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October 15, 2017

The pros and cons of Markelle Fultz coming off the bench

Sixers NBA

Take yourself back to a time many losses ago, to the end of the 2015 NBA season. Having watched all sorts of terrible guards run the Sixers over the last couple seasons, you are suddenly sent an encouraging message from your future self. The 2017 Sixers will have drafted a guard with the No. 1 overall pick, future you tells you, and he's a player considered by many scouts to be the best talent in his class. 

But imagine your confusion when that comes attached to a disclaimer: Jerryd Bayless is starting over him. That's the exact news Sixers fans received on Sunday, when Brett Brown told reporters at Sixers practice that Markelle Fultz would start his season on the bench.

"I don't believe so," Brown said of Fultz starting in the opener against Washington. "He hasn't played much basketball in preseason, he's been out for a while, he hasn't been with our group. I think the decision, like you'd put him into the fire, right away having him play against starting NBA defensive players, especially with the little foundation that he has, I don't think that's smart."

That's not an entirely unreasonable sentiment, though the move will generate a lot of discussion around the city. Remember, as recently as four months ago, the Sixers saw a player who was valuable enough to trade what's likely to be a pair of top-five picks for the right to select him. Now, he'll be one of just three healthy rookies since 2003 who did not begin their rookie seasons as starters. The other two guys? Andrea Bargnani and Anthony Bennett.

Before we go declaring the kid a bust, however, there are two sides of this coin. There are justifiable reasons for Fultz to start behind Bayless on the depth chart, even if Sixers fans will hope that doesn't last for long. Let's walk through this together.

PRO: Fultz finds his legs against second-unit players

This is the obvious benefit to point to from the jump. Fultz has a much steeper hill to climb than fellow rookie Ben Simmons, who had an entire year to figure out what it means to be part of an NBA program. That includes working with trainers full-time, adjusting your diet, but also things the average person doesn't think about that are part of the NBA lifestyle. During training camp, Simmons himself admitted that items as small as where to sit on a team flight are now second nature to him.

Fultz doesn't have any of that experience, so he's going to take longer to adjust to the NBA competition level. That's not any knock on him because, despite the erratic nature of his preseason, he has already looked like he belongs. Moments after checking into the team's away game against the Boston Celtics, Fultz took it to the rim immediately, beating Terry Rozier around a screen and absorbing contact from Aron Baynes en route to a three-point play.

On the very next offensive possession, Fultz got a head of steam going and sucked in Boston's defense with his drive. That opened up the rest of the floor, and the rookie guard wound up finding a wide open Dario Saric in the process.

Coming off the bench to start, Fultz will get to deal with a lot more players of the Rozier caliber, instead of having to hit the ground running against Kyrie Irving, John Wall, and other star-level guards in the East. The Sixers want him to compete with those guys over the long-term, but the long-term is what matters here. If he needs a couple weeks of adjusting to NBA tempo before being asked to start, fine. He's going to get major minutes no matter what.

CON: Decrease in developmental time with Ben Simmons

Fultz and Simmons are still going to get plenty of time together, regardless of whether they actually start the game on the court. But the overlap will be minimized if the lineups are staggered in this way, and that's not a good thing for the team's future plans.

The Sixers might be talking as if they can be a playoff team this year, but a playoff push is not the most important thing for them to accomplish this season. Right below the No. 1 item, "keeping everybody healthy," developing Fultz and Simmons as a pairing should be the entire focus of the season.

Part of the supposed value in trading up for Fultz was in his smooth fit alongside Simmons, and while their skill sets still seem like a match, figuring out how to share the steering wheel of the offense is not going to be easy. On top of adjusting to NBA life, it appears Fultz is going to have to make the bigger adjustment to his game, because in the majority of action we've seen them play together, Simmons was the dominant ballhandler at almost all times.

That's not a bad thing for the team because Simmons is clearly talented enough to run the show. But it does change things for Fultz, who is used to dominating a lot of the ball and making the reads Simmons will mostly be in charge of. As a result, Fultz will have to focus even more on scoring than he has previously, learning to exist as more of an off-ball player. The Sixers need to see a lot more of this:

That sort of thing is not going to happen magically or with the two players working with different units. The more Fultz plays without Simmons, the more he'll remain comfortable playing the way he has always played. That's good for Fultz personally as he gets up to speed, it just might not be ideal for what they need to build to be a title contender down the line.

It takes years for elite players to build chemistry when there are role and style overlap. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade went to the NBA Finals in their first year together in Miami, but it wasn't until Wade took a step back and changed the way he played that the Heat took off. Growing pains can't and should not be avoided because they're necessary to reach the team's end goals.

PRO: The Sixers can start the year with a dominant second unit

During the darkest days of The Process, depth was a massive problem for the Sixers. Their starting units were not exactly blowing the doors off teams, but the cavalcade of D-League players and raw, unskilled athletes coming off the bench consistently got crushed by other teams.

The Sixers no longer have that problem. Fultz would have been on an island by himself had he arrived in Philadelphia just two years ago, but now he'll play alongside the likes of Saric, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, and competent, professional big men like Amir Johnson and Richaun Holmes. Frankly, that's a lot better than the situations a lot of rookies are dealing with as starters, and they have more than enough talent to give the Sixers a real second unit, something they haven't had for at least a half-decade.

I already argued to the contrary from the long-term perspective, but giving Fultz the keys as the primary ballhandler off the bench is good for him and the team right now. He will be the focal point of the offense, the guy always coming back for the ball and looking to attack. Those instincts might get him into trouble alongside Simmons, but with the space to run the second unit, he'll thrive.

CON: He'll play with lesser shooters (and worse-fitting players) than he would as a starter

All due respect to the other players coming off the bench with Fultz, but the team's three best shooters — and arguably their fourth in Joel Embiid — will be in the starting lineup. Floor spacing is important for any guard to succeed, even one who was as talented a shooter as Fultz was in college.

This will be heavily dependent on how Brown staggers his rotations, but the best-case scenario will see Fultz jumping into the action for the tail-end of the minutes of JJ Redick, Robert Covington, and Jerryd Bayless. As far as you can tell from preseason action, the primary backups for Redick and Covington are Luwawu-Cabarrot and Justin Anderson, neither one of whom are anything close to reliable shooters yet. It should go without saying, but there's a serious difference between playing with one of the greatest shooters of all-time and a couple of raw athletes.

Jahlil Okafor's presence also complicates things here. In theory, the young center may eventually find his calling as a second-unit big that eats other backup centers alive in the post. That is a reasonable enough expectation for someone with his individual offensive talent.

The problem is that Okafor's strength is as an offensive centerpiece in a four-out offense, not necessarily as the fulcrum of a modern, efficient NBA offense. That presents a problem for players like Fultz (and Simmons for that matter), who need an active big man in the pick-and-roll, the type of guy who will make good contact on opposing guards and dive hard to the rim. That's just not Okafor's game, and his instinct to set up shop in the paint complicates life for Sixers guards trying to penetrate and kick.

The final verdict

What we can't say yet is if this means anything beyond a short-term fix. Fultz has had one of the weirder preseasons of any No. 1 pick in recent memory, with a lot of the conversation about his play focusing on his bizarre free-throw form.

If this is as simple as Brown wanting to ease in Fultz early after he missed time that could have been spent building chemistry with his teammates, that's one thing. This just isn't something that should last beyond the opening stretch, because they need him up to speed with the other core pieces as soon as humanly possible, health permitting.

For the diehards who are worried Brown might be losing sight of the development process for the sake of chasing a few extra wins, the coach did offer more insight into how he'll handle Fultz, and he is aware they need the young guard on the floor early and often.
The balance of development and winning is a slippery slope. He hasn't played basketball, and he's really had an erratic preseason, from training camp to playing games. And so how we are fair in delivering him to an NBA court and situations that I put him in, and the volume of minutes he gets, with the notion he's the first player chosen, we understand the microscope, the pedestal he's on. But the reality with all those other things that I just said, is also my responsibility to figure it all out, and ultimately you've got to play and develop him and take some hits, so he can grow with us. If we've seen anything we've seen that over the last few years, how people have a better chance at development.

If balancing winning and development means pulling Fultz if he dogs it with effort or pays little attention to defense, Sixers fans can get on board with that approach. Where Brown would lose fans (and myself) is if we see Fultz on the bench in late-game situations, during crunch-time moments that will help prepare his core group deep into the playoffs one day.

Having seen how Brown manages his players and empowers young guys, I'd bet on him trending toward the former. The Sixers having the luxury to bring him along slowly is a good thing, even if it does provide us all with fodder for debate before the season even begins.