76ers

Today's vague update on Markelle Fultz

Today's vague update on Markelle Fultz

CAMDEN, N.J. — Markelle Fultz's return to basketball this season remains uncertain. With 31 games left on the regular-season schedule, the Sixers have not officially ruled if he will or will not play.

"There's always a chance that he's going to be out there soon, and there's a chance that he's not going to play this year," Sixers president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo said Friday morning. "I can't answer that question because we don't know the answer to that."

Fultz has not played since Oct. 23 because of right shoulder soreness and scapular muscle imbalance. What is known is the injury occurred in August; what is unknown is if a change in his shot caused the injury or vice versa. Fultz has been working on getting his shot back since then.

"There was a breakdown in muscle function and coordination," Colangelo said. "Once you get that back, which is not fully back as you're going through this recovery and rehabilitation, you're also simultaneously trying to retrain what those movement patterns were to shoot a basketball. There were some limitations there for him for some time and continue to be as he's getting through it. Again, there's a long recovery. It's taken probably longer than anyone had hoped or imagined."

Fultz's shooting struggles are a stark contrast from his success at the University of Washington, where he averaged 23.2 points and knocked down 41.3 percent of his threes while leading all freshmen in scoring. With the Sixers, he posted 6.0 points and did not attempt a three in his four games this season. His free throw form sparked the most critiques on opening night. 

At this point of his rehab work, Fultz is shooting inside the paint. He has been participating in full-contact drills but is not yet going through complete practices. 

"Outside of perhaps perimeter shooting, he's doing some things on the basketball court in the limited basketball practice activity that he's taking place in and that he's participating in, and he's dazzling in many ways," Colangelo said. "But when he's going to be ready to help this team and be ready, I can't give you the timeline."

In addition to the physical aspect of Fultz's injury, there also has been speculation about the mental side of it — how much of his recovery is overcoming a mental hurdle? It's a question that can't be measured on a stat sheet. 

"I think that mental preparedness and overcoming an injury is part of any athlete, especially an athlete overcoming a debilitating injury," Colangelo said. "It's been proven in studies that is a big component. … We're talking about a situation where someone's relearning how to shoot a basketball, and that was one of his elite skill sets. That's got to be frustrating. But overall, I think he's making great strides in every capacity. We're going to a see a better Markelle Fultz because of it."

Fultz, when healthy, was providing a sixth-man spark. The Sixers' bench has struggled to find an offensive burst, with no player averaging more than 7.1 points in a reserve role. The team did not make a trade at the deadline and could explore players on the buyout market to enhance the roster. Whether Fultz is part of that mix for a playoff push will be determined. In the meantime, the Sixers are encouraged by what they have seen during his rehab work.

"Markelle was drafted here because of his elite talent and his ability to play the game at an elite level," Colangelo said. "We have every confidence that he's going to return to that."

Sixers weekly observations: Welcome to Philly, Jimmy Butler

Sixers weekly observations: Welcome to Philly, Jimmy Butler

Last week, we speculated about how the Sixers would integrate Jimmy Butler into the team. 

This week, it’s fair to say Butler looks like he belongs. 

The Sixers went 3-1 over the past seven days to move to 11-7 overall, winning in Miami, losing in Orlando, and beating Utah and Charlotte.

Butler was fantastic all night in his home debut Friday vs. the Jazz, and he was great when it mattered Saturday against the Hornets, making a huge block in overtime on Kemba Walker, then nailing the game-winning three-pointer with 0.3 seconds left.

• One of Butler’s best qualities is how simple he can make the game. His knowledge of the playbook and his teammates is obviously limited, but he’s not the kind of player who needs to know the nuances of every set to win his team games. At the end of Saturday night’s game, all Brett Brown had to do was get the ball in Butler’s hands and clear out the floor. It’s been a while since the Sixers had a player like that.

• It doesn’t spoil a very positive week, but the Sixers keep blowing big lead after big lead. In each of the last three games, they gave up leads of 16 or more points. Not good.

• Joel Embiid actually hasn’t shot the ball well since Butler arrived (34.9 percent), but he’s still averaging 25 points, 10.3 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.3 blocks in the past three games. Because of his ability to draw fouls, he doesn't need to have a great shooting night to be dominant offensively. 

• Saturday was Ben Simmons’ best performance of the season. While the stat line of 23 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists was impressive, his balance between patient point guard play and aggression in transition was most striking. He went 9 for 11 from the foul line, season highs for both attempts and makes.

• Markelle Fultz’s body language might not exude hustle, but he deserves credit for making winning plays through sheer effort. 

Friday night, he tracked down his missed free throw and found Butler for a pivotal and-one layup at the end of the third quarter. Saturday, he soared in to steal a rebound from Miles Bridges and dished it to Mike Muscala for a dunk.

Fultz’s unusual free throws have gotten a lot of attention, and rightfully so. His pump-fake free throw Monday in Miami, which Fultz claimed slipped out of hand, was alarming to watch. And his juggling free throw routine Friday night was also rather bizarre, though it did appear effective at removing most of the hitch from Fultz’s shot.

Through all the concern over his shot and conjecture about what the Butler trade means for his future with the Sixers, Fultz has continued to play hard.  

• Even after acquiring Butler, general manager Elton Brand said Tuesday at his new star’s introductory press conference that  “the championship talk is a little premature for me.” 

One way he plans to get the Sixers closer to title contention is through filling the open roster spot. He acknowledged the team “needs shooting.”

Over the past week, their lack of quality options at the backup power forward and center spots has been easy to see as well. Amir Johnson has not had a very good start to the season — his minus-9.0 net rating is second-worst on the team. His 19.3 turnover percentage is the highest of any Sixer. 

Brown seems to recognize that Johnson is usually a liability; he’s only playing him 10.2 minutes per game, which would be a career low for Johnson. The ripple effect of that has been 23.9 minutes per game for Mike Muscala, which would be a career high.

With Wilson Chandler in the starting lineup, leaning so heavily on Muscala and trying to steal 10 solid minutes from Johnson each night does not look like a viable plan. In the short term, it might make sense to give Jonah Bolden a chance.

• The Sixers have played 18 games, most in the NBA, and five back-to-backs. The schedule finally eases up a little starting this week, with a three-game homestand Monday vs. the 3-12 Suns, Wednesday vs. the 9-7 Pelicans and Friday vs. the 2-12 Cavaliers. With their 8-0 record at Wells Fargo Center, the Sixers are the last team in the NBA without a loss at home.

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Jimmy Butler's overtime heroics lift Sixers over Hornets

Jimmy Butler's overtime heroics lift Sixers over Hornets

Jimmy Butler might not be the perfect fit for the Sixers, as many noted when he was acquired.

But on Saturday night, in the afterglow of Butler’s game-winning three-pointer with 0.3 seconds left in overtime, he felt as close to perfect as you can get for this Sixers team.

On the final possession of regulation, head coach Brett Brown cleared the floor out for Butler. His new star missed an open mid-range jumper.

On the final possession of overtime, Brown called the identical play. 

Butler’s tightly contested jumper from the right wing gave the Sixers a 122-119 over the Hornets (see observations).

It doesn’t take much creativity to find a way to win,” Brown told reporters in Charlotte. “That’s what the great players can do and it’s what we spoke about with the inclusion of him, whether it’s the pick-and-roll, isolation, to create his own looks. That is a rare gift in the NBA, the players that can do that a high rate, and he’s one of them. And he’s ours. To see that happen, to see him be able to make amends for that shot he was disappointed he missed in regulation and to have the opportunity to back it up and deliver as he did, I think it’s a tremendous feel good story, and his teammates shared in that.

In Butler’s three games with the team, the Sixers are 2-1. Without Butler, there’s little doubt they’d be 0-3. 

He shut down Donovan Mitchell Friday night, dished out seven assists and scored 28 points, including eight in a tight fourth quarter. 

Saturday night felt like a different story for Butler, who shot just 4 for 11. He mostly looked out of sync with the Sixers’ offense, struggling to muster open looks and lingering in the background as Ben Simmons (23 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists) and Joel Embiid (33 points, 11 rebounds) shined. 

Butler was the primary defender on the electric Kemba Walker, who scored a career-high 60 points.

“In my head, as much as I wanted the shot to go in to win the game, I also wanted it to go in because I didn’t want Kemba to give me 70,” Butler said. “I just wanted it to stop at 60.”

In overtime, though, Butler showed exactly why the Sixers traded for him. Before Butler, the Sixers had gaping holes when it came to shot creation, shutdown perimeter defense and late-game scoring. With Butler, it appears those deficiencies no longer exist. 

Butler didn’t resign himself to Walker having an unstoppable night, even after all the improbable shots Walker had made, including a three-pointer that kissed off the backboard and went in to give Charlotte a 108-107 lead with 44.5 seconds left in regulation.

On Charlotte’s final possession of overtime, Butler swatted Walker’s shot, then leaped up to grab the ball and toss it over his head to save it from going out of bounds.

“I stayed in the game,” Butler said. “Guys are going to score the ball and if they’re feeling it, they’re going to score it at a high rate. My job is to make everything tough for him. I think I did that on a lot of plays. Let up on a couple, don’t get me wrong. But in the end, got a piece of the ball. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw [Wilson Chandler] right there. Throw the ball back to him, take off the other way.”

The Sixers called timeout, and everyone knew who was getting the ball. After Butler’s miss at the end of the fourth, JJ Redick approached Butler before the final play of overtime.

“He was kind of in his own little world,” Redick said, “and I just said, ‘I bet you won’t call game.’ He said, ‘Huh?’ I said, ‘I bet you won’t call game.’ And he said, ‘Bet.’ So we had a fun little moment after he hit that shot.”

While Butler does erase many of the Sixers’ previous weaknesses, he doesn’t solve everything. The Sixers continue to blow sizable leads — Saturday night was the third straight game they’ve squandered a lead of at least 16 points. And the bench still looks like it could use another piece or two. 

Butler is the kind of player who can make those concerns feel irrelevant. At the end of overtime, all that mattered was the Sixers could give the ball to Butler and let him do what he does.

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