The logistics of posing the question, “What if the Sixers had never traded up to draft Markelle Fultz?” are dizzying. There are various players to consider as possible Sixers (and that never would have been Sixers), and massive implications for future drafts.
The non-basketball ripple effects are also extensive. We probably never would have learned as much as we did about scapular muscle imbalance or thoracic outlet syndrome, heard a player explain away a pump fake free throw as the ball slipping out of his hand, or scrutinized the form of practice foul shots in search of normalcy, irregularity or just something we could understand.
Markelle Fultz shooting a few free throws after practice. pic.twitter.com/NqrDlomr62— Noah Levick (@NoahLevick) January 17, 2018
Let’s outline the basketball details first. For the sake of this exercise and so that we don’t get into the weeds more than is necessary, we’ll take Danny Ainge at his word that the Celtics would have selected Jayson Tatum regardless. In that case, it sounds like the Lakers would have grabbed Fultz — DraftExpress’ Jonathan Givony reported Magic Johnson was “in love” with Fultz and was considering a trade to take him at No. 1. We’ll say that trade never happens, Tatum goes No. 1 and Fultz goes No. 2.
The Sixers, then, would have had a few options, including Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson, De’Aaron Fox and Jonathan Isaac. Ball possessed many of Fultz’s best qualities out of college — playmaking, length, defensive potential, a capable jump shot. If the Sixers were willing to take on the oversized personality of Ball’s father, LaVar, they would likely have ended up with the UCLA product in this hypothetical.
Though LaVar Ball would surely have been disappointed he didn’t “speak into existence” his son being drafted by the Lakers, we imagine he would have warmed up to Philadelphia in time. One doesn’t have to strain too hard to picture him snapping smiling photos with fans, cheesesteak in hand, complaining that Brett Brown wasn’t putting enough trust in Lonzo and calling out Ben Simmons for turning down open jump shots.
Like with Fultz, Ball’s unusual shooting mechanics would have been part of many conversations about the Sixers, in addition to his fit next to Simmons. It’s obviously impossible to know whether Ball — who in real life was dealt to the New Orleans Pelicans after two seasons in Los Angeles — would still be a Sixer if Bryan Colangelo had selected him.
Of course, the Fultz trade never happening would also have had a major impact on the Sixers’ drafts over the next several years. They would have held the No. 14 overall pick via the Kings in 2019, which the Celtics used to take Romeo Langford.
And, if Fultz began his career as a Laker, Jonathon Simmons would almost definitely never have worn a Sixers uniform. Matisse Thybulle might not have either, despite how determined the Sixers were to draft him. The No. 33 pick, acquired from the Magic in February's Fultz trade, was one of the assets the Sixers sent to Boston to secure Thybulle.
Fultz became the youngest NBA player to record a triple-double, received huge cheers for making a three-point shot in a preseason game and threw down a few ferocious dunks in Philadelphia. All told, he played 33 regular-season games here.
He’s already played 31 with the Magic. Fultz has taken 52 threes this season and made 14, including two against the Sixers Friday night in Orlando. The process of attempting jump shots still doesn’t always look fluid or natural, but he’s trying on a regular basis, making some, and starting for the current No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. Whether or not Fultz ever reaches the potential that persuaded the Sixers to trade up and take him, he’s seemingly come out on the other side of a terribly perplexing stretch.
That odd tenure with the Sixers will be characterized by evaluations, agent-recommended consultations, deleted tweets and fleeting moments of order.
Markelle Fultz with the soft touch on the pull-up jumper. pic.twitter.com/BihMo5cwxX— Noah Levick (@NoahLevick) September 23, 2018
Much of the Fultz saga does not feel real. It’s a what-if that actually happened, and perhaps the weirdest story of a weird decade for the Sixers.
We’ll never know what would have been if his jump shot didn’t deteriorate, or if Ball or Jackson or Fox had been Sixers instead.
However, we do know what happens when a fundamental skill eludes a No. 1 pick. We understand the prevailing uncertainty, the denials of “conspiracy,” and the sense, when it finally ends, that it was never meant to be.
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