Markelle Fultz

Markelle Fultz still 'hesitant' with his shot

Markelle Fultz still 'hesitant' with his shot

CAMDEN, N.J. — Markelle Fultz was clutch today. No, not in a game situation. But he delivered when Sixers coach Brett Brown ratcheted up the pressure on him.

“Today, six times I put him to the free throw line and say, ‘Hey, Markelle, if you make it, you keep it. If not, it’s the other team’s ball. It’s 92-91.’ And he goes 5 for 6, and he looked good doing it,” Brown said.

Brown explained after practice Wednesday he’s trying to put as much pressure on Fultz’s shot as possible in a practice setting. He said that while he likes what he’s seen from Fultz recently in practice, he doesn’t feel the rookie’s shot is ready for NBA action yet.

“He looks good,” Brown said. “You can see why he was the first player chosen. Stuff he does with the ball, his ability to get into the lane and find people. The hesitancy at times we see with his shot is true, it’s real. He can still impact an NBA game without having to shoot, he really can impact an NBA game without having to shoot.

“And so that doesn’t make him whole, though. It doesn’t make him whole. So finding what that next step is where he can go into an NBA game and feel more whole than he currently does, is the next timeline of, ‘OK, well when does he go play?'”

How “whole” Fultz needs to be to return to action appears to be subjective. One encouraging sign is Fultz’s free throw form, which appears hitch-free. Fultz shot 6 of 12 from the foul line in his four regular season games prior to being shut down, with a bizarre tilt of the head to the left and a long pause right before releasing the ball. Those issues weren’t visible when Fultz shot free throws after practice.

 

However, the Sixers don’t want Fultz back if he’s still hesitant to shoot jumpers, as Brown acknowledged. The Sixers are taking their time with the rookie — Brown confirmed they’re not going to rush his return because of JJ Redick’s left knee injury (see story). Instead, Brown will continue to have Fultz run the point for the second team at practice, and continue to try to coax Fultz into regaining full confidence in his shot.

In other injury news, Richaun Holmes will miss a second straight game Thursday night against Boston with gastroenteritis.

The final hurdles for Markelle Fultz to make return

The final hurdles for Markelle Fultz to make return

CAMDEN, N.J. — Markelle Fultz is not ready to return to the court.

Not today, and maybe not the remainder of the month. The 2017 No. 1 pick has to continue to improve his shot and his health before he plays for the first time since Oct. 23.

Following Sunday’s practice head coach Brett Brown explained the work that still has to be done.

“It’s my understanding that there is still some discomfort from time to time,” Brown said. “And I think that’s part of recognizing that there’s still some sort of erratic shooting, that it’s not where it used to be yet. And I hope everybody writes that ‘yet.’”

Start with his shoulder. Fultz was sidelined because of the right shoulder and the scapular muscle imbalance. He received treatment and physical therapy with the Sixers and Dr. Ben Kibler, Medical Director of the Shoulder Center of Kentucky at the Lexington Clinic. Fultz was cleared for a key physical marker, full-contact 5-on-5, last weekend, but has not participated in a complete practice.

“I don’t know if we could say it’s 100 percent,” Brown said. ”The doctors could say that better than me. But it certainly is getting better, enough where they’ve allowed him to practice and shoot threes and pretty much do everything that the team does.”

When asked if Fultz has to be 100 percent with his shoulder before he can play, Brown replied, “I think what he needs to be is able to shoot a basketball.”

Then there’s the shot. Fultz, who averaged 23.2 points last year in college, altered his form and struggled to knock down buckets early into his rookie season. Part of the enigma of this situation is the question of cause and effect: did Fultz change his shot because of the injury, or was the injury caused by the change in his shot?

In the limited portions of practice open to the media, Fultz has looked more effective driving to the basket than pulling up for jumpers and threes. Brown noted his criteria for evaluating Fultz has more to do with him “passing an eye test” than the distance from which he is shooting.

“How would I assess where his shot is currently at? It’s not where it used to be. It’s not where it used to be,” Brown said. “His free throw, I think, is. But some of the longer shots and the rise ups are not. And that’s just part of him getting through this sort of a progressive adjustment, trying to figure out the injury going forward. But I think that it isn’t. The free throw is.”

Brown has a plan to coach Fultz back from injury, just as he has done with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. This routine includes individual drills, one-on-one shooting tournaments with teammates Brown calls “Wimbledon,” and reviewing film from Fultz’s performance in practice.

“His health, his confidence, his whole reloading to an NBA court, in my opinion, is going to be how well do you practice, and I’m going to coach the hell out of him,” Brown said. “We’re going to jump him and scold him and teach him and coach him like he’d been with me forever … We’re walking down the month of January. We’re going to chart it, we’re going to show it.”

Someday the Sixers will be the other team

Someday the Sixers will be the other team

Remember that game against the Golden State Warriors earlier this season when the Philadelphia 76ers got up 20-plus in the first half, lost the lead in the third quarter and ended the game in garbage time? Transport that game across conferences and continents and you basically got a carbon copy of Thursday afternoon’s London-set "home game" loss to the Boston Celtics. 

Everything was humming in the first half. JJ Redick was coming off screens like Klay Thompson, hitting just about everything, while Ben Simmons was hitting turnaround jumpers (!!) and bullying smaller defenders. Joel Embiid wasn't even scoring — he ended the half with just six — but he was distributing, springing Redick on some killer screens, and being his usual game-changing self on the defensive end. The Celtics were ice cold, as they blew layups and committed silly turnovers. It was beautiful, and it was 100 percent never going to last. 

The best you could've really hoped for in the second half was that the Sixers would be able to at least hang around for the rest of the game once they inevitably blew their double-digit lead (which was actually already single digits this time by the break). No such luck: The C's pulled away in the fourth, and Brett Brown tapped out with about four minutes to go, with T.J. McConnell and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot shepherding the team down the stretch. 

The Sixers lost 114-102, in a game that was both much closer and not quite as close as that score implies (see game recap). They fell to 0-3 for the season against the Celtics — with a fourth game coming up in Boston next week. 

How disappointing is this? I'd peg it at somewhere between a five and six — not heartbreaking, but not negligible. Hard to get too upset about losing to a better team because they're better, and the first half was fun enough that you could hardly call the whole experience a wash. Still, the Sixers keep getting tastes of earning that one statement, signature win that end up just being referendums on all the things wrong with them: How Brown should be fired, how all our veterans suck, how the Markelle Fultz trade was a disaster. (Jayson Tatum's third-quarter explosion certainly doesn't help a ton with that last one.) The emotional swing is tough to stomach, although Sixers fans would be playing themselves if they weren't at least a little numb to games that follow this general script at this point. 

The rough part is, as previously mentioned, that the Sixers' schedule stays challenging from here: home on MLK Monday vs. Toronto, at Boston next Thursday, home next Saturday for the first of four against Milwaukee. The Sixers basically have to hope to get out of a brutal January without falling too far behind, because the rest of their schedule from there is easy enough — loaded with multiple games each against the Nets, Hornets, Hawks, Magic and Grizzlies — that they should be able to make up some ground, if they stay healthy and aren't already miles away. 

The Sixers, who fell to 19-20 with the latest loss to the Celtics, might not get back above .500 for a little while still. Nonetheless, they remain in pretty good shape for a postseason push, and Fultz could be coming back (if not necessarily with his jumper) soon. 

Someday, maybe not even that many years from now, the Sixers will be the team that gets down early, but everyone knows is coming back to lay the smackdown in majorly embarrassing fashion. In the meantime, trust the bleedin' process.