When Markelle Fultz has the ball in his hands and is in attack mode, “the world makes sense,” as Brett Brown would say.
You can’t yet say the same for when Fultz doesn’t have the ball. It’s one of the main reasons lineups with Fultz and Ben Simmons are struggling to score.
In the 80 minutes Fultz and Simmons have played together, the Sixers have an 85.5 net offensive rating. That’s the worst of any two-main pairing on the team with at least 32 minutes.
Let’s look at the film to see where Fultz currently has some issues off the ball and how he can improve.
On a number of occasions, Fultz just hasn’t demonstrated very good spatial awareness. Take this play on Saturday vs. the Hornets as an example.
Markelle Fultz's instincts for how to space the floor have not been the best.— Noah Levick (@NoahLevick) October 28, 2018
He seemed oblivious to the fact that Mike Muscala was occupying the corner on this play. pic.twitter.com/IlwBv7VUmr
Or this play from Monday vs. the Hawks.
4. Fultz hangs out in the corner next to Landry Shamet, then makes a belated cut when Embiid is doubled. You can see him motion at one point to Mike Muscala to move to the top of the key, but Fultz needs to be more decisive in these situations. pic.twitter.com/hlKRVKlDTq— Noah Levick (@NoahLevick) October 30, 2018
Fultz needs to have a better understanding of where his teammates are on the floor, and to make quicker adjustments when he recognizes he’s causing unbalanced spacing.
A unique challenge Fultz faces is the amount of room defenders are giving him. Against Atlanta especially, Fultz’s man served like a free safety, playing well off him because of the continued lack of respect for his jumper, and doubling Joel Embiid at every opportunity.
The Hawks used this defensive strategy in a more “blatant way” then most teams will, as Brett Brown said, but it’s an approach Fultz will likely keep seeing until he proves teams need to take away his jumper.
For Fultz, there were plenty of opportunities to take advantage against Atlanta and cut into open space. However, his recognition was often not sharp enough.
1. This isn't a terrible play by any means, but Fultz is a second slow to recognize Kent Bazemore's double team of Embiid. If he identifies that sooner, Embiid has the option to hit Fultz in the high post. pic.twitter.com/d16wAeZHMK— Noah Levick (@NoahLevick) October 30, 2018
On this next play, Fultz did make a more decisive cut. The problem is, he didn’t realize JJ Redick was on the same wavelength and find a new spot on the floor.
3. Fultz and JJ Redick cut into the same space and Fultz lingers under the basket instead of immediately relocating. pic.twitter.com/WyATnqxi13— Noah Levick (@NoahLevick) October 30, 2018
The silver lining is Fultz does identify the open space and look for the ball, but he needs to recognize his teammate is in that same space and shift to a different location.
Those kind of reads will take time for Fultz to make. With more reps, Fultz will notice where Redick is and not have to think about where he should relocate once he doesn’t receive the ball on the initial cut.
One thing Fultz can control right now is his mindset off the ball. He should always be aware of where his teammates are, how he fits in the larger scheme on the court, and when a chance for him to exploit open space could arise.
On a positive note, when Fultz has applied an aggressive mentality to his off-ball movement, the results have been encouraging.
He showed no hesitation cutting to the front of the rim on this play vs. Atlanta.
While there's a lot to improve on, Fultz did have couple positive moments off the ball where he quickly identified the double on Embiid and found the open space.— Noah Levick (@NoahLevick) October 30, 2018
This play was a highlight. pic.twitter.com/337mTe5oG9
And he used a clever change of speed to create a good shot for himself on Tuesday night in Toronto.
This was a sharp play by Markelle Fultz, even though he missed the shot.— Noah Levick (@NoahLevick) October 31, 2018
He jogged over to the wing like he was going to set a screen for Landry Shamet, then accelerated on a cut to the rim. pic.twitter.com/EWNeawXjUx
Still, Fultz has done a lot of standing in the corner, especially on Tuesday. To counter that issue and make Fultz more of a threat, the Sixers can design plays that get him the ball in attacking positions.
One way the Sixers can help Fultz out when he's playing as a 2 is through plays designed to get him the ball going downhill, like this one.— Noah Levick (@NoahLevick) October 31, 2018
Simmons hits Embiid at the elbow, and Saric screens Kyle Lowry to free up Fultz for a dribble handoff from Embiid. pic.twitter.com/yzI6ldBk1Y
With the space teams give Fultz, this type of action will be available often for Brown and the Sixers. It's an effective way to play to Fultz's strengths when he's not at the point.
But if Brown is truly committed to playing Fultz together with Simmons, Fultz needs to continue learning the nuances of spacing and cutting.
If Fultz focuses on using all the room he's getting off the ball to his advantage, that part of his world will start to make more sense.
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