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January 14, 2018

Markelle Fultz's shot still looks and sounds like a huge concern

The Sixers have been hinting at a Markelle Fultz return for most of the last month. Through press releases and internal discussions with team personnel, optimism tends to be the overarching theme.

But frankly, we've reached a point where we need to see something tangible in order to justify that sense of positivity. Fultz's shooting has been erratic at best from what the media has been able to see the last couple weeks, and during Sunday's afternoon session at the practice facility, the biggest peek at long-range shooting we've gotten so far was not at all encouraging.

During the brief window of practice open to the media, Fultz was working on the far court with Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Justin Anderson, participating in a one-on-one drill where a defensive stop earned you the ball and the right to attack on the next possession. At different points of the drill, the players were limited to two dribbles, in effect forcing them to either shoot early or attack the rim with reckless abandon.

It's the sort of drill — and frankly, the sort of opponents — you would have expected Fultz to dominate coming out of college. But the Fultz we saw at UW still hasn't shown up yet and the missing jumper has made these sort of drills difficult for him to thrive in.

The only positive sign so far is that Fultz has been willing to take jumpers, which he abandoned altogether in the early part of the year. Unfortunately, the form is clunky and inconsistent and his shots landed all over the place as a result.

If it were a case of Fultz front-rimming or back-rimming shots, it would be a little easier to give him the benefit of the doubt. But his shots were all over the place, caroming off the backboard, side-rim, or missing the basket completely. Even when his form was a little smoother, those qualifiers remained in place.

With lots of other stuff going on between the two courts, Fultz's shooting was the only topic on anyone's mind when we spoke to Brett Brown following practice. And he didn't pull any punches when asked about the status of Fultz's shot.

"How would I assess where his shot is currently at? It's not where it used to be," said Brown. "It's not where it used to be. His free-throw I think is, but some of the longer shots and the rise-ups are not, and that's just part of him getting through this progressive adjustment, trying to figure out the injury going forward."

The health note was one Brown elaborated on further, and he was pressed on the subject after bringing it up. Despite the team claiming he was 100 percent healthy on December 9, Brown offered some wiggle room on the subject on Sunday.

"I don't know if we could say it's 100 percent, the doctors could say that better than me, but it certainly is getting better, enough where they've allowed him to practice and shoot threes and pretty much do everything that the team does. I believe there is still discomfort, but I don't know the percentage of recovery on the shoulder."

If it were as simple as being a health thing, no one rational would blame the Sixers for shutting him down. But Brown seemed to contradict the suggestion of it being health-related moments later, when he was asked whether Fultz needed to be "100 percent" to be able to return to game action.

"I think what he needs to be is able to shoot a basketball. I don't know what percent we're going to apply that comment, but he needs to feel he can go and shoot a basketball," said Brown. "To just render it that the free throw is pretty good, and it is, and to only go that far without talking about some of the other pieces, is not what we are looking at, and I know he isn't looking at that."

In the span of about 90 seconds, Brown went from saying he didn't know if his rookie was 100 percent to throwing out the percentage in favor of progress on the jumper. Without saying as much, it seems clear the coach believes it's not health holding back Fultz.

Yet he pivoted again shortly afterward, claiming Fultz could still be dealing with some shoulder soreness.

"I think there still is some [discomfort] from time to time, and he would be able to answer that better, but it's my understanding that there is," said Brown. "I think that's part of recognizing there's still some sort of erratic shooting that it's not where it used to be, yet. And I hope everybody writes that 'yet."

To Brown's point, there were certainly some shots where he looked more comfortable and fluid in getting up his shots. As you've seen in previous footage, Fultz has had some success on short pull-ups and looks to be the most confident in that area of his shooting repertoire. 

But the Sixers didn't draft him to kill teams with 10-footers, and they damn sure didn't trade a high-value pick to a rival franchise for a guard who wasn't going to shoot beyond the painted area. They already have a guy who lives in the paint in Ben Simmons, and at least he's big enough to realistically overcome the lack of a jumper.

We will all continue to wait on a formal explanation on what happened here, or a timeline for Fultz's return. If he's shooting like this, it's hard to imagine him being able to help the team much, and he'll be ridiculed by the general public on an unfathomable level.

Nobody in the city wants to see Fultz go through this, and he's a nice, approachable kid who seems to still have a good bond with his teammates. Do not write him off just yet. But perhaps put your hopes for him on hold for the time being, because it's looking like a full offseason might be necessary to get his shot back on track.

UPDATE: For those who want a clearer version of what reporters witnessed at practice, here's every clip I got of Fultz on offense during the Sunday session. I did not film his work on defense or when he was at the free-throw line, and it should be noted the latter looks much better than it did when we last saw him play.

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