CAMDEN, N.J. — It was a typical end-of-practice scrimmage, the starters in the blue jerseys and the second unit in the white, with one exception.
The blue team had six players.
Sixers head coach Brett Brown put a score of 92-92 on the scoreboard, with three minutes on the clock. And he put JJ Redick on the floor, Markelle Fultz on the bench.
That’s how Brown started the second half of the Sixers’ final preseason game against the Dallas Mavericks, and he confirmed Friday night that’s how he plans to begin the regular season.
Brown explained the rationale behind that decision:
What it does is it lets me try to grow Markelle and bring him along at the start of a game. It’s five minutes — I think it’s not as dramatic as sometimes people do. So it’s five minutes. I’m doing that because I want to grow him. I want to grow us. Can that help us? And I believe that it can.
And I believe the decision of, ‘Well, why don’t you do that again in the second half?’ I’m trying to give him as many minutes as I can as a point guard, and I can better do that with the way I just spelled it out, if I’m committed to starting him, and I am. I want to see how this goes, and those are the reasons.
By trying to play Fultz as much as possible as a point guard, Brown seems to be acknowledging Fultz isn’t yet the kind of player who can space the floor and dependably knock down jumpers. The kind of player, in other words, who could fit easily next to Ben Simmons.
Despite all the repairs Fultz made to his jumper during a long summer of work with trainer Drew Hanlen, his shot is still clearly not at the level of a typical NBA two-guard. In preseason play, he shot 5 for 14 on attempts from 13 feet and out. He made 1 of 5 three-point shots.
The easy, obvious solution would be having Fultz come off the bench and run the point for the second unit. That’s essentially what he’ll be doing in the third quarter. And it sounds like, even with the vastly improved confidence he has in his shot, Fultz still feels best at the point.
“It’s a coaches’ decision, it’s a team decision, what’s best for us,” Fultz said. “Putting me in a better position, playing the one and getting the ball more. Being a playmaker, what I am. So I’m perfectly fine.”
In the long term, a major part of what will define the success of this season is whether Fultz and Simmons can coexist effectively.
The big issue, of course, is that Simmons’ jumper is still an infinitesimal part of his game (his only field goal attempt outside of the paint in the preseason was blocked), and Fultz is still rediscovering the shot that helped make him a consensus No. 1 pick.
And while Simmons has plenty of promise at the four, he wasn’t an efficient player in the post as a rookie. His 0.69 points per possession on postups last season ranked 17th percentile in the NBA.
Ideally, the Sixers will be able to grow both Fultz and the team, as Brown hopes. But realistically, it’s not hard to foresee the potential challenge of trying to keep Fultz in the starting lineup next to Simmons while also pushing for an Eastern Conference title.