“Embiid will never be healthy.”
“Saric isn’t coming over.”
“The Process… Tanking… it doesn’t work.”
“Fultz is a bust, he isn’t coming back this season.”
*cue the Jason Kelce meme*
I can already hear the deep Central African accent of Embiid rattling off those quotes on the Art Museum steps — a la Kelce — when the team celebrates their eventual parade.
Until that sweet moment, I continue to savor the small ‘I-told-you-so’ victories along the way.
In case you missed it, Markelle Fultz played in last night’s win for the first time since being shut down in late October; something many emphatically stated wouldn’t happen. But most experts who spoke in disdain toward The Process — which is most of them — have adapted to the taste of foot in their mouth at this point, and Fultz return is just the latest example of that.
With the team clinching a playoff spot and on pace for 50 wins it almost feels arrogant to keep rubbing the success of The Process in face of the legions of doubters. Then I recall how no mercy was spared in our direction during the 10-win campaigns and say forget that; if you doubted The Process not only are you wrong, you’ve exposed yourself as a simpleton.
But rest assured, if at any point in the last five seasons you found yourself uttering any of the phrases listed above, I forgive you, and it’s time to move on.
The Sixers are for real and headed to the playoffs for the first time since 2012. As if things couldn’t get any better, Markelle Fultz is healthy and contributing to a revamped second unit that now produces among the top benches in the league.
The team could potentially host a first-round playoff series — combine that with the increasingly favorable Eastern Conference playing field and the Sixers are quietly creeping into contention. Throw the number one overall pick in last year’s NBA Draft into the mix and that conversation naturally intensifies.
What does Markelle Fultz availability mean for the Sixers?
Last night he was used as the primary ball handler for the second unit and flashed his dynamic skillset and ability to fill up a stat sheet.
Fultz produced 10 points, 8 assists, & 4 rebounds over 14 minutes of playing time. That’s pretty solid production considering it being his first live game action in months and just his fifth game as an NBA player.
The most promising sight of the night came in the final minutes of garbage time when Fultz hit a pair of jumpers — the second from roughly 18 feet and all nylon. Both shots showed his feathery touch and refined mechanics; while critics will point to a slight hitch in his motion, it’s become night and day from the dreadful form he haunted us with in the beginning of the season.
What I saw last night was a player who’s jump shot is respectable enough to keep defenders honest — which is all someone with his quickness, handle, and craftiness needs to get consistent separation.
Above all, Fultz presence gives Brett Brown more lineup and rotation versatility. As it stood, the teams’ bench has a facilitator in McConnell, a big in Illyasova, and a scoring wing in Belinelli; and Fultz only adds on top of that. Not only is he a ball-handler/ play maker like TJ, but he has the ability to finish at the rim that TJ lacks.
Beyond what he brings off the bench offensively, Fultz could very well be the best defensive guard on the roster. Reddick, Bayless, and TLC are black holes defensively, and while McConnell is solid on that end of the floor he gets torched by the leagues quicker players. RoCo and Simmons have proven they can defend guards at a high level, but having them defend 1s and 2s rather than forwards forces other players in the lineup to defend down a position — which is far from ideal.
Fultz defensive ability isn’t discussed often because of his offensive skillset, but his above average athleticism combined with great size (6 foot 5’’ with a wingspan over 7 feet) makes him capable of harassing any guard the league throws at him. For all the hype that his potential offensive contribution will get, I think it’s the defensive end of the floor where he could make his presence felt.
If you follow the Sixers you know that they’re very conscious of the fact that their guards are a defensive liability, and Fultz return could go a long way in helping that problem.
For now it looks like he’s filling the backup point guard role to Ben Simmons, which leaves him with roughly 12-16 minutes per night. Last night BB kept Simmons in the game with Belinelli, McConnell, Illyasova, and Amir halfway through the first quarter, presumably to allow him to play Fultz with the other four starters when he put them back in the game at the end of the quarter. That type of rotation allows Fultz to play with a group that will elevate his game while Simmons is the perfect player to elevate the bench.
I know it’s only one game, but Fultz can score, pass, and defend at a high level and I almost forgot the type of immediate impact he could have until he reminded us last night. His role doesn’t need to be huge for him to make a difference and — jumper or no jumper (but it looks like he has a jumper) — his return to the lineup is a luxury and a boost to a team that is hitting it’s stride at the right time.