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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