There are two different questions regarding Markelle Fultz. The first is whether he will ever become a playoff-caliber NBA starter. The second is whether he will ever become the brand of playoff-caliber starter that a team like the Sixers needs to complete its unique young nucleus. From a semantic point of view, that might seem a subtle distinction. But from the point of view of the Sixers' reality on the court, it is nothing less than defining.
On Tuesday, Brett Brown's first extended comments on the matter since June did little to dispel fears that Fultz's rookie tribulations were something other than a surmountable bump-in-the-road. There can be a lot of truth lurking in the omissions, so it's worth noting what we heard versus what we did not hear. We heard that Fultz took 150,000 shots during his summer of work with renowned shot doctor Drew Hanlen. We heard that he has returned to the Sixers' training facility looking more confident, more assertive. We heard that Brown is excited to find ways to utilize Fultz on the defensive perimeter, to experiment with packages for him in the offensive pick-and-roll, to inject the Sixers' rapid ball movement with the off-the-dribble playmaking ability that was sorely lacking during last year's postseason loss to the Celtics.
What we did not hear was any degree of certainty that Fultz will end up occupying the role that the Sixers envisioned for him when they traded up to select him at No. 1 overall in June of 2017. We did not hear that he has been knocking down open looks from three-point range. We did not hear that he is back to being the player he was last summer, when he knocked down six of 16 three-point shots he attempted in three summer-league games and reinforced the Sixers' belief that he could occupy the combo-guard role that will be a necessary component of any offense featuring Ben Simmons as the primary ballhandler.
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"I told everybody, his shot's not going to define him," Brown said. "I'm really interested in integrating him and Ben. He's more of a point guard than he is anything. So how are you going to do that with Ben and Markelle? How are they going to coexist? It's interesting."
It is interesting, because that was never supposed to be an issue. The Sixers did not give up what they gave up for Fultz because of his playmaking ability. They did not do so because of his frame, or his bounce, or his projectability on defense. It wasn't his handle that made him the clear-cut answer on draft day.
Make no mistake, those characteristics were significant assets in the portfolio of traits that led him to be regarded as the consensus No. 1 pick. But the thing that made him a must-have was his ability to shoot the basketball. That was the differentiator. Not only was he the best player available, but he was also the best fit for the lineup the Sixers were going to be running out there. Brown knew the formula for success in an offense that featured Simmons as the primary ballhandler was to surround him with shooters who could space the court and take advantage of the open looks he would generate. The 52 games that the Sixers won last season were a testament to the viability of that formula.
But, at times, they were also a testament to the limitations of the personnel that they had in place. Brown talked about the way the Celtics forced Robert Covington and JJ Redick to put the ball on the floor and create off the dribble during the Sixers' postseason loss. That is where a player with Fultz's expected skill set would have provided a compelling antidote. While Redick and Covington are shooters first and foremost, the Sixers envisioned Fultz as a player who could both space the floor with his ability to knock down a shot from behind the arc and create off the dribble.
The question remains: Has that vision changed?
"No it hasn't, but I understand your question," Brown said. "I mean, it's on all of our minds. The simplest answer would be to grow Markelle's perimeter game. But there is also some excitement that, I think, Ben at times playing at [power forward] is powerful. I really feel and see that. And I share that with both Ben and Markelle. We talk freely. I get the uncertainty of the fit. And I feel like over time we're all going to learn more, but my expectation and anticipation is I'm coming into this real excited to watch it and figure out how to use it best. I understand the concern, I get it completely, but I feel that we have solutions and I feel with time, we're going to be excited seeing some of the things we're seeing. I mean, he really does stuff that nobody else on our team does. I'm reminded of that even as [of] an hour ago, when I left watching him fly up and down the floor."