Orlando Magic

Markelle Fultz has big night against the Lakers

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Markelle Fultz has big night against the Lakers

There was a reason the Sixers traded up for the right to draft Markelle Fultz with the No. 1 overall pick.

Those skills were on full display Wednesday night in Los Angeles.

Fultz recorded his second career triple-double (21 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists) in leading the Magic to a victory over LeBron James and the Lakers.

While the three-point shot still hasn’t quite come around for Fultz, he showed a lot of the same abilities he did during his brief time with the Sixers.

He’s good at creating his own shot.

He has nice touch around the rim.

He can change speeds and stop on a dime.

Fultz certainly had his issues here, but there’s no denying the 21-year-old is immensely gifted. While you could drive yourself crazy playing the "what if?" game, Fultz’s trade to Orlando could be what was best for everyone.

It’s also fair to point out that this hasn’t been the normal output for Fultz. Coming into the night, Fultz was averaging 11.5 points, 4.5 assists and 3.2 rebounds a game.

But if he continues to produce like he did Wednesday, it’ll make Magic GM John Hammond look like a genius.

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What if the Sixers had never traded up to draft Markelle Fultz?

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What if the Sixers had never traded up to draft Markelle Fultz?

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.

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.

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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.

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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Sixers fail to sustain their Christmas excellence as late comeback falls short in Orlando

Sixers fail to sustain their Christmas excellence as late comeback falls short in Orlando

BOX SCORE 

In their Christmas Day win over the Milwaukee Bucks, the Sixers played like they could beat anybody. Friday night, they failed to beat the Orlando Magic, who entered the game 13-17. 

They fell to Orlando at Amway Center, 98-97, dropping to 23-11 on the season and snapping a three-game win streak. 

Down 11 points with 1:49 to go, the Sixers rallied. They cut the deficit to three, and two missed free throws by Markelle Fultz opened the door. Ben Simmons' inbounds pass with 22.1 seconds left was intercepted by Evan Fournier. The Magic guard split his foul shots, helping to keep the Sixers in it, and Joel Embiid's three with 5.1 seconds to go made it a one-point game.

Simmons then picked off Aaron Gordon's inbounds pass and, with no timeouts left, tossed the ball to Embiid as he was falling out of bounds. Embiid's long three-pointer at the buzzer fell short. 

The Miami Heat are up next on Saturday night (8 p.m./NBCSP).

Here are observations from the loss: 

Defense rules the day … and lackluster offense 

Neither team had much offensive success early. Orlando missed 25 of its first 36 shots, while the Sixers started 1 of 8 from three. They finished 10 of 29 on threes after going 21 of 44 on Christmas.

Though the Magic did a solid job on defense, the Sixers didn’t hit many of the open looks they’d made Wednesday vs. Milwaukee, their ball movement wasn’t nearly as sharp and they committed 15 turnovers. 

Al Horford was a peripheral figure on offense for most of the game, not scoring until there were less than four minutes left in the third quarter, but he had a decent game defensively, contesting shots well at the rim and buying his teammates time when they fell behind on pick-and-rolls. Still, seven points from the Sixers’ power forwards — Mike Scott had zero in 15 minutes — is obviously insufficient. 

Markelle Fultz, willing shooter 

The Sixers played well, well off their former No. 1 pick, encouraging Fultz to shoot.

Fultz did, hitting 2 of 4 three-pointers. His jumper still is far from smooth, but he’s taken 51 threes this season, making 14 (27.5 percent). His makes didn’t deter the Sixers from their logical game plan — they preferred a three-point attempt from a low-percentage outside shooter over a Fultz drive. 

In the never-ending discussion about Simmons’ jump shot, it’s an important reminder: Increased volume does not necessarily equate to increased respect from opposing defenses. 

Simmons, who attempted one fadeaway jumper out of necessity late in the shot clock, had 13 points, nine rebounds and seven assists against the same defensive approach. His offensive performance was a couple of levels below his past three games, when he totaled an incredible 42 assists. 

Growing a partnership 

Embiid picked up where he left off on Christmas, scoring seven of the Sixers’ first nine points and “quarterbacking the gym” from the post, as Brett Brown would say.

He cooled off in a scoreless second quarter, though, and ended up with 24 points (8 of 21 shooting) and 11 rebounds. After his hot start, Embiid seemed to lose his rhythm and sense of timing. He also saw several open or lightly contested jumpers go in and out. 

One bright spot is that the pick-and-roll between Embiid and Josh Richardson continues to make gradual progress. Little of Richardson’s pick-and-roll offense comes in the form of straight line drives to the rim. His patience is a strength, but it also means that the Embiid-Richardson partnership isn’t a simple one to develop.

“When you play with cross-back guards — we call it bulldogging,” Brown said on Christmas. “So Joel holds the screen and then J-Rich, he's either going to take off or he's going to bulldog and play cross-back game and that dynamic of a pick-and-roll partnership evolves. … That growth, that knowledge, that familiarity takes time.”     

Not enough help from the bench 

The Sixers only got 14 points from their bench Friday as Furkan Korkmaz (3 of 9) came back to earth after two strong shooting games and neither Scott nor James Ennis made a field goal. 

Trey Burke was the team’s backup point guard for the fifth straight game. In his first stint, Burke defended 6-foot D.J. Augustin capably and burst past him twice on the other end, scoring five points. Burke was outplayed by Augustin the next time the two squared off late in the third quarter, though, failing to generate good half-court offense and allowing Augustin to sink a three.

Games like these make one wonder how much general manager Elton Brand should value bench scoring as he explores options before the Feb. 6 trade deadline.

“As GM, I’ll always look at that,” he said Wednesday. “I’ll always look at that. Any way I can make the team better. But again, I’m encouraged about where we are and I look forward to having that group grow and compete against upper-level teams.”

Of course, the Sixers’ bench should look better when impressive 3-and-D rookie Matisse Thybulle returns from a right knee injury. 

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