October 22, 2017
We could sit here and talk about the Sixers putting on a pretty embarrassing effort against the Toronto Raptors on Saturday night. We could also talk about the return of Jahlil Okafor to the lineup, Ben Simmons putting up historic numbers in his first three games, and certainly about Joel Embiid's availability and minutes load.
But something hit me about halfway through the third quarter of Saturday night's game against the Raptors. How are you supposed to focus on big-picture problems and solutions when the No. 1 overall pick, the player you made a trade with a hated rival to obtain, has stopped taking the shots that made him such a dangerous offensive player?
The "stopped taking" part of that sentence can't be stressed enough. Were this a case of Fultz missing shots, people would be up in arms, but it could at least be explained on some level. Where we're at now would have been unfathomable a few short months ago. He's going through the usual rookie growing pains at the moment, inconsistent as you might expect. The only consistent thing is the absence of a scorer's mentality.
It is fair to say this is having an impact on Fultz's offensive ability, and the team's entire offense as a result. There have been times when the offense has generated wide-open looks for Fultz. Take the play below, for example:
There's not even a consideration to shoot. In his mind, you can tell he is going to dribble the second it hits his hands, and the defense reacts accordingly. Dario Saric ends up getting fouled, but what should have been a simple shot attempt turned into a risky play in traffic. What's more, with the audio feed from the game, you can hear at least one or two of his teammates bark, "Shoot!" as soon as he gets the ball, as if trying to will him into making a play that used to come naturally.
Later in the game, we see the same sort of play from a different spot on the court. Fultz's head never looks up at the rim even for a second, and the dump-off is all but assured.
Those are the obvious ones. But if you watched Fultz play at Washington and are familiar with what is (or at least used to be) his style of attack, you know he was a threat to pull up from anywhere, and he used a variety of off-balance shots and finishes to exploit small cracks in defenses. He hunted his shot, more or less. The degree of difficulty on this one, for example, is off the charts:
And that was from three-point land! Now, when Fultz has a reasonable amount of space from mid-range, he is suddenly shy about letting it fly, refusing to even look up for a teardrop attempt on this penetration.
Without belaboring the point with a dozen video clips, you see that Fultz is passing up good opportunities to score and not creating better opportunities after doing so. The Sixers have better offensive pieces this season, no doubt, but no NBA team has the luxury of just being able to forfeit good shots on a routine basis.
If there's any silver lining to all this, it's that the coaching staff has recognized it needs to let him play a bit differently than they'd originally planned. Early in preseason, we saw Fultz starting alongside Ben Simmons, with the latter doing most of the heavy lifting as a ballhandler. They continued down the same path when Fultz got moved to the bench, placing Fultz off the ball with TJ McConnell at the helm of the second unit. On paper, it was a move meant to prepare Fultz for his future alongside Simmons.
It looks like the coaching staff is already rethinking that plan. Brett Brown made some major adjustments to the rotation against Toronto, bringing Fultz in later in Saturday's fourth quarter and putting him in control of the offense. With the ball in his hands, you can see what the Philadelphia brain trust did (and does) in the young guard. He doesn't quite get enough separation with his spin move here, but this is an excellent lefty finish at the basket.
Though the shot is a clear problem, his decisiveness overall hasn't been. He wastes no time splitting the two defenders on this second quarter pick-and-roll, forcing the defense to take a foul instead of letting him blow by.
Fultz is not the elite-level passer Simmons is, but he is certainly an above-average playmaker at this stage of the game. Frankly, this is another play you'd sort of like to see him shoot on, but the creative instincts are on point. He gets DeMar DeRozan to bite on a pass fake, ducks in after crumpling DeRozan, and then hooks a nice feed into Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, who ends up botching the finish.
Fultz's stat lines have been messy in the early going, and the game against Toronto was no exception. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder here: either you can be thrilled he got to the free-throw line eight times, or livid he only made 4/8 while there. He's not scoring at anywhere near the rate he needs to be, but he is finding himself in the right positions more often than not, whether he's cutting off-the-ball or dribbling past defenders.
If you ask five different people on or around the Sixers, you'll get a unique explanation for the change in his game from each one. Whether out of truth or just a desire to create confusion, people believe it's a bum shoulder, having "the yips" over a new shooting motion, both those things, or none of the above. Every so often, there will be a glimmer of hope in the form of a Fultz pull-up — albeit from about 12 feet out — when it feels like a dark cloud is being lifted.
And yet it's impossible to erase the image of that ugly free-throw stroke and the passed up shot opportunities. It makes it hard to appreciate the little things in his game, let alone what's happening with the rest of his team. I wouldn't bet against a talented kid like Fultz getting his head back on straight, but it looks like that's a long way from happening right now.