Happily for Markelle Fultz, his preseason debut with the 76ers not only doesn’t count; it was barely counted.
A glitch with the stat system delayed delivery of the official box score. But in time, it appeared, in all its ugliness. In time there was confirmation that Fultz shot 2 for 13 and scored four points as the Sixers, minus Joel Embiid, lost to the Grizzlies, minus Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, by a 110-89 score Wednesday (see observations).
Nobody seemed too concerned about that, least of all Fultz himself.
“Everybody has a night like that,” the rookie guard said. “It’s a long season. There’s going to be times when your shot’s not falling.”
Fultz made his first attempt, a backdoor lefty layup from Ben Simmons (more on him here), and his next-to-last try, an uncontested dunk off a feed from T.J. McConnell. In between, he missed 10 straight — three of them three-pointers, but most of the others within 10 feet of the rim.
Twice he was blocked by 6-foot-10 Deyonta Davis. Other times he couldn’t quite coax his shots home. As Brett Brown said, “He’s going into a whole different treeline.”
Bigger and more athletic than the ones the No. 1 overall pick saw in his lone collegiate season at Washington. Takes some getting used to.
Conley, one of the league’s finest point guards, knows all about it.
“We all go through it,” he said, having rested and looked on from the bench. “It’s just a stage.”
Finishing is just part of the learning process for Fultz. There is also the adjustment to playing off the ball, playing alongside Simmons and facing down all the old heads who will surely test him.
And doing all that at age 19.
“He’s raw right now,” Grizzlies coach David Fizdale said, “and everybody is going to go after him because he is the No. 1 pick. That’s to be expected.”
Before the game, Fizdale praised Fultz’s maturity, extolled the virtues of his “grown-up game.” That, the coach added, will carry him through.
“He’ll settle in and his talent will pick up,” Fizdale said, “but there are a lot of guys where their first few games in this league, people are hunting for them just to test them out. He’ll go through his bumps and bruises, but you can't deny that level of talent that’s there. … I expect him to be a heck of a player in this league. It’s just a matter of time.”
A process, as it were.
“He’s set himself up for this,” Conley said. “He’s built for this. He’s trained for this. And I’m sure he’s just going to be going through it the first couple games of preseason. After that, it’s sit down, look at the film and learn from it, get better and be the guy that I know he believes he is.”
Conley was the fourth overall pick in 2007, so he knows something about the pressure high draft picks face. (Not to mention those faced by well-compensated veterans. He signed a five-year, $153 million contract in 2016, which at that point was the richest in league history.)
“It’s a lot of pressure (to be taken early), because you’ve got a lot of guys who know who you are, even though you haven’t played a game yet,” Conley said. “He’s definitely going to get everybody’s best shot. He’s got to know that. You’ve got to be prepared for it.”
But Conley also sees Fultz as a level-headed kid, as a guy who will weather the storm.
“He’s got all the tools,” he said. “Obviously one preseason game, you can’t really judge anything. But his game, I think, is just going to continue to get better. Out there tonight, it looked like he’s still trying to find his way — find his way through the offense.”
Fultz believes he and Simmons can thrive together, that they have already made strides. He further believes that on nights when his shot isn’t falling, he must seek out other ways to contribute.
And finally, he believes he is ready for the challenges ahead — like the one coming up Friday, when the Kyrie Irving-led Celtics come to town.
“I’m actually very, very excited just to test myself against somebody I grew up watching just last year in the Finals,” Fultz said. “Getting the chance to go against one of the best point guards in the NBA right now, I think, will be a good challenge for myself.”
No, that one won’t count, either. Soon enough, though.