What could have been? Markelle Fultz leaves behind one of the strangest legacies in Philly sports history

What could have been? Markelle Fultz leaves behind one of the strangest legacies in Philly sports history

The Sixers have become unfortunate experts when it came to injuries to draft picks.

Joel Embiid, who sat out two seasons with a wonky navicular bone, and Ben Simmons, who missed a season with a Jones fracture, became All-Stars. 

After being selected No. 1 overall in 2017, it appeared Markelle Fultz was just the next in line.

Unfortunately, there won’t be a happy ending for Fultz — at least not with the Sixers. The Markelle Fultz era is over, and what a not so long, strange trip it’s been.

Fultz’s trade to Orlando Thursday ends one of the strangest sagas in professional sports.

What could have been

Fultz played in just 33 games for the Sixers, and after a year and a half of shoulder issues and shooting woes, the Sixers parted ways with the 20-year-old guard.

While the Sixers were right to move on after making an all-in move for forward Tobias Harris early Wednesday morning, there’s a certain sadness to all of this.

Rip Bryan Colangelo all you want — many have, and deservedly so — but Fultz looked like the real deal coming out of Washington. He was silky smooth with the ability to take people off the dribble, make plays for others and the jumper was there. Not only was it there, it came any way you wanted it — off the bounce, off screens, catch and shoot, you name it.

When Colangelo made the move to acquire the No. 1 overall pick, trading the No. 3 overall pick and the Kings’ unprotected pick in 2019, it made sense. Fultz’s skill set as a shooter and scorer seemed to fit perfectly next to Embiid and Simmons.

But none of that ever came to fruition.

What came first: The changed shot or the injury?

We’re always going to have this chicken or the egg discussion about Fultz altering his shot and his shoulder injury. In any case, Fultz grabbed national headlines for the awkwardness of his new form — especially from the free throw line.

Thus began the true weirdness and drama. Why did Fultz change his shot? Who told him to change his shot? Even when he came back to the Sixers after missing 68 games during his rookie season, he had no interest in shooting the ball outside of 10 feet. When he did, it wasn’t pretty.

At times, it was hard to watch. This was a 19-year-old kid with all the promise in the world, touted as such a can’t-miss prospect … and he was missing. There were flashes. He became the first teenager in NBA history to record a triple-double and you could see the talent he possessed. 

While he struggled to get off the bench in the playoffs, there was renewed hope for the next season. Fultz worked with trainer Drew Hanlen in an effort to fix his shot. Fultz was clearly putting the work in and Hanlen hyped up his progress.

Fresh start as a starter

To start the season, Fultz did look different. He had a different energy, a new hairstyle, a new starting role and, most importantly, he looked confident shooting a basketball. He shot five threes in the preseason. He only made one, but the confidence was there.

Then during the Sixers’ home opener vs. Chicago, Fultz rose up and nailed his first NBA three. The crowd erupted — and not that’s hyperbole. It was like a playoff-game level eruption when the shot splashed. Fultz wound up shooting 30 percent from three before he simply stopped taking them after an 0-for-2 performance against Toronto.

If the three against the Bulls was the high point, then the pump-fake free throw against the Heat was possibly the lowest. It was one of the oddest things you’ll ever see on a basketball court. Fultz would later claim that the ball slipped, but that didn’t appear to be the case. As a basketball fan — and really a human being — your heart sank for the kid. Everything about that game felt secondary as the focus shifted to Fultz the day before Jimmy Butler was set to make his Sixers debut.

Fultz denied being hurt, giving a cliché line about nobody being 100 percent when pressed. Then after a game against the Suns where Fultz was relegated to third on the depth chart behind T.J. McConnell, Fultz’s agent put out a statement that his client would be seeking out the opinions of shoulder specialists.

Everything before that and everything following it was bizarre. Fultz was eventually diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome and that game against Phoenix wound up being his last as a Sixer.

What's best for everyone

We’re left with so many questions. The one many people will come back to is whether the shoulder injury was legitimate or if Fultz’s struggles were all mental. Honestly, it’s not worth going there. If there is something going on with Fultz beyond TOS, that’s Fultz’s business and is way bigger than basketball.

Fultz will leave behind the strangest of legacies in Philadelphia, leaving us all wondering what could have been. He’ll always wear the bust label for the Sixers and it’s going to take a lot of work to shed it with the Magic.

The hope is a fresh start will do the Sixers and Fultz good. The Sixers can focus on their championship aspirations.

Fultz can focus on getting healthy first and then worry about resurrecting his career.

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Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons out for Hawks game with back injury, will have additional evaluation Monday

Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons out for Hawks game with back injury, will have additional evaluation Monday

Ben Simmons went through an initial evaluation on his back Sunday in Philadelphia, will have an additional evaluation Monday and is out for the Sixers’ game tomorrow night vs. the Atlanta Hawks, a team source confirmed to NBC Sports Philadelphia. 

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski first reported the news.

Simmons missed Thursday’s game vs. the Nets with lower back soreness and irritated the injury in the first quarter Saturday night against the Bucks. 

Head coach Brett Brown said Thursday that Simmons was injured at the team’s practice Wednesday.

“It was a play where he went up for a rebound and I looked over and he left the court, and went and got treatment,” Brown said. “And it has played out as it has played out. We don’t believe it’s anything too significant.”

After drawing a foul on Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez with 7:21 left in the first on a running hook shot, Simmons put his hands on his knees and appeared in discomfort. He stayed in to make 1 of 2 free throws, and the Sixers then had Matisse Thybulle commit a foul to stop the game and allow Simmons to return to the locker room.

Before Saturday, Simmons had been averaging 16.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.9 assists this season in a team-high 36.3 minutes per game. The two-time All-Star has an NBA-best 115 steals. 

Simmons had entered the All-Star break strong, with a 26-point triple-double in the Sixers’ Feb. 11 win over the Clippers. 

He’d posted 20.9 points, 9.2 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game in the final 18 contests before the All-Star Game, shooting 68.9 percent from the foul line during that stretch. When Joel Embiid was out with a torn ligament in his left ring finger, Simmons had carried the Sixers to a 6-3 record. 

With 25 regular-season games remaining, the Sixers are 35-22 and fifth in the Eastern Conference standings. They have a 26-2 home record, best in the NBA, and a 9-20 away mark that’s the worst of any team currently in a playoff position. The team’s remaining schedule is the easiest in the league.

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If Ben Simmons is sidelined for an extended period, how will Sixers adapt?

If Ben Simmons is sidelined for an extended period, how will Sixers adapt?

We don’t need to spend much time explaining how and why Ben Simmons is very valuable for the Sixers. 

The two-time All-Star leads the NBA in steals and, before irritating a lower back injury Saturday night in Milwaukee, was averaging 16.9 points, 8.3 assists and 7.9 rebounds.

Of course, the Sixers will hope the injury doesn’t keep Simmons out for long. The question of how the Sixers will manage if Simmons’ injury does sideline him for an extended period of time, however, deserves attention.

Who’d be in the starting lineup? 

Though Raul Neto started in Simmons’ place Thursday against the Nets, he didn’t play against the Bucks until the game was well out of hand.

Shake Milton handled much of the point guard duties after Simmons left and was solid, making 5 of 7 three-point shots and scoring 17 points.

Josh Richardson and Alec Burks are other ball handling options, with Brett Brown seeming to prefer Burks’ “scoring punch” off the bench.

In his second NBA season, Milton has posted 6.7 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game, shooting 36.9 percent from three. The 23-year-old was on a two-way contract with the Sixers as a rookie and starred with the Delaware Blue Coats, scoring 24.9 points per game in the G League.

Who else would be impacted? 

Between Jan. 25 and Feb. 9, Milton started eight straight games for the Sixers because of Richardson’s hamstring injury. Brown didn’t play him as much as a typical starter during that stretch, giving him 25.4 minutes per game. He only exceeded 30 minutes once, when he scored a career-high 27 points on Jan. 30 in Atlanta.

Milton again would not likely be assuming full-on starters minutes. Perhaps Richardson and Burks would combine for a greater sum of backup point guard minutes than usual. If Richardson were to handle backup point guard duties, that would presumably mean Glenn Robinson III, Furkan Korkmaz and Matisse Thybulle would have more minutes to take on the wing. 

Simmons was averaging a team-high 36.3 minutes entering Saturday’s game, so there is simply a lot of playing time that would need to be allocated among multiple players. 

Where would the Sixers suffer the most? 

The defense would take a big hit. The on-off stats mysteriously indicate that the Sixers have been a better defensive team with Simmons not on the floor, but they’d clearly be losing one of the best defenders in the game. 

Along with being first in steals, Simmons has the most total deflections and the most defensive loose balls recovered. He can defend opposing stars and, in general, most point guards, wings and power forwards. The Sixers would not be able to replace that defensive versatility or overall quality.

They’d obviously gain something in terms of outside shooting but would lose a lot in other offensive areas. Simmons has assisted on more threes than any player this season.

How much would it hurt overall? 

Because Simmons has played in 214 of a possible 221 regular-season games over the last three seasons, we don’t have any meaningful track record of how the Sixers tend to fare without him.

Joel Embiid would be the focus of a Simmons-less team, and it would make sense for the offense to involve more Embiid post-ups than ever.

The most basic formula for success without Simmons would be an elite Embiid on both ends of the floor, Milton and other guards succeeding in expanded roles, and Tobias Harris and Al Horford being better across the board, especially as three-point shooters. It’s not impossible that all those pieces would come together, but it would be a lot to ask. 

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