him play in that environment and really wind him up defensively — because he's got a long wingspan — was to me the positive of the day.

Of course, none of this means anything if it's all talk. We don't actually get to see much of what the players do during media availability. By the time we get access to the court, most players are going through shooting drills, working on free throws, or engaging in some friendly banter with their teammates. There will be no way of knowing what Fultz looks like in a game until he's out there under the bright lights, showing what he can (or can't) do against other NBA teams. 

We have to simply take the Sixers at their word, and that's not always a comforting feeling. There have been bits and pieces of Fultz footage, and his free throws look a hell of a lot better than they did earlier this season. But the Sixers didn't trade up for the No. 1 pick just to get a player who is passable at the free-throw line.

While the rest of us wait for real evidence that Fultz is capital-b Back, the Sixers just sound happy to have him integrated with the squad once again. It will bring no solace to the fans who want to see him hitting step-back jumpers, but Brown places a premium on the simple idea of having him around to work with.

He's good people, he's got a very charismatic way that he engages with the team and coaching staff. We're all with him, he's ours. We understand the responsibility to grow him and help him navigate a very unusual introduction to an NBA season. So to have him back with us and have him be a part of me and the team, it was a great thing to have him compete and sweat and be around teammates.

As for the rest of us, something more than competition and sweat would be appreciated. A return to five-on-five basketball is critical, now let's see it with Fultz in a Sixers jersey.