76ers

Markelle Fultz's story mirrors Michael Jordan's, but new chapter awaits

Markelle Fultz's story mirrors Michael Jordan's, but new chapter awaits

CAMDEN, N.J. — The myth took flight as the man once did himself: Michael Jordan was cut from his high school team.

The truth was more complicated, more nuanced, but that stood little chance against the legend: Michael Jordan was cut? How does that happen?

Jordan did nothing to correct the record as the years passed and his accomplishments accumulated. Rather, he used this supposed snub as fuel, powering him through what is arguably the greatest career of all time (with allowances for Wilt, LeBron and a few others).

So now here comes Washington point guard Markelle Fultz, taken first by the Sixers in Thursday's NBA draft (see story).

No one can say how his story might unfold. Nor is anyone suggesting that it will wind up anything like Jordan’s.

Certainly, though, one of the early chapters reads much the same way. He too was cut from his high school team. He too rose above that. He too uses that slight, if it can even be called that, as motivation.

“I always have a chip on my shoulder, no matter what,” he told reporters Wednesday, on the eve of the draft.

So the comparison to His Airness holds up in that way, at least. Anything beyond that is a stretch, though it should be pointed out that one member of ESPN’s broadcast crew, Jay Bilas, compared Fultz to James Harden on the air Thursday night, and that another, Jalen Rose, likened him to Bradley Beal.

“I definitely see myself as a superstar, as one of the best players coming into the NBA,” Fultz told reporters Wednesday. “I’m going to have to earn it, though.”

His friends have little doubt that he will.

“Every time I see him, I feel as though he gets better, so I expect him to keep getting better,” said Reggie Gardner, once his teammate DeMatha High School, in Hyattsville, Maryland. “I think the sky’s the limit for him.”

“I’m expecting him to do big things,” said another former teammate, Ahmad Clark. “He said he’s going to win Rookie of the Year. I don’t know if he can win MVP yet, but I can see him winning it down the road in his career.”

DeMatha is one of the nation’s great programs, a school that has sent players like Adrian Dantley and Victor Oladipo to the NBA (not to mention former Sixer Jerami Grant). Fultz arrived there as a 5-foot-9 freshman five years ago and was immediately consigned to the JV team. Same thing the next year — “even though,” Clark said, “he was good enough to play varsity.”

That left an indelible impression.

“He still is trying to prove himself,” Clark said. “He still feels he has to play that certain way.”

That’s a rare thing, DeMatha coach Mike Jones said, before invoking a familiar comparison.

“You can think of Michael Jordan taking every perceived slight and using it as fuel and motivation for going after his goals,” Jones said. “I think Markelle is one of those unique individuals that does the same thing: Anything that doesn’t go the way he wants to, he doesn’t pout about it. He doesn’t sit back and try to blame it on this or that. He just says, ‘You know what? I’m going to prove you wrong.’ And I think that’s a great quality to have.”

Jones was, of course, the guy who assigned Fultz to the junior varsity. He recalled there were some older kids — “and kids in his class, too,” he added – who he regarded as superior players. 

“He clearly proved me wrong,” Jones said. “I think he’s done that and then some.”

At the time, things were touch and go with Fultz. Keith Williams, who had coached and mentored him beginning at age 7 at the Run 'n Shoot Athletic Center in Forestville, Maryland — not far from Fultz’s home in Upper Marlboro — wanted him to transfer.

“I wasn’t happy,” Williams said. “I thought he was losing time in development.”

The way Williams tells it – and the way Kent Babb wrote it recently in The Washington Post — Fultz’s mom, Ebony, cast the deciding vote. She had raised Markelle and his older sister Shauntese as a single parent. She wanted her son to get a good education.

So in the end, he stayed at DeMatha.

“Obviously,” Williams said, “it all worked out.”

“My confidence and my goals never changed, no matter what,” Fultz told reporters in New York on Thursday. “(Being cut) just made me realize that it’s … a hill I have to get over, and I just started working even harder.” 

He grew seven inches to 6-4, his current height, before his junior year, then starred on a team that went 33-4 that season, and one that went 32-5 the next. He was also the shining light of a 9-22 Huskies team in 2016-17, averaging 23.2 points, 5.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds.

Rest assured that Jones “absolutely” sees the parallels to Jordan’s story, and that he’s fine with it.

“I don’t know whatever happened to that coach,” he said, “but I’m very secure in my ability to coach the game of basketball, and I will be the first one to say when I’ve made a mistake. Clearly not having Markelle on the varsity was a mistake.”

Jones has good reason to feel secure, seeing as he has won over 400 games in 15 years at DeMatha. As for Jordan’s coach all those years ago at Laney High School in Wilmington, N.C., it was one Clifton (Pop) Herring, profiled five years ago by Thomas Lake in Sports Illustrated.

Lake wrote that like Fultz, Jordan had yet to have his growth spurt as a sophomore; he stood just 5-10. Laney had two experienced guards on the varsity but needed a big man. Herring, as a result, kept 6-7 Leroy Smith instead of Jordan.

We all know what happened down the road. The title-winning shot at North Carolina. The six rings with the Bulls. But Jordan never forgot his days at Laney. As Lake wrote, Jordan invited Herring to the ceremony for his number retirement in 1995, and introduced him as “the first guy to ever cut me,” eliciting boos from the sellout crowd in the United Center.

Jordan went on to say that Herring also worked with him early every morning before the following season, but according to Lake added, “He knew he made a mistake! He just tried to correct it.”

Herring, who Lake wrote has since been wracked by mental illness, was unable to make it to Jordan’s Hall of Fame induction in 2009. But Smith was there, and Jordan sounded some of the same notes, saying that he wanted to make sure “the coach who actually picked Leroy over me … understood — you made a mistake, dude.”

The Sixers can only hope, then, that Markelle Fultz rises to a point where he is somewhere in the same stratosphere as Michael Jordan.

In another sense, they can hope that he rises above.

Young Sixers learn crucial lessons from 2 losses to NBA elite Warriors

Young Sixers learn crucial lessons from 2 losses to NBA elite Warriors

BOX SCORE

The Sixers received a crash course in top-caliber NBA basketball from the Warriors with two games in eight nights against the defending champions. 

Both were winnable games for the Sixers in the first half. Both were blown open by the Warriors in the third quarter. Both resulted in a Sixers loss.

This time, it was a 124-116 loss Saturday night at the Wells Fargo Center (see observations).

Instead of taking silver linings and pats on the back, the Sixers are absorbing lessons, tried-and-true experience-based lessons from competing against the best in the league and watching it slip away. 

“They didn’t flip a switch,” Joel Embiid said Saturday. “We were just bad in the third quarter. But you’ve got to give them a lot of credit. They were aggressive and they were physical with us, especially in the second half. They did what they had to do, and they got a win.”

Protect the third quarter
On Saturday, the Sixers scored a scorching 47 points in the first quarter and led the Warriors 74-52 at halftime. That edge far surpassed their one-point deficit in last weekend’s game and put them on a commanding path at home.

The Warriors quickly dashed any hopes of an upset by outscoring the Sixers, 47-15, in the third. Steph Curry scored 20 of those points. That quarter set the tone for a Warriors' comeback win. Similarly, the Warriors outscored the Sixers by 15 points in the third during their 135-114 victory on Nov. 11.

“After coming out of halftime, we knew what we were getting into,” Embiid said. “We knew that the first game, we knew that tonight, that needed to stay locked in. We didn’t do a good job the first time and then the second time we definitely didn’t do a good job.”

Play aggressive and smart at same time
The Sixers committed seven of their 12 turnovers in the third, which led to 14 of the Warriors’ 47 points. Ben Simmons echoed Embiid’s opinion of needing to be more focused. The rookie point guard also noted the Sixers should have been better with defensive assignments and played more aggressively. The Sixers shot 1 for 7 from long-range and didn’t get to the foul line once in the third.

Simmons only attempted one field goal in the quarter. Brett Brown noted he played Simmons the entire second quarter and the first eight minutes in the third. The combination of a shorthanded eight-man rotation and the effects of coming off a West Coast road trip factored in. 

The Warriors, meanwhile, stayed cool and collected in the face of a 22-point halftime deficit. They bounced back to shoot 62.2 percent from the field in the second half. The Sixers noticed the Warriors’ unwavering self-assurance even as they fell further and further behind in the first half.

“There’s a confidence that they have in what they do and who they are that over the course of a full game," JJ Redick said, "if they play the right way, they’re going to have a chance to win."

Breaking the double team
The Warriors stifled Embiid in their first matchup (12 points). After watching his 46-point performance against the Lakers, which head coach Steve Kerr deemed “terrifying,” the Warriors knew they had to be extra cognizant of the big man, especially on his home court.

They once again swarmed Embiid with a double team, a defensive look he’s still adjusting to. Embiid felt the pressure. He committed three turnovers in the game-changing third quarter (five on the night). 

“I’m more impressed by what they do defensively,” Embiid said. “Especially for me, they really had me guessing. They double-teamed me the whole night, from the top, from the baseline, from the post fader. They really had me guessing.”

Remember what caused the loss
The Sixers had chances to hand the Warriors a loss, both at home and on the road. When they plan for the rest of the season, the months and months ahead, they can point to what they did right and just as importantly what went wrong in competing against a team as dangerous as the Warriors. 

"We feel good about how we played for large majorities of the game and then you just blink and you get hit in the mouth," Brown said. "The repetition of playing the NBA champs and feeling like you're there and then all of a sudden to zoom in and say why aren't we? Why weren't we? Where did the game change? And understand that better and try to fix it, try to arrest it. That's the benefit to playing them in close proximity."

Sixers-Warriors observations: 22-point halftime lead evaporates against defending champs

Sixers-Warriors observations: 22-point halftime lead evaporates against defending champs

BOX SCORE

The excitement of a monster first half and the letdown of a lackluster second.

The Sixers went through dramatic ups and downs Saturday night in a 124-116 loss to the Warriors that seemed like an upset early on but turned into a disappointment for them.

• The Sixers scored … ready for this? You sure? Forty-seven points in the first quarter. They led the defending champions by 21 during a quarter that prompted double takes at the scoreboard.

The Sixers put together enough noteworthy plays in the first 12 minutes for a highlight reel: one-handed dunks and three-pointers by Joel Embiid, slams by Ben Simmons and a steal followed by a trey by Robert Covington to name a few.

The team shot a monster 73.1 percent from the field and 66.7 percent from three, led by 4 for 4 from Covington in the first game since signing his contract extension.

• You didn’t expect the Warriors would be quiet out of halftime, did you? Veteran teams — championship-winning veteran teams — make adjustments. They outscored the Sixers, 47-15, in the third and took a 10-point lead heading into the fourth. Steph Curry netted 20 points in the quarter. The Sixers shot 1 for 7 from three during the third and did not hit a basket in the final 2:20 of the quarter.

• Where did the third shut down on the Sixers end? Simmons attempted just one field goal in the third (0 for 1) compared to eight attempts in the first half. JJ Redick (0 for 3 from the field) was scoreless, too. Adding to that, Embiid had two points and did not pull down a rebound in the quarter. (Saric had six.) 

• The problem with playing the Warriors is, give them an inch — in many cases, all they need is a deficit less than 20 points — and they will take advantage. Even though they looked completely out of the game in the first half, they have been there, done that and know how to flip the switch. 

• Twenty-plus point performances by Simmons (23 points, eight rebounds, 12 assists), Embiid (21 points, eight rebounds), Covington (20 points, six rebounds) and Redick (20 points) were not enough to overcome 35 points by Curry and 27 from Kevin Durant. 

• The Sixers and Warriors flip-flopped shooting halves: 59 percent by the Sixers compared to 47 percent by the Warriors in the first half. In the second, the Sixers shot just 38 percent while the Warriors knocked down 62 percent.

• Simmons did whatever he wanted early on.

There was this …

… and this

… to name a few.

• Injury update: Markelle Fultz (right shoulder), Justin Anderson (left leg), Nik Stauskas (right ankle), Jerryd Bayless (left wrist) and Jahlil Okafor (personal) were out for the Sixers. 

• In years past, the seats would have been occupied by those wearing Warriors jerseys for a must-see opponent in town. On Saturday, it was clear the fans came to the Wells Fargo Center to watch the home team. 

• The early matchup between Saric and Zaza Pachulia was intriguing to watch. They both bring international experience to the court and had been familiar with each other’s game before Saric got to Philadelphia: Saric following Pachulia in the NBA and Pachulia learning about Saric’s play in Turkey. Pachulia referred to the Sixers forward as a  “young, talented kid” and “smart” last season.

• Notes and Numbers: The Sixers tied the record for most points scored in a half (74) by either team at the Wells Fargo Center. … Redick netted career three-pointer No. 1,300. He currently ranks 15th among active players. … The Warriors improved to 4-0 in the next game following a loss. They were defeated by the Celtics on Thursday. … The Sixers have lost 10 straight against the Warriors. Their last win was on March 2, 2013.