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March 27, 2018

Markelle Fultz's return to Sixers' lineup showed what he can add to playoff run

Markelle Fultz had last played a basketball game on October 23, 2017, a time so long ago that it feels as if the Sixers have played multiple seasons since then. There was the December lull, Joel Embiid starting in an All-Star Game, a second-half surge, and the team's first playoff clinch in over five years. It was easy to forget during a lot of that time — okay, some of it — that they had taken a guard with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

On Monday, the prodigal son made his return against the Denver Nuggets. And while he didn't have a perfect game, he did everything in his power to make sure Sixers fans went home dreaming of what's to come.

"It went exactly like I planned," said Fultz after the game. "I was hoping that we got the W, and we got it. That's all I had going into the game."

In 14 minutes of action, Fultz came up with a damn solid line: 10 points on 5/13 shooting, four rebounds, eight assists, and a beautiful +16 for the team while he was on the court. This was not how it went early in the season, when the Sixers had to find a way to compete with Fultz almost completely ineffective. On Monday night, they won in part because he kept the bench offense humming.

A contrast in styles

Since Fultz never shared the floor with Ben Simmons on Monday, we all got a chance to compare how the team ran under their sensational rookie and the draftee just looking to get back in and fit in.

Tempo was the most noticeable difference between the pair. This is only natural — Simmons pushes the pace like few playmakers in the league, while Fultz loves using that unorthodox, hanging dribble to lull defenders into a false sense of comfort. It's one of the great questions facing the Sixers moving forward: how do you blend the styles of your three most important prospects?

For now, that's not much of a concern, and Fultz did an excellent job at blending into the team concept in his first night back. Once he shook off some early jitters with an immediate turnover upon checking in, Fultz got to work creating for his teammates.

The most important one for this writer came early in the second quarter, with Fultz putting in work away from the ball. After catching an entry feed from JJ Redick, he used a dribble to assess the scene and then found Robert Covington lurking on the perimeter, who promptly nailed a three-point shot plus the foul.

Between Fultz and Simmons, the Sixers' ballhandlers came up with a combined 19 assists against just turnovers, a master class in creating shots without taking unnecessary risk.

"To look down and see 35 assists, and to add up those two point guards and look at the turnovers, they passed," said Brown. "We've said from day one the pass is king, everybody loves to play with people who pass the ball ... that's a big number from those two."

Creating while dominating the ball is what's expected from Fultz, and it's what he did at previous levels that prompted the love in his skillset to begin with. It's this sort of play, making quick reads in the offense without having to dominate the ball, that will take him from intriguing prospect to valuable NBA player.

He's not going to post up like Simmons or tear down the court in transition quite like Simmons does, but just having him out there was enough for the guys who have been pulling for him through the process.

"It means a lot, because everybody here sees how hard he works and how much he loves the game and just wants to play," said Simmons. "I think he's great, he has a lot of potential, his pull-up, the way he gets to the rim, [and] the way he can find guys also."

Some of Fultz's best passes of the night ended up getting lost in the shuffle, but he was decisive and accurate when he saw openings in Denver's defense.

Shot creation for his teammates is a big part of why the Sixers traded major draft capital to go up and get Fultz. But he has never been a player in the Simmons mold, focused primarily on passing the ball and getting everyone involved. The assists come as a result of teams fearing his scoring.

Attack mode engaged

Frankly, the Nuggets probably showed a little too much fear in Fultz's scoring capability on Monday night. They played pretty far up on him for most of the evening, rather than daring him to shoot as teams did back in October.

Even still, Fultz played with an attacking mentality that had disappeared from his game during that funky October stretch, and it's that fearless style that made him the player he is and was. When you watched him play at the University of Washington, he looked like a born scorer from the guard spot.

The shooting percentage Monday will tell you that's going to take some time to show itself. But he had no reservations barreling toward the rim, challenging Denver at the point of attack even when it resulted in failure.

All season, Philadelphia has desperately needed another player who can play above the rim while also possessing the dribbling ability to get himself there. Those qualities alone make him an asset, regardless of what else he brings to the table.

"It didn't look like he was hesitant, he got up 13 shots in 14 minutes. I told him our strength people must have done a great job, because you sure looked strong in relation to your confidence shooting," said Brown. "The timing of it, in traffic and the length, that will be something he will evolve to figuring out when is he in a traffic-type jam, but just the fact that he looked to shoot it, made some, it looked fluid, I just loved his confidence at times hunting a shot."

There were two of those shots in particular that sent the Wells Fargo Center into hysterics. With the game out of reach and the crowd doing everything but thrusting Fultz onto the floor themselves, Brown gave his young guard a final cameo in the closing minutes of the game. It was Fultz time from there, and he unleashed a couple of the pull-up jumpers that we'd seen him take in an endless series of shootarounds and pre-game warmups.

It felt downright special to see those jump shots go down and hear the roar of the arena. The 20,000+ fans in the arena cheered when he merely touched the ball, as if they were trying to lift him onto their shoulders and carry him out of the darkness he has been surrounded by.

Philadelphia's stars seemed to feel the same way.

"I feel like I've been going through it with him since he got here, so I was really proud of him and I was excited," said Embiid, one of his best friends on the team, after the game. "My message to him was always about being patient. Come back whenever you feel like, not even just about being healthy, just about being confident."

The concerns for Fultz in his return game were on both sides of the spectrum — either he'd force the issue to overcompensate for missed time, or play too passively and invoke fear over whether he'd actually progressed since October. To his immense credit, he found a way to straddle that line just fine.

Where do we go from here?

On Fultz's side of things, there are still a lot of unanswered questions. Though several reports have come out explaining what has been going on behind the scenes in Philadelphia, the team's public stance has been the equivalent of a shoulder shrug.

Bryan Colangelo came out and addressed the media before the game, and he wasn't interested in offering any more clarity on the cause of Fultz's reported shoulder issue than the team provided previously.

I don’t think we can [identify that] either. It was diagnosed as a scapular imbalance by a well-known expert in Kentucky and the cause is unknown at this stage. We don’t know where it started, when it started, but it was sometime from the time we saw him summer league – when everyone saw that he did not have a shoulder problem and there was no indication there was a problem with his shot – to something that very quickly rose to awareness in late September and early October as we started the season.

We certainly apologize if we have not been clear, but I could not be more clear. We’re not sure when it happened or how it happened, but it happened. And what we’ve seen is a hard-working young man and a hard-working staff that has done everything possible to get him ready for this moment, to get him back out on the court and do what he loves to do, play basketball.

On his end, Fultz doesn't appear interested in clearing things up. Pressed on the cause of the reported shoulder problem, Fultz gave reporters the silent treatment until Sixers PR requested another question. Another question was asked by the Inquirer's Sarah Todd: "Is there a reason you don't want to talk about the injury specifically?" Again, silence from Fultz. 

That was the end of that line of questioning for Fultz, as there was a lot more to focus on and celebrate on the night of his big return. And to be clear, none of the team's regular reporters want to goad him into an answer on any subject that he doesn't want to give.

"I just had a lot of teammates and front office and coaching staff that really supported me while I was going through these times, and I just worked hard every day," said Fultz. "That's all it was."

If Fultz slowly transforms back into the player every professional and amateur scout in the country believed he can be, the causes ultimately will not matter. For once, the results will triumph over the process in Philadelphia.

But we will see in short order whether Fultz is back like Jordan wearing the 4-5, or if the new limitations that hurt him in the fall eventually resurface. In the instances when Denver sagged off him on the perimeter Monday night, Fultz never really thought about taking a three.

The Fultz we saw at the University of Washington would have pulled up for a jumper there with very little hesitation, instead of forcing a pass to a teammate late in the shot clock. In isolation, it's a play that means very little, though it's certainly worth monitoring as his future unwinds before our eyes. An NBA guard can't make a living in 2018 if he doesn't get to the line or shoot threes.

For now, the fans at home and the reporters on the ground — at least this one — can probably agree that it's just good to have Fultz playing real, live basketball again. He is back playing the sport that he loves after undergoing months of hard work with no payoff, beyond what his shot looked like in a Twitter video.

The euphoria may not last any longer than one night. But it was a night to remember in South Philadelphia, thanks to a kid who refused to be counted out and a fanbase ready to shield him from anything the doubters have to say.

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