If there's one night that's been as perennially exciting for the Process era 76ers as lottery night and draft night, it's first game of summer league night: Not since the Doug Collins era have the Sixers tipped off in Orlando, Utah and/or Vegas without at least one potential blue-chip guy on the roster for us obsess over. Monday night was no different, as the Sixers' opening game against the Boston Celtics brought with it the highly anticipated debut of one Markelle Fultz, No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft, point guard (lead guard? guard guard?) of the Sixers' future, and ostensible final piece of the puzzle for Brett Brown's crew.
Fultz didn't always look the part on Monday night. He struggled a little to create for himself and others in the half-court, and got himself in trouble dribbling into traffic a couple times -- leading to him notching four turnovers and just one assist for the night. He settled for pull-ups a little too quickly, and failed to finish through contact on a couple potential and-ones. On the other end, he got hung up on a few screens and occasionally cost his team gambling for steals and blocks. He wore down a little at the end, and got stuffed by Celtics prospect Jaylen Brown at the basket on the potential game-winner. He took his lumps, and it wasn't always pretty.
And still, if you were one of the many Sixers fans watching his debut with Manute-Bol-wingspan-high expectations, it's unlikely you left disappointed. Fultz took some questionable shots, but he hit a bunch of 'em. He didn't always finish, but he got to the basket, drawing fouls and giving his board-crashing teammates clean-up opportunities. He only notched one assist, but he was awesome in transition, leading his teammates perfectly with his passes and getting them good looks and free throws. He took chances on defense, but also finished with a steal and three blocks. He got denied on the game-winner, but he also got a look right at the rim in the final seconds, and still nearly got the thing to go down.
We say this every year, but the main thing you want to see from Summer League are just those flashes. It's rare that a rookie laces up and dominates from the jump, but you want to at least get a taste of those things they can obviously do better than regular players. We got that last year from Ben Simmons, just as we did in earlier years from Nerlens Noel, Michael Carter-Williams, and yes, even Jahlil Okafor. (Evan Turner, not so much.) And we got that last night from Markelle: His pull-up jumper, his passing on the break and his spin moves to get around defenders were all eye-opening, to the point where the NBA TV announcers were rhetorically asking in the third quarter, "Is there anything else you want to see?"
Actually, there was. Though the primary thing you'd like to peep from your rooks at Summer League is a kind of casual brilliance -- the ability to intuitively play at a high level without really even knowing what you're doing yet -- ideally, you also want at least one good oh s--t moment, a lightning-bolt snapshot of transcendence that electrifies the Vegas arena and announces his presence with authority. And MF Doom was good enough to give us one of those last night as well.
Markelle Fultz looking like young Dwyane Wade on this block. pic.twitter.com/Lgt4OAO5TK— Joe Giglio (@JoeGiglioSports) July 4, 2017
Any Process-Trusting amateur scout worth his armchair knows about Fultz's propensity for chase down blocks, sizing opposing drivers up in the full court and going in for the kill, a la LeBron James or peak Rajon Rondo, just when they've started adding two points to their own mental box score. But this was a new one on me: Markelle as the last line of defense in the half-court, snuffing out a Kadeem Allen layup attempt like any old seven-foot big-man help defender, except at a good eight inches shorter. And it looked easy. At that point, Fultz could've posted an 0-fer the rest of the night and still sent the Philly Phaithful to bed with sweet dreams, knowing their new stud has the athleticism and NBA instincts to be a jaw-dropper.
That said, as explosive as Fultz looked on that one defensive play, his physicality on offense did seem somewhat muted. He was a little overwhelmed by the Celtics' length, and lacked the obvious blow-by speed to just dust bigger defenders on the way to the bucket. It's clear he'll be more reliant on his craftiness and side-to-side maneuverability to create scoring opportunities than any traditionally imposing athleticism -- which is hardly a death sentence, since the same could be said for Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, and even early James Harden. But it does mean he might not step onto the court in late October and be able to kick ass immediately, like, say, his new seven-foot best bud did last year.
Nonetheless, Fultz will be afforded opportunities playing with his new teammates unlike any he got last night. Several Sixers played well -- Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot was brilliant moving without the ball, putting himself in position to receive easy feeds at the basket, while rookie big Jonah Bolden showed the athleticism, range and motor to make his second-round draft slot look highly suspect -- but no one really helped open things up for Markelle, either with wipeout picks, strong rolls to the rim or consistent outside shooting. He ceded point guard duties to Larry Drew II for much of the night, but after a couple early connections, Drew was unable to take advantage of him as an off-ball threat. With Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons both around (we hope we hope we pray we hope PLEEEEEEASE) to play off him and vice versa, his skill set should be exponentially more potent.
Fultz seemed frustrated and a little winded by game's end, and it'll be interesting to see how he bounces back on Wednesday night against Utah: If a prospect has an up-and-down Summer League debut and then goes in the tank from there, it can be a pretty strong sign that his regular-season struggles will also be pronounced. But if he learns on the fly, gets an early sense of what he can and can't immediately do, and finds a way to still be a strong contributor, that's when you can feel pretty safe that you've really got something. Fultz on the Sixers should ultimately be beautiful regardless, but how beautiful and how quickly is still one for the Process gods to sort out -- and Sixers fans should feel blessed once again to be the fan base that gets to find out.