Is Markelle Fultz a starter for good in Philly?
It’s a work in progress. But coach Brett Brown’s decision to replace J.J. Redick in the starting lineup with Fultz, back in the swing of things after a brutal rookie season in Philly, is one he’d like to stick with all year — just as Brown pushed, after watching Ben Simmons all during the summer of 2017, to make Simmons his full-time starting point guard.
Famously, Fultz lost his offensive mojo in Philly last year. Whether due to injuries, the yips — or, more likely, a combination of both — he barely registered, something that would be hard enough for the first overall pick in the Draft. But it was even more difficult to digest as a) it happened in Philly, not the most charitable and forgiving of cities, and b) it happened while the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum, the guy Boston took with the third pick overall, acquired in the Fultz deal, looked for all the world like a burgeoning superstar as Boston went to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Fultz missed five months of action, with a shoulder injury that the Sixers struggled to explain in a way that satisfied anyone for weeks, before finally announcing he suffered from scapular dyskinesis. It was, as a source explained last winter, as if Fultz’s shoulder had suffered a stroke. But the 76ers had, oddly, continued to let everyone see Fultz shoot in practice, when it was obvious he was really struggling with his confidence. He returned late in the regular season and had a couple of solid offensive games, but was an afterthought during the playoffs.
Fultz spent his offseason fixing the shot under the tutelage of skills development guru Drew Hanlen. He looked, again, like the guy Brown saw on tape at the University of Washington. And Brown, looking for better matchups throughout his roster, wants to see if Fultz will be better playing alongside Joel Embiid and Simmons, and if Redick will do better coming off the bench.
Philly’s new starting lineup debuted on Friday in the Sixers’ first preseason game against Melbourne United. Fultz scored 14 points in 23 minutes, making 6 of 11 shots from the floor.
“I thought it was good,” Brown said by phone Sunday. “It was something I intend to try to learn more about. I feel like when you sort of cut to the chase with Markelle, him allowing me to put him on opposing point guards defensively, interests me greatly to start a game. And offensively, having sort of another type of creator on the floor, and another pick and roll guy, and another sort of push the pace guy, interests me.”
You should always be skeptical about offseason workout numbers. Every guy comes back from the summer supposedly having added 15 pounds of muscle, or adding an inch and a half to his vertical. In Fultz’s case, he reportedly took 150,000 shots with Hanlen during the offseason.
“More like 160,000,” Hanlen insisted Sunday via text, saying he has interns who can confirm the count.
Hanlen and Fultz got to Philly together on Sept. 2, and he’s been in town with him ever since. After a summer of rebuilding his shot, Fultz displayed a jumper Friday with a higher shot pocket than he’d had most of the offseason. It was part of the ongoing tweaks that are likely to continue throughout the year.
Brown told reporters in Philly last week that he consulted with recently retired Manu Ginobili, who had to make a similar transition from starter to top reserve in San Antonio while Brown was an assistant coach under Gregg Popovich, to get Ginobili’s perspective about how he handled it. For a veteran like Redick, a creature of detailed habit in his NBA years as a starter, it’s a very hard adjustment.
“I reached out to Manu and Pop, especially Manu, and listened to him’,” Brown said Sunday.
“‘Cause I couldn’t remember. It was 10 years ago. I said, what do you remember? I’m considering doing this with J.J. I want to know what you remember from a player’s perspective.’ And I listened to Pop and I listened to that. And we won the Finals that year (2007). And I sat with J.J., and we talked this through. We did this together. I wanted to make sure everything was thought through. It’s a level of respect for him and a level of respect for the team.”
The move, Brown hopes, will also help keep Redick fresher on offense by taking defending opposing points off of his plate. (Brown will not add this, but he struggled to find a defensive matchup for Redick anywhere as a starter against Boston in the second round. In Game 1 against the Celtcs, he tried putting Redick on Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum, and Tatum tarred him for a good chunk of his 28 points in a Boston victory on the road. As those teams could well meet again in a late May playoff this coming season, it’s never too early to start thinking about matchups.)
Brown insists Redick won’t lose playing time after averaging 30 minutes a game this season. “As you’re doing this, the notion of ending games is the place, obviously, I’m going to go,” Brown said. “With J.J., his minutes aren’t going to be reduced; they’re just going to be redistributed.”
The 76ers refused to put Fultz in any of their real trade proposals for Kawhi Leonard over the summer. Brown was simply not ready to give up yet on the electric talent he saw in college. Philly didn’t get the elite free agent it hoped it would, but Fultz can help make up for that if he can follow up his work with Hanlen and turn it into production for Brown.
“I think he’s looked excellent,” Brown said Sunday, “and I especially think he’s looked excellent in regard to his spirit. He doesn’t shy away from anything. I put him on the free-throw line in front of 30 Philadelphia media people…he was out there for everyone to see. And I saw him for the month of September shoot every shot he should have shot. They didn’t all go in, but he didn’t shy away.”