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October 02, 2018

Markelle Fultz's three-point shot emerges in Sixers' win over Orlando Magic

Prior to Monday night's game against the Orlando Magic, we had already seen quite a bit from Markelle Fultz if you track back through last season. But even with all he showed (good and bad) as a free-throw shooter, a mid-range marksman, a playmaker, a defender, and so forth, it was hard not to notice the elephant in the room. The kid who had been trigger happy from deep at the University of Washington was downright disinterested in taking threes.

At least he was, until he finally showed a shooter's mentality from downtown on Monday night. It was a sleepy night at the Wells Fargo Center, but Fultz's shooting gave everyone a little life.

"That's it," Brett Brown said of Fultz's willingness to fire away, "that is the thing I've been most pleased with, there is zero hesitance. And there hasn't been from a month. He may not have made all the shots, but he sure didn't back away from any of them."

Fultz's first two attempts from deep were from almost identical spots, one with a defender closing out hard and one with acres of space for him to get his shot off. The difference in his approach was minimal, and he came up with a make on the second attempt that sent the sparse preseason crowd into hysterics.

It would seem ridiculous to make such a big deal about an NBA guard merely attempting a three-point shot in 2018, but Fultz is a special case. We watched as his form deteriorated and became a spectacle throughout his rookie season, and when he finally returned to play during Philadelphia's stretch run, Fultz's work was done almost exclusively in the paint. I've documented his three-point shyness for months, all the way up through a couple duck-ins he had against Melbourne last Friday.

The hardest hurdle has been cleared. Fultz's form is not perfect, the results were not what you'd hope they would be, but the confidence is there. That, more than anything, has been what lacked in his game as he went through this public struggle. 

Of the 12 shots he took against the Magic, only one came on a drive to the basket, the rest consisting of jump shots all over the court. Teams used Fultz's hesitance against him last season, daring him to shoot and more often than not getting him to concede that he wasn't ready to shoot. Look at this clip from a Sixers game against the Pistons last spring, where Fultz vacates the space at the top of the key and cuts down on the space teammate JJ Redick has to operate:

If you compare that to what he did against the Magic on Monday, the difference is night and day. 

Though his first two attempts from deep came from the corner, Fultz attempted two more as the game rolled on. He pulled up for a desperation three as the first half wound down, and more notably he had a play designed for him by the coaching staff in an inbounds situation.

"I put a lot of work in the summer just to be comfortable shooting the threes, shooting my shot, and getting back to being confident in the shots I want to take," Fultz told reporters after the game. "So coming into this game, I feel comfortable taking those shots. When I had the opportunity, I took my shots."

Eventually, it's going to matter what Fultz's percentage is from every spot on the court. The Sixers aren't going to be fortunate enough to play teams like the Orlando Magic and Melbourne United all season, and smart teams (like the Celtics squad they have on opening night) will scheme around the ineffectiveness of Fultz and Ben Simmons as perimeter players. As we saw in the spring, things can go south in a hurry.

But this is progress, annoying as that might be for people who just want to see him knocking down shot after shot when it matters. The work we see from Fultz in pre-game sessions, the expanded shot repertoire in game, and the increased confidence shown by people around him show a kid trending in the right direction.

"He doesn’t care what anybody thinks," Simmons said of his teammate postgame. "That’s how it needs to be just because you need to get out there with a clear head and focus on what you do well and he’s doing that right now. He’s playing great."

Simmons as an off-ball weapon

Concerns remain about Simmons' ability to coexist with Fultz in his current form over the long term. If one or both of their jumpers don't improve, life gets considerably tougher for this group from here, and cramped spacing will cut down valuable breathing space for Joel Embiid in the paint.

One positive in the meantime? Simmons is able to play more of a hybrid role with Fultz in the lineup, switching responsibilities between playmaking and posting up. He's had plenty of experience as a more traditional power forward in the past, and it's already serving him well in this new-look lineup.

Brown's insistence on playing more traditional lineups remains a bit puzzling, but he toyed around with some different looks in Philadelphia's preseason game. One particularly noteworthy grouping was showed off late in the first half, with the Sixers running out Fultz-Redick-Korkmaz-Simmons-Embiid for a stretch.

I'm a little skeptical that would work defensively against a team that actually has its shit together. Still, Simmons took the spacing provided by a smaller lineup and went straight up the gut. He ran a simple give-and-go with Embiid on a possession late in the half, and after powering through Aaron Gordon, all that was left was for his big man to throw a decent lob.

If Simmons isn't going to shoot threes — and he has outright said that's unlikely this season — the Sixers have to find a way to take advantage of his physical talents to produce points. Modern NBA defenses are too good to have players that aren't credible scoring options in some way. And Brown believes harnessing his gifts will be a big part of weaponizing Simmons as a scorer.

"You saw Ben back cut, open space and get to the front of the rim and us rewarded with free throws," said Brown of his pupil's work off-ball. "I think the growth of just the knowledge, like I’m bigger than most, I’m 6’10’’, I’m a hell of an athlete. Finding that part of the core out of our structure, which he does because we run an open post offense, interests me a lot."

Simmons will cut teams up as a passer almost without trying — he had seven dimes in 22 minutes Monday and ceded a lot of ballhandling duty to Fultz — but utilizing his speed and size to get easy paint buckets will be key to making this partnership work.

Dear god, the free throws

The Magic and 76ers were called for a combined 63 fouls on Monday night. If that sounds like a big number to anyone who didn't watch the game, it felt even more preposterous to watch in person.

The NBA is currently going through the usual period of over-reffing that happens when new "points of education" are released by the league prior to every season. This year's major "bright lines" as Brown called them are related to restriction of movement, both on the perimeter and in the post.

From a competitive standpoint, the latter stands to benefit the Sixers a hell of a lot (and the former, too, if Simmons can cash in on what we discussed in the previous section). Embiid already gets a pretty friendly whistle as a star player, and the more clutching and grabbing they call when he's on the block, the more often he'll be at the line as teams creep into the penalty.

But having watched preseason basketball outside of Philadelphia's two games to date — yes, I have a problem — the degree to which these "restriction of movement" fouls are being called is absurd. Averaging over 1.3 fouls called per minute as the officials did Monday does the opposite of what the league is hoping to achieve. Rather than promoting free-flowing, entertaining basketball, the game grinds to a complete stop and becomes borderline unwatchable.

I wouldn't expect this to hold for too long once the regular season begins. Maybe guys adjust and this overcorrection in preseason benefits the product once players are conditioned to grab and pull less.

In the meantime, this stinks.

Landry Shamet gets a chance to earn minutes

Midway through the game on Monday, the Sixers announced Jerryd Bayless was diagnosed with a, "sprain of the posterolateral corner" in his left knee, and would be reevaluated in three to four weeks. Last season, nobody would have batted an eye because he was completely out of the rotation. But Brown had given him a real chance at minutes against Melbourne, and told reporters after that Friday game that he'd had a strong camp so far.

Brown is looking for more of a hybrid player in that backup guard role with Fultz in the picture, and so Landry Shamet got his first chance to be a part of the normal rotation against Orlando. After playing mop-up duty in the first game, Shamet played with all of Embiid, Simmons, and Fultz in his second game as a Sixer.

All things considered, it went pretty well. Shamet scored 12 points on 3/6 shooting (2/4 from three) on the evening, and you saw a glimpse of why the Sixers decided to draft him with one of their first-round picks.

His three-point shooting will be key to carving out a niche, but Shamet has enough tools in his kit to be more than just a floor spacer. Unlike some of the other backups fighting for minutes, the college point guard's handle is functional enough to create separation, and he can shoot both on and off the dribble. Teams respect him from deep, so opportunities to dip inside the arc and hit pull-ups will likely be there.

Not something you want him doing all the time on a team that is already desperate to add more production from deep, but certainly a nice thing to have to keep defenses off balance.

So long as he competes on the defensive end, Shamet's shooting has been good enough so far that he could be ready to contribute sooner rather than later with injury holes in the rotation. He's off to a good start.

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