A large chunk of the sales pitch for Markelle Fultz: No. 1 overall pick rested in his extraordinary skills at such a young age. His offensive package ranked among the best we’ve seen in years, and was expected to be what carried him early on as he worked through the usual rookie struggles. In fact, it was the exact reason Bryan Colangelo felt comfortable moving up to select him in the first place.
So you’d be forgiven for wondering why, even briefly, it looked like Fultz is in the process of revamping his shot, one of the most critical components of his overall game.
During a 5-on-5 scrimmage at Wednesday’s training camp session, Fultz got to the free-throw line several times, and it’s what happened when he got there that raised some eyebrows. Using a lower release point, Fultz’s free-throw stroke looked almost like a push shot, getting mixed results at best in the comically small sample. It was so different I thought I was imagining it at first, but side-by-side video spliced together by ESPN’s Mike Schmitz brought the change into focus.
Nothing says “preseason” quite like obsessing over a few free throws during a 15-minute media availability! We haven’t seen Fultz take any jump shots during training camp, and the stroke didn’t necessarily hold up in the aftermath of the scrimmage. Working with the team’s shooting coach at a basket on the far end of the court, Fultz switched back and forth between a couple different shooting motions at the line, each with varying degrees of success.
So a question remained unanswered: is Fultz in the process of radically altering his approach? Though he was an excellent shooter from mid-range (43.8 percent) and three-point land (41.3 percent) at the University of Washington, his free-throw percentage (64.9 percent) lagged. The latter number is important not just because Fultz will make a lot of his money at the line, but because free-throw percentage tends to be a decent indicator of how shooting will translate to the next level.
Perhaps the most interesting thing we learned Thursday is the source of the change. Brett Brown says the adjustments we’ve seen so far are not a product of his staff’s involvement and are mostly Fultz’s doing. Brown told reporters Thursday the changes stem primarily from Fultz’s desire to improve by any means necessary.
“Markelle has made some personal adjustments to his shot since we last saw him in Vegas, we’ve done stuff with him but really he’s been with his personal trainer over the month of August and since Summer League ended,” said Brown. “He chose to look at some different things on his shot, heart’s in the right place, trying to improve. Slowly, we’re coming back into it and trying to recalibrate and get it back.”
This is an interesting revelation because it’s not often you see a prospect of Fultz’s caliber—especially one who shot as well as he did at Washington—choosing independently to make offensive tweaks. The logic is straightforward on staying the course: if the old stroke worked well enough to make him a top high school recruit and No. 1 overall pick, instinct would tell most people to stay with what brought them success to begin with. Maybe that says something about how Fultz is wired compared to many of his peers, and how his rise from his high school JV team has informed his approach to development.
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Fultz himself downplayed the importance of the experiment we’re watching unfold before our eyes, insisting he has been doing light tinkering more than he is committing to any radical changes to his game.
“It was just something going on where I wanted to try something new, but my free throw’s going to look the same as college. I’m just trying to look at different ways to see how the ball can go in the hoop,” said Fultz. He stressed that his primary point-of-emphasis has been on getting ready for a deeper three-point line, and improving his proficiency as an off-ball threat. “This is a further three, so just [getting ready to] catch-and-shoot. You’ve got great people here—Ben, JJ, everybody—so you’ve got to be ready to catch-and-shoot whenever you’re open.”
We won’t really know what the end product will look like until we see Fultz get some run in an actual game, and our first glimpse will come next Wednesday’s preseason game against the Memphis Grizzlies. His coach doesn’t seem to be worried either way and says he’s much more encouraged by Fultz’s development in other areas than he is concerned about a few free throws.
“You see his shot in Vegas or back in college, and his percentages revealed that he’s a more than capable shooter,” said Brown. “I think right now him trying to figure out how to not overcomplicate things, and maybe sort of make over something that didn’t need to be made over as much as he might have thought, is a challenge. I think what he’s doing defensively, and running a team, and what he’s doing in a middle pick-and-roll, probably stands out more than what we’re talking about there, but I hear you, it’s something we’re all aware of and trying to help him [with].”
In a trio of Brown, Fultz, and myself, I am certainly the least qualified to say what the 19-year-old prodigy should do with his shot mechanics. But if Markelle is accepting any advice, the message would be quite simple: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.