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May 02, 2018

Stuck on Sixers' bench, Markelle Fultz can only focus on what's within his control

BOSTON — Philadelphia's situation in May 2018 would have seemed unfathomable a year ago. A team this young winning 52 games? Brett Brown inserting himself into the Coach of the Year race? Ben Simmons doing things we haven't seen from a rookie since Magic Johnson, Joel Embiid playing 60+ games and looking even better than he did last season?

Underneath all those positives and all that success is a major storyline — the No. 1 overall pick, the kid you made a deal with a longtime rival to acquire, not being able to even get on the court in a playoff series? It would have seemed just as impossible last June as all the great things the Sixers have accomplished since.

But here we are, with the Sixers preparing for Game 2 of a playoff series, and Markelle Fultz is firmly on the outside looking in. Before Game 1, his on-court warmup consisted of a spirited 2 v. 2 session hours before the game with Furkan Korkmaz, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, and Demetrius Jackson, which should give you an indication of where he is on the priority list right now. This sort of thing doesn't happen for a player the team expects to use.

After Game 1 went way south for the Sixers on Monday, it was only natural for fans to have questions about why Fultz wasn't playing. As the logic goes, if you're going to get your butts kicked to the degree they did in Boston, why not give the kid a chance?

Brett Brown elaborated on the thought process Tuesday afternoon, telling reporters matter-of-factly that there are natural hurdles when trying to bring someone in at the final hour as the team did with Fultz to close the regular season.

"There's also a preparatory timeframe that logically somebody could have, should have, even if they weren't 19," said Brown. "And so I see it as I said it. I've decided to do it because there's continuation of growth of a whole year, there is a little bit of physicality element that we felt in the Miami game. T.J. grabbed his spot and walked it down and won a series, but it's not anything I'm not open to always reviewing."

At Wednesday's practice, it was finally time for Fultz to speak. And while you'd think someone with his pedigree might bristle at being shoved into the background during the most important and high-profile time of the season, Fultz likened his relationship with Coach Brown to a familial bond.

"It's the same thing [between us], just growing me as a basketball player and as a man. Just going with him, we stick together, we talk with each other off the court and just go from there," said Fultz. "[We talk about] everything. Everything, it's almost like having an older brother. We just talk about life, on the court, everything."

The character building and personal side of this dynamic cannot be undersold. When things were at their worst for Fultz in the tumultuous months of the midseason, it was Brown and assistant coach Billy Lange who were tasked with doing pretty much all the developmental work with Fultz on his game, PhillyVoice was told. The effects of such an arrangement are multifaceted — the noise was cut down during a chaotic time of his development, and bonds strengthened between coach and player.

I'm a competitor. Any competitor is going to want to be out there and play... It's just motivation, really, for me to get in the gym and keep working.

That's part of why whenever you hear Brown talk about Fultz, so much of what he has to say is about his character, rather than his basketball aptitude. The team still believes he can reclaim what was once his on the court, and a large part of that belief stems from what they see in him as a human being.

They know, however, that taking him back to his previous heights is more likely to be a long-term project.

"I think he's been unbelievable coachable and unbelievable [in] spirit, these questions we're going through [about playing time], my discussions with him are very brief, it's a fist bump and he moves on," said Brown on Tuesday. "It's setting a stage for sure for next year, and not to discount anything going on now, it's not that at all, don't write that. But I think to talk more about why and how, I understand because of the profile, but I think really in the light of day it shouldn't shock anybody given how we arrived at where we've arrived."

Fultz hears the comparisons to the other top rookies in his class, knows how well guys like Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, and other top prospects in the class have performed. His coaches are certainly aware of it, as is the front office that gave up so much to acquire him. This is a big part of the outcry to play him — as the player he was effectively traded for dominated Game 1 for Boston, how could there not be some feeling of doubt about the future?

The rookie guard claims that's more fuel on the fire, and as he claims to be taking in observations about defense, pushing the pace, and the strategy of the game from the sideline, Fultz knows there's a lot of work ahead of him.

"I'm a competitor. Any competitor is going to want to be out there and play against somebody in their class or even another good player," said Fultz. "It's just motivation really, for me to get in the gym and keep working. I'm a worker, I love this place [the gym]. I come in here and work out every day, grind, and just stay ready."

When you observe just one relationship of Fultz's within the team, that much shines through. He and T.J. McConnell have every reason to butt heads and let animosity grow between them. On one side of the coin is a backup guard who had to fight his way into the rotation over years, only for a kid who missed most of the season to take his role at the final hour. On the other is the No. 1 overall pick, a teenager who worked for months to bring himself back to playing state, only for the incumbent backup to force him back into the background.

I'm a team player, so when they decide to put me in or whenever they call my name, I'm going to be ready. Until then, I'm cheering my teammates on.

But you'd never know the duo is in direct competition, with both guys tormenting one another in the kind-hearted way only family can. They toss balls at each other's shots during shootaround, play haphazard games on 1 v. 1 in warmups, and engage in conversation from the bench during games. Fultz relays that he's there to keep McConnell even keel, knowing his teammate's emotions can hit either end of the spectrum in the heat of battle.

None of this, of course, makes up for the fact that he is contributing nothing on the court. Platitudes about his work ethic and his character aren't going to mean much if Fultz returns next season without a jumper to his name. 

His uncertain future has already created a more difficult decision-making process for his front office in the summer — how do you move forward when you have such an absence of information about what his future looks like? Bryan Colangelo has a hell of a job in front of him and will see the goodwill of this season unravel if this situation keeps getting worse. As he oversees Philadelphia practice at the practice facility in Camden or in the small gym at Harvard University the Sixers have set up shop at, you have to wonder what is going through Colangelo's mind.

For now, that is a concern for a later date. The Sixers have another playoff series to win, and it doesn't seem like Fultz will be part of the effort.

A return to the court in these playoffs seems unlikely and his goals far off in the distance. So until the time is right, Fultz has one thing on his mind.

"It's all up to the coaching staff, and I'm with them throughout whatever," said Fultz. "I'm a team player, so when they decide to put me in or whenever they call my name, I'm going to be ready. Until then, I'm cheering my teammates on."

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