76ers

Confident Markelle Fultz has his swagger back

Confident Markelle Fultz has his swagger back

CAMDEN, N.J. — This was a different person.

Markelle Fultz appeared to be a new man when he sat down at the podium Friday for Sixers media day, and not simply because he’s in better shape and sporting some fresh cornrows.

Fultz exuded confidence from the moment he stepped into the room, which was a far cry from the player that was unsure of himself during a much-scrutinized rookie season.

What a difference a few months can make.

“Everybody knows what happened last year, so this summer was really just me working to get my mechanics back, my confidence back, my swagger back. It was a very productive summer,” Fultz said. “I’m happy with the work I put in with Drew (Hanlen). We put up a lot of shots, a lot of hours in the gym. I’m happy with where I’m at right now going into training camp.”

Happiness was a fleeting feeling for Fultz a season ago. 

Injuries started accumulating right away for the 2017 No. 1 overall pick. Fultz sprained his left ankle during summer league and had right knee soreness during the preseason.

Then came the elephant in the room with the mysterious shoulder issue that forced the guard into that funky shooting motion and a 68-game absence. 

While Hanlen claimed it was actually “the yips,” Fultz, showing just how much more confident he is in himself, swatted down that assertion.

“I think it was a mis-term in words, but me and Drew have talked,” he said. “What happened last year was an injury. Let me get that straight. It was an injury that happened that didn’t allow me to go through the certain paths that I needed to, to shoot the ball. 

“Just like any normal person, when you’re used to doing something the same way each and every day and something happens, of course, you’re going to start thinking about it. It’s just normal.”

Unfortunately for Fultz, what also became normal were the critics. And he’s heard them all.

Broken jumper? Yep.

Inside of his own head? Uh huh.

Bust? You bet.

That was part of the motivation behind Fultz linking up with respected trainer Hanlen and putting in three-workout days that included hundreds of jumpers during each session.

Now looking back on all of the opinions about his game, Fultz actually considers it a positive. Just chalk it as fuel on the fire.

“The adversity I went through last year, I don’t think any 19-year-old ever went through what I went through last year,” he said.

“I normally work hard. I’m a hard worker, but I had a lot of motivation going into this summer. Last year I had an injury that stopped me from being able to be myself 100 percent. So this summer I was really focused on just working hard to get my shot back to how I would like it. Confidence-wise, I’m very confident going in. I’m very excited for this season.”

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This is fine — the Sixers' season is just crumbling before our eyes

This is fine — the Sixers' season is just crumbling before our eyes

Someone in the Sixers’ organization must’ve stepped on a broken mirror while walking under a ladder and petting a black cat.

This is fine.

We’re just watching the Sixers’ 2019-20 season crumble right before our eyes.

Some of this is horrendous luck. Some of this is of their own doing. In some cases, it’s a little of both.

Just a day after we found out Ben Simmons would be out for at least two weeks with nerve impingement in his lower back, Joel Embid was forced to leave Wednesday’s game in Cleveland with a shoulder sprain.

The team then went on to lose to a Cavs team that had won 16 games coming in, putting the Sixers at 9-21 on the road this season.

While we don’t know the full extent of Embiid’s injury, it doesn’t bode well. With Simmons already out, the Sixers need Embiid to be the dominant player that put up a career-high 49 points on Monday. If both players are on the shelf for an extended period, who knows how far this team could fall.

This is fine.

Thanks to the Miami Heat’s recent swoon, the Sixers remain just a half game out of the fourth spot with 23 games remaining. 

The fourth spot. The fourth spot.

This team was supposedly built for the playoffs and to conceivably win a championship. Their head coach boldly claimed he wanted the No. 1 seed. Instead, they may end up a fifth seed, meaning they’d start the playoffs on the road, where I’m sure their woes away from home will get sorted out — because that's the time you sort these things out, right?

Where’s the smash mouth offense and bully ball defense Brett Brown promised? The Sixers instead got smacked in the mouth away from the Wells Fargo Center yet again by a team playing out the string. 

This is fine.

The players who were supposed to complement Embiid and Simmons and pick up the slack for them when they were off the floor have not done so. The trio of Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson and Al Horford — that will make over $70 million combined this season — shot 12 of 35 Wednesday.

Second-year guard and 2018 second-round pick Shake Milton outplayed Harris and Richardson. Kyle O’Quinn, who makes the veteran minimum and hasn’t played meaningful minutes since Jan. 20, outplayed Horford. That can’t happen. That especially can’t happen when you’re missing your two All-Stars and playing the Cleveland Cavaliers.

In his first season here, Richardson has questioned his team's lack of effort, accountability and on Wednesday, its heart.

This is fine.

Maybe Embiid’s injury won’t be serious. Maybe Simmons’ absence won’t extend for too long beyond the two weeks. Maybe the five starters can figure it out and Harris, Richardson and Horford will be able to space the floor like GM Elton Brand thought they would. Maybe they can become a defensive bully yet.

Maybe.

"That still is my goal — keeping the boys in the boat, landing the plane, keeping our form, our health all that stuff — [keeping] our spirit the way that it needs to be," Brown said to reporters postgame. "We will move on from this. It’s a good thing we’re in the NBA. In 24 hours you’ve got a chance to move this aside and go try to find a way."

You figure the Sixers’ luck has to change at some point, but time is running out. This season is getting away from them.

This is fine.

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Josh Richardson thinks 'heart' is biggest thing Sixers must fix

Josh Richardson thinks 'heart' is biggest thing Sixers must fix

The Sixers, now 9-21 on the road this season after a 108-94 loss Wednesday night to the Cavaliers in which Joel Embiid sprained his left shoulder, clearly have many areas they need to address away from Wells Fargo Center.

But, when asked the biggest thing the team needs to correct before playing the Knicks on Thursday at home, Josh Richardson only needed one word.

“Heart,” he told reporters in Cleveland.

The 17-win Cavs shot 52.6 percent from the field and, at one point, had a 30-6 advantage in points in the paint. 

Shake Milton started again in place of Ben Simmons, who’s out with a nerve impingement in his lower back, and he was probably the Sixers’ best player, with a team-high 20 points, four rebounds, four assists and no turnovers.

Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson combined to shoot 12 for 35. Against a Cleveland team led by 21-year-old Collin Sexton (28 points), any one of those three players performing well in the absence of the Sixers’ two All-Stars might have been enough to help the team snap a six-game road losing streak.

“I think just our defense and just physicality was a C-minus,” Brett Brown said. “I think it was a C-minus. … I feel like when you don’t have Joel and you don’t have Ben, it’s an opportunity for others to put their hand[s] up and declare, ’This is who we are.’ And it is who we are, it’s who we have been. Tonight was not one of them. I really felt from that sort of physical standpoint, we were a C-minus.”

After the Sixers' last home loss, way back in December, Richardson had named effort as an issue. He’s been willing to call out concerns publicly in his first year with the team, and he initiated a players-only meeting earlier this month.

“I think it just starts with playing harder …  I think that’s a good problem to have to fix — there could be a lot worse things,” he’d said on Dec. 20. “I think if it starts there, then we’ll be working with something at that point.”

Good problems don’t exist anymore for the Sixers, who are fifth in the Eastern Conference with 23 regular-season games left and, just four games after the All-Star break, have seen both of their All-Stars suffer injuries.

Defensive execution and intensity have been common issues on the road, and they were exacerbated when Embiid left the game. 

“[Not] having such a big presence at the rim on defense to protect us whenever us guards make mistakes was kind of tough for us to deal with,” Milton said. “We didn't do a very good job of making the adjustments.”

Even when fully healthy, this was a team that often admitted they were still trying to figure things out and looking for answers. They didn’t have any without Embiid and Simmons in Cleveland. 

“I think it had a big impact,” Horford said of Embiid's injury. “Obviously we plan on playing through him and leaning on him a lot. Once he was out, I felt like we didn’t really know what next for our group.”

“Heart” is, of course, impossible to measure. The nagging, tangible concerns the Sixers do have —  injuries chief among them at the moment — are plenty to worry about by themselves. 

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