76ers

Head or shoulder? Markelle Fultz saga more confusing every day

Head or shoulder? Markelle Fultz saga more confusing every day

February is quickly approaching and still no hint of when Markelle Fultz will again play in a game for the Sixers. If you forgot he actually did play in real games for the organization, you are forgiven. He suited up and got minutes in the team’s first four games. The last time he played was Oct. 23. The Eagles beat the Redskins that Monday night, 34-24. It was Week 7.

The rookie No. 1 overall pick was then shut down — or shut himself down, depending on what you want to believe — with shoulder soreness. More than three months have gone by and we’re no closer to any kind of answers than we were then. At first, the overly cautious organization did not deem his injury severe enough to sit him down. As witnessed by his playing in those first four games. But then Fultz's agent went public and suddenly the shoulder was bad enough that he was shut down.

There have been updates along the way and hints that he was close. Video from practices of him driving to the basket, making layups. Then more recently when we got to see him launching jumpers, and his shot still looked funky and ugly, as seen in this video posted by Jon Johnson from WIP on Jan. 25.

So there are two conclusions to be drawn. Either his shoulder is still not healed and that is causing his shot to look strange. (Keep in mind, the Sixers put out a release in early December saying he no longer had soreness and the scapular muscle imbalance had healed.)

Or door No. 2, his shoulder actually is fine and it’s a psychological issue. In layman’s terms, he has a case of the yips.

I’m no doctor, I have no access to Fultz's medical records and I have not had a conversation with him or team doctors regarding the injury. But I have suspected all along that this entire issue was in his head, not his shoulder.

So why is he still not playing? Conditioning? That release was issued more than six weeks ago. His shot clearly is a mess. My theory is he either decided to change his shot for some unknown reason or someone close to him did. And once the Sixers' coaches and brass saw it, they knew immediately something was very wrong. But they didn’t think the "injury" was serious enough to shut him down. This is an organization that is overly conservative when it comes to injuries and that’s putting it mildly. Again, it wasn’t until the agent forced the team’s hand that he was sat down.

We’ve seen players in the past simply lose the ability to perform the basic duties of their job. Most prominently in baseball, former major-league starter Steve Blass lost the ability to pitch. Steve Sax couldn’t throw the ball from his second base position to first. Take a look at the hitch in Charles Barkley’s golf swing. Is this what’s happened to Fultz? 

Whether it’s the head or the shoulder, this is a scary proposition for the Sixers, who desperately need Fultz's ability to create his own shot. All that is known is both he and his shot are M.I.A. 

What Sixers need more and less of in second half

What Sixers need more and less of in second half

Now that the dust has settled on the NBA's All-Star festivities, the Sixers will reconvene this week and turn their attention back to the playoff push.

With 27 games remaining in the regular season over a 49-day stretch, it will be a sprint to the finish.

So how can the Sixers capture their first postseason berth in six seasons? Let's take a look at what the team needs more and less of down the stretch.

More: Healthy Embiid
What injury? Joel Embiid shook off right ankle soreness to participate in three events during All-Star weekend as a shining representation of the up-and-coming Sixers.

"There was never really a thought about missing out on any of these events," Embiid said Friday after the Mtn Dew Kickstart Rising Stars game. "It's my first time, so I'm going to have fun."

The big man is always about having fun, but now it's time to get down to business. Even though the Sixers' competition appears to lighten up after the break, the schedule does not (27 games with six back-to-back sets).

The Sixers are 27-17 when Embiid plays and just 3-8 when he doesn't suit up. They need the center healthy and on the court.

Less: Turnovers
Way less, actually. 

As you know by now, the Sixers have a bit of an issue holding onto the basketball. They simply don't respect each possession enough, evidenced by their 17.5 turnovers per game. That's good enough for dead last in the NBA and it's a full 1.5 turnovers more than the closest team (Los Angeles Lakers).

And it's not just the miscues. Teams are capitalizing, too — the Sixers also rank 30th in opponents' points off turnovers (19.4).

Of the "Four Factors" statistic on the offensive end, which breaks down weighted factors that help a team win a game — shooting (40 percent), turnovers (25 percent), rebounding (20 percent) and free throws (15 percent) — the only category that the Sixers rank outside of the NBA's top 10 in is turnovers.

If they can cut down on the giveaways just a little, it will go a long way toward their goal.

More: Early execution
However, not all of those possessions end up with the Sixers running back on defense after a turnover.

With more legit scoring options on the roster this season than any previous time during Brett Brown's tenure, they have shown the ability to execute a play to perfection for a bucket.

It's a stark contrast to the days when they couldn't even get the ball in on an inbounds play.

That level of scoring punch has been particularly evident at the start of games. The Sixers are tied with the Cleveland Cavaliers for fourth in the league in first-quarter points per game (28.7) and are even with the L.A. Clippers for seventh in first-half points a night (55.2).

The Sixers must continue to apply that pressure on teams at the outset of games, especially if their woes finishing off opponents is going to persist.

Less: Bad Covington
Ah, the curious case of Robert Covington.

Has any player in NBA history ever looked like they could make a push for an All-Star spot for two months only to appear as if they belong in the G League the next few months?

Covington has always been a streaky shooter, but this season has been extreme. He shot 44.7 percent from the field and 43.1 percent from three-point range in October and November to help secure his multiyear extension. 

Since that point, the swingman has connected on just 37.6 percent from the field and 32.4 percent from long distance.

Whether it's the weight of the big contract or the nasty spill he took against the Cavs in December, Covington hasn't looked the same on the floor in several months. The team needs him to get it together and the sooner the better.

More: Killer D's
While Embiid's presence on both ends and Ben Simmons' wizardry at the point have put the Sixers in position to snag a playoff bid, the team didn't really hit its stride until a certain pairing found its footing: Dario Saric and defense.

Much like his rookie season, Saric struggled to find his role at the start. But that's long in the rearview mirror now. The second-year forward has increased his production each month and has been rolling so far in February (18.6 points, 51.7 percent field goals, 46.3 percent threes, 6.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game).

That surge has coincided with the Sixers' tightened grip on defense. In seven games this month, they've allowed 96.1 points per game on 41.4 percent shooting.

The type of balance Saric offers offensively and the overall lockdown defense won't only make the Sixers a postseason team, it will also make them a tough out. 

Less: Fultz speculation
This is a big deal that the Sixers could make very small with a clear decision on the No. 1 pick's immediate future.

Markelle Fultz reportedly continues to ramp up his rehab workouts for his ailing shoulder, even after team president Bryan Colangelo said earlier this month that the guard could return soon or be shut down for the season.

The franchise should obviously give Fultz every chance to come back and contribute, but that ruling should be made at the first opportunity.

It's after the All-Star break and having that type of deliberation hovering over the team isn't exactly fair to the other players. Not to mention, for a guy that has apparently dealt with questions regarding his confidence, possibly dropping him into the thick of a playoff race doesn't really do him any favors either.

Our NBA All-Star challenge — describe Embiid in one word

Our NBA All-Star challenge — describe Embiid in one word

LOS ANGELES —  From trash talking on the court to expressing himself on social media, Joel Embiid is a player of many (many) words. So if his fellow All-Stars had to describe him in just one, what would it be? 

Draymond Green: "'Funny.' He's hilarious. The stuff he says, he goes on TV talking about (Kevin Durant's) burner account, he's talking how he's a savage. His Instagram locations, pretty funny. He's a good guy." 

Andre Drummond: "I’d probably say 'charismatic,' 'funny,' 'savage.' He don’t care, he just does what he wants to.”

Paul George: “Personality,' in all caps."

(Why all caps?)

“Because he’s a big dude.”

John Wall: "He's just 'himself.' He's very confident."

Anthony Davis: “'Savage.' Cool dude, he lives by his own rules. He’s just enjoying life and having fun.”

Jimmy Butler: "'Remarkable' in the fact that his game on the court is insane. Then the way he's always saying something to somebody on social media is really 'remarkable.'"

Bradley Beal: “'Wild.' He has no filter, he doesn’t care. That’s my boy, but he just has no remorse, doesn’t care."

LaMarcus Aldridge: “'Entertaining,' because he’s always on TV expressing how he feels. So, entertaining.”