Things weren’t going well for Markelle Fultz in his home debut.
Fultz missed all three of his shot attempts after entering the game in the first quarter. Two of those were blocked, with one a filthy snuff on a layup by the man he will be connected to forever: Jayson Tatum.
In between misfires, the No. 1 overall pick committed two personal fouls. The second came on a three-point shot by Terry Rozier III.
After 4:34 of action, Fultz slinked his way back to the bench.
And then a literal weight was lifted off his ailing shoulder.
Fultz returned to the court late in the second and immediately went on the attack. He drove right to the rim on Tatum and forced a foul.
That meant the 19-year-old with the banged-up right shoulder had to step to the free throw line and show off that oft-criticized shooting form.
The points elicited a roar from the crowd and even a slight reaction from Fultz.
“Just a little smile at the fans. I saw somebody on the baseline just looking, so I just smiled,” Fultz said.
“It’s something I’ve been working on to get through this, so I was happy.”
Happy, but not content.
From that moment, Fultz looked like a different player. Not statistically as he finished with just six points on 2 for 9 shooting with three rebounds, one assist and one steal in the Sixers’ 102-92 loss in their home opener.
However, the guard played with more energy on both ends of the court. He continued to drive hard to the basket offensively while he fought through screens and battled bigger bodies on D.
“I think I have a lot to improve on, but I also think I’m learning each night I come out and taking baby steps to improve on the stuff I did last game,” Fultz said. “I think I’m in a pretty good spot, but I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
One thing the team has learned so far is to get Fultz coming off more screens at the top of the key. Sixers head coach Brett Brown liked what he saw when Fultz had the ball in his hands with the reserves and was able to get downhill in a hurry off pick plays.
“I think it’s going to be something where we put him in more pick-and-rolls to try to get him more in the middle of the floor,” Brown said. “How we do that, I see it quite clearly. I think lately just trying to get him up and down the floor and get his fitness base and find some level of confidence has been most on my mind. But I agree with you, he has a skill that we have to tap into.”
“I’m just working on being wherever I need to be to help this team win,” Fultz said. “Pick-and-roll is one of the things I feel like I’m good at, so if that’s helping the team win I’m going to go do it.”
But that doesn’t mean Fultz is about to go rogue and start calling his own number all the time. Despite being the top pick in June’s draft, he knows this team’s engine starts with Joel Embiid, particularly when the big man is in the paint.
“If he’s in the game and he’s in the post, get him the ball,” Fultz said. “Whether I’m off the ball to screen away. If I’ve got the ball in my hands, find him. Whenever he’s on the floor we’ve got to find a way to get him the ball. He’s a great passer, so he’s going to draw a lot of attention. Any time he’s in there we have to get him the ball.”
A nodding Embiid agreed from a few feet away at his own locker.
“He’s right,” the big man said between bites of an apple. “That’s the right answer.”
The rookie is a fast learner.