Fresh off outdueling LeBron James and the Lakers, it finally feels like Markelle Fultz is just getting started
Fultz posted a triple-double as Orlando pulled off a thriller in L.A. on Wednesday
The Markelle Fultz resurrection continues. Finally traded by the 76ers and all but left for basketball dead after seemingly forgetting how to shoot, Fultz has been a revelation with the Orlando Magic. It started with baby steps. Just getting some space to breathe outside Philadelphia in a far-less pressurized environment. People kind of forgot about him. Wrote him off. Out of sight out of mind.
He got back on the court. He started making a few plays. People started noticing how he was able to get to his spots on the court, how strong he was with the ball, how forceful he was in transition, how versatile he could be as a defender, even if his jumper was, and perhaps always will be, a slow work in progress.
It all led to Wednesday night, when Fultz logged a 21-11-10 triple-double and went bucket-for-bucket with LeBron James down the stretch as the Magic stunned the Lakers on the road, 119-118. The NBA regular-season stage doesn't get any bigger than the Staples Center against LeBron, and indeed this may have been Fultz's official reintroduction as a player once again on a potential star trajectory.
You hate to throw Fultz right back into the arena of those expectations, but his play -- if you're paying attention to the nightly signs and not just the highlight games and moments -- is really starting to warrant, if not demand, such optimism. It's not to say he's even close to that level yet. He still has some dud games. Most of the time he's just pretty good, which feels great when being measured against the baseline he'd set in Philly. Scouts who've spoken with CBS Sports have maintained concern about the negative spacing effects of defenses still not having to respect Fultz from range.
But in a sense this is his rookie year -- his first extended time playing with a free mind and body. Already having endured a lifetime of basketball adversity, you forget Fultz is still only 21 years old. He's healthy. Seemingly happy. And he's still wildly talented with an obviously unflappable work ethic and confidence.
The shoulder issue that robbed Fultz, and the Sixers, of his first three seasons in the league might not be fully fixed. Fultz has said he's still aware of it on the court, and indeed there remains a mental element to his recovery. His shooting form from any sort of distance remains relatively cockeyed. But the man is nonetheless balling, figuring out how and where to attack to mitigate the effects of a still unthreatening jumper.
Look at these two moves and finishes with the game on the line and under a minute to play on Thursday. The first one, as you'll see, came right after LeBron had hit a 3 on the other end to trim Orlando''s lead to one. The Lakers had all the momentum. You just knew that LeBron, who finished with 19 points and 19 assists, was going to bully the Lakers to a win after the Magic had led by as many as 21 points in the third quarter.
But Fultz wouldn't let it happen.
Here's another one right through the teeth of LeBron and the Lakers' defense.
Fultz has no fear on the court, and that is really saying something for a player who's been through the things he has. To have not lost his confidence, or even if he did, to have the mental fortitude to regain it, is nothing short of amazing. We throw that word around a lot, but in this case it's appropriate. What he endured mentally over the first three years of his career, with all the weight of being picked No. 1 overall, would break almost anyone.
Almost four years later, it finally feels like Fultz is just getting started.
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