BOSTON – As the top overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft, the idea that Markelle Fultz is in the starting lineup tonight shouldn’t be all that surprising.
But the Fultz narrative is anything but ordinary when you consider how little he played last season in part because of injuries which later led to the team tweaking his shot mechanics.
Sixers head coach Brett Brown has followed Fultz’s progress from a year ago closely.
While it’s too soon to say how much progress Fultz has made, Brown told reporters last week that by season’s end, “I’ll be able to look at you, and you’ll be able to look at me and feel that he had a good season and improved. But as far as what should we expect, I think we should expect for him to be playing a lot of basketball, and I think the growth will be seen as it unfolds.”
Regardless, Fultz now finds himself exactly where he always thought he would be – an NBA starter, with the Sixers in Boston tonight in what many believe will be the first of many battles between two of the top teams in the East.
And looking at who the Celtics are likely to trot out to start the game, there’s a very good chance Fultz will spend some if not most of his time early on matched against another former No. 1 overall pick, Boston’s five-time All-Star Kyrie Irving.
“It’s an opportunity to test myself as a defensive player,” Fultz said of facing Irving. “I take it as a challenge to go out there and compete on both ends of the floor. I’m looking forward to it.”
These two teams last met in the second round of last year’s playoffs, a series Boston won in five games.
One of the stars for Boston in that series was Jayson Tatum, a good friend of Fultz who will forever be linked to him.
Boston had the number one overall pick in the 2017 draft but traded it to Philadelphia for the rights to the No. 3 pick (Boston used it to select Tatum) in addition to gaining a future first-round pick in the process.
Fultz struggled mightily during his first season in Philadelphia and rarely played
Tatum went on to finish third in the league’s Rookie of the Year voting in what turned out to be one of the best seasons ever for a Celtics rookie.
And in the playoff series against Philadelphia, Tatum showcased a level of play that not only catapulted Boston into the Eastern Conference finals but also made the trade with Philly look even more lopsided. Tatum averaged 23.6 points per game in the series while shooting 52.6 percent (41-for-78) from the field.
Meanwhile, Fultz did not play (coaches decision) in any of the five playoff games.
For Fultz, none of that matters now as he prepares for his first game at the TD Garden, well aware that the Sixers will get their share of jeering from the Celtics fans.
“They’re probably going to do what they do,” Fultz said of Celtics fans. “They’re gonna be energetic. It doesn’t affect me or my teammates.”
And yes, he’s totally anticipating some of their disdain for the Sixers will be directed at him specifically.
“They probably will,” he said. “But I’m not worried about it.”
As important as this game is, Fultz understands it’s just the first of 82 plus the postseason even with all the pre-draft ties he has to Boston.
“I got drafted to the Sixers,” he said. “That’s who I’m with right now. It’s just another game for me.”
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