Maybe the Celtics knew something no one else did when Boston traded its first overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft to Philadelphia. The Sixers felt giving up their third pick and a future first-rounder was worth the guarantee that Markelle Fultz, the 6-foot-4 transition-scoring, keen-defending, sharpshooting, playmaking Washington Huskie out of Maryland would wear white, blue, and red that fall. Fultz seemed like a slam-dunk pick, and the Sixers envisioned him playing next to their franchise guard from the future, Ben Simmons.
“We are very pleased with the outcome of this trade, which puts us in the enviable position of selecting first overall in consecutive draft years,” then–Sixers president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo said. “History suggests that no. 1 has the greatest odds of producing franchise-level talent and we are confident that this year’s draft class has that very potential.”
The Ringer’s Mark Titus wrote this on Fultz while he was still in college:
Fultz is so gifted that his best attributes can change from game to game. Sometimes he counts on the 3-point shot that he’s hitting at a 41.3 percent rate on the season, like when he went 5-for-10 from deep and dropped 25 in a 107–66 loss to UCLA on February 4. More often, he makes his living in the paint by relying on his midrange jumper, change-of-pace dribbling, and array of crafty and unorthodox moves, like when he scored a career-high 37 in an 85–83 win over Colorado in January despite going just 0-for-2 from 3. He can be a traditional point guard and try to get his teammates going with his great ball-handling and court vision, he can crash the glass as well as any guard in America, and he can morph into a solid defender with excellent hands and instincts. In short: You could put Fultz on any team in the country and he’d instantly become its best player. <inset>
It was true. And it was true less than 22 months ago.
But somehow, the assurance that Fultz would indeed be a Sixer was the last sure thing Philadelphia would have regarding Fultz for the next year and a half. Since the Sixers drafted him, a mysterious shoulder injury and/or a case of the yips erased his jumper. This is a timeline of the Sixers’ nightmarish two years since they made that fateful trade with Boston:
June 2017: Fultz gets up shots one week before the 2017 NBA Draft.
Fultz is in the gym, jumpshot unimpaired (this footage was shared in December 2018 by The Boston Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach):
Last night I actually found some new old footage that I shot of Markelle Fultz one week before the NBA draft. Another reminder of what his shot used to look like. pic.twitter.com/tsnx2aQ2ZH
— Adam Himmelsbach (@AdamHimmelsbach) December 4, 2018
This is the form the Sixers saw going into the draft, same as it was in college. The organization worked Fultz out on June 17, five days before selecting him.
June 22, 2017: The Philadelphia 76ers select Fultz with the no. 1 overall pick.
Early-to-mid September 2017: Before reporting for Sixers minicamp, longtime trainer and mentor Keith Williams notices a difference in Fultz’s shot.
On December 14, 2018, The Washington Post’s Candace Buckner reported that Williams spotted a difference after he was drafted:
Williams noticed a change in that jumper during the summer before Fultz reported to his first NBA minicamp. According to Williams, Fultz’s release point started at his chest, not above his head as usual. When Williams asked about the funky release, he said, Fultz told him, “It feels like somebody’s holding my arms down.”
September 27, 2017: Fultz’s free throw shot appears different.
At the line during a 5-on-5 scrimmage during camp, Fultz awkwardly thrusts the ball, differing from his form at Washington.
September 28, 2017: Sixers coach Brett Brown makes it clear the change in form was Fultz’s choice; Fultz concurs.
This is one of the few times both parties are on the same page. Fultz responded to questions about his new free throw form by saying his form is “going to look the same as in college,” and that he’s “just trying to look at different ways to see how the ball can go in the hoop.”
At this time, no one mentioned any potential issues with his right shoulder, with Brown explaining Fultz was simply overthinking his form—a normal rookie adjustment.
“His percentages revealed that he’s a more-than-capable shooter,” Brown said. “I think right now him trying to figure out how to not overcomplicate things and maybe make over something that didn’t need to be made over as much as he might of thought is a challenge.
“He’s 19. I think there’s a physical side of it that no matter how good his head and his heart is, you get back to reality.” This quote now feels like foreshadowing (or what some might call a jinx): Fultz’s “head” would soon be blamed—as the yips—for his shot disappearing.
October 2, 2017: Brett Brown tells the media he’s unhappy with Fultz’s shot.
Philadelphia Inquirer reporter David Murphy asked Brown whether he’s “comfortable” with where Fultz’s form is.
“No, and so we’re gonna get back on track. His heart is in the right place. All by himself, he pivoted out over the summer and tried to make it better and tweak it, and he’s in a place right now where we’re gonna try to remind him where his shot was and try to bring that back into probably more a tighter shot, bring his release point down a little bit, bring the ball closer to his body. We have a Team Markelle all around him to help him, and he’s gonna be just fine.”
Note Brown saying Fultz changed his shot “all by himself.” What Fultz’s camp claims and what the team claims will become a point of growing contention.
October 9, 2017: Fultz shoots his first NBA free throw in a preseason game.
During the Sixers’ preseason debut against the Celtics, Fultz showed another variation of his free throw form. This time, it’s jumbled and low: Here, he doesn’t pull up from the waist or bend his knees, instead beginning his motion while the ball is already above his head. Without pausing for it to set, he releases:
Biggest problem with Fultz free throw is that he starts it at shoulder height. Needs to start at waist level for rhythm and POWER pic.twitter.com/CExnUgao4r
— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) October 9, 2017
After the loss, Fultz explained that he was experiencing shoulder soreness—the first mention of a physical strain in the entire Fultz saga. He went on to sit three of the Sixers’ five preseason games.
October 10, 2017: Fultz talks to The Ringer, admitting shoulder pain as the root of the problem.
Fultz told Kevin O’Connor that his shoulder had been hurting “on and off,” though he couldn’t pinpoint when the pain first began, and admitted the discomfort was what caused him to tinker with his free throws in the first place. “I’m just trying other things to make free throws. At the end of the day, that’s not an excuse for me.”
October 18–23, 2017: Fultz plays limited minutes in Philadelphia’s first four games of the season.
Over four games (and 76 total minutes), Fultz averaged six points on 33.3 percent shooting, 2.3 rebounds, and 1.8 assists. He shot worse than a big man at the line (50 percent) and didn’t attempt a 3-pointer.
October 24, 2017: Raymond Brothers, Fultz’s agent, says Fultz had fluid drained from his shoulder before the season began on October 5.
“Markelle had a shoulder injury and fluid drained out of the back of his shoulder,” Brothers told ESPN. “He literally cannot raise up his arms to shoot the basketball. He decided to try and fight through the pain to help the team.”
Later October 24, 2017: Raymond Brothers retracts own statement, saying Fultz had fluid put in, not taken out.
“He had a cortisone shot on October 5,” Brothers clarified, “which means fluid was put into his shoulder, not taken out. My intention earlier was to let people know that he’s been experiencing discomfort. We will continue to work with Bryan Colangelo and the medical staff.”
“My intention earlier” is an interesting way to say “I was mistaken,” but at least at this point Brothers indicated that he and the team were in communication and working together.
October 25, 2017: Philadelphia rules Fultz out for its next three games, against Houston, Dallas, and Houston again.
Also October 25, 2017: Colangelo and Brown implicate Fultz.
“Bryan Colangelo speculates that Fultz changing his shooting motion on his own could have contributed to his shoulder soreness,” The Athletic’s Derek Bodner tweeted. Just 15 days earlier, Fultz had claimed it was the opposite: He changed the free throw motion because of shoulder soreness. At this point, Fultz’s soreness and his shooting form are becoming a kind of chicken-and-egg argument in Philly.
Brown later insisted that Fultz was determined to change his shot, implying that he was set on doing so rather than it being cause andeffect: “There is zero doubt Markelle … tried to change his shot.”
Also October 25, 2017: Keith Williams, longtime mentor, trainer, and family friend of Fultz, denies team’s claims.
On Philadelphia radio station 94WIP, Williams, who had known Fultz since he was 7 and trained him since he was a kid, said “Oh my god. That’s false. That’s not true” on air. “That’s not a changed shot at all. That’s something that’s been altered because of the injury.”
October 29, 2017: Philadelphia rules Fultz out indefinitely, citing soreness and scapular muscle imbalance in his right shoulder.
November 19, 2017: Fultz sees a doctor in Lexington, Kentucky; Philadelphia sends out an optimistic press release:
Fultz was examined and evaluated today by Dr. Ben Kibler, Medical Director of the Shoulder Center of Kentucky at the Lexington Clinic, for the soreness and scapular muscle imbalance that he has been experiencing in his right shoulder. The soreness is dissipating and the muscle balance is improving, and Fultz will continue with physiotherapy and begin progressing toward full basketball activities.
December 9, 2017: Philadelphia says Fultz is “no longer experiencing soreness in his right shoulder and the scapular muscle imbalance is resolved.”
January 2, 2017: Fultz is cleared for “gradual re-integration into team practices and training.”
January 17, 2018: A video of Fultz shooting in practice surfaces.
Fultz’s form changed again, but still looked far from natural:
Also January 17: Brown says Fultz can “still impact an NBA game without having to shoot.”
January 28, 2018: Fultz tweaks his shot again.
In a shootaround before a game, Fultz used momentum from his legs and pulled up from his waist to launch some free throws:
It’s better, but the hitch is still evident.
January 29, 2018: Fultz returns to the basics.
This shooting drill is literally 4 feet from the basket, making it appear that Fultz was starting from scratch:
February 6, 2018: Fultz admits having to “relearn” a functional shot to Caron Butler on a TNT game broadcast.
“It’s been tough,” Fultz said, “but at the end of the day I know that it’s going to make me better. It’s been a long journey just trying to relearn it. I’m going through it and I want to go back out there as quick as I can but it’s been a slow process.”
February 9, 2018: Colangelo confirms Fultz’s diminished range.
“He’s got to feel right, and we’ve got to feel right,” Colangelo told PhillyVoice’s Kyle Neubeck. “Everything within a certain range, it’s beautiful.”
What range, exactly?
“It’s within the paint basically. Paint shots, perimeter shots are kind of where you draw a line. But anything instinctive going to the hole, talk about shot creation and what he’s able to do just some of the rise ups, it’s nice to see.”
March 26–April 11, 2018: Fultz plays in 10 games in limited minutes, finishing out the regular season.
On 17.7 minutes per game, Fultz averaged 7.6 points on 42.9 percent shooting, 3.4 rebounds, and 4.6 assists. He shot 44.4 percent from the line, even worse than his initial debut, and attempted one 3 over the 10 games, which he missed. On March 29, Fultz turned 20 years old.
April 14–19, 2018: Fultz plays 23 minutes in Philadelphia’s first three playoff games against Miami.
In Game 1, he went 1-for-4, in Game 2, he went 0-for-3 (in under five minutes!), and in Game 3, he didn’t shoot at all. And that’s how the first overall draft pick finished his rookie season.
June 22, 2018: Fultz’s new trainer, Drew Hanlen, says the guard had the yips.
“With Markelle, obviously, he had one of the most documented case of kind of the yips of basketball in recent years,” Hanlen said on the Talking Schmidt Podcast, “where he completely forgot how to shoot and had multiple hitches in his shot.” This was the first instance of someone close to Fultz identifying “yips” as part of the issue.
Hanlen, who met Fultz through another client, Joel Embiid, had been working with Fultz to recreate his shot through the offseason and was confident that it’d be back by summer’s end, if not better. “We’ve been working hard every day, working on rewiring his body and getting kind of a smooth stroke back in his shot. We’re way ahead of pace where I thought we were gonna be. I thought it was gonna take me at least six weeks before we had kind of a serviceable jump shot. […] It’s not perfect yet, but I think by the end of the summer it will be perfect.”
Fultz disagreed publicly with Hanlen on the yips being a factor, then explained his mental state with … kind of the exact definition of the yips:
“I think it was a mis-term in words, but me and Drew have talked,” Fultz said. “What happened last year was an injury. Let me get that straight. It was an injury that happened that didn’t allow me to go through the certain paths that I needed to, to shoot the ball. Just like any normal person, when you’re used to doing something the same way each and every day and something happens, of course, you’re going to start thinking about it. It’s just normal.”
September 20, 2018: Fultz tells The Players Tribune the jumper that he was drafted for is back and “even better.”
“It was really an injury, and now, I got the chance to sit down and pick apart these doctors. We figured it out, and I been back to work this summer. And everything’s back to even better than what it was. … I think I’m gonna be that guy that’s going to be able to create shots for himself and his teammates. That guy at the end of the game when you need a bucket, you don’t really have to call a play. I want it to be special when I come back, and I want to have people guessing.”
People will be guessing, but not how Fultz envisioned.
October 18, 2018: Fultz makes his first-ever 3-pointer in the NBA and the Wells Fargo crowd loses its mind.
November 4, 2018: Fultz starts Philly’s first 11 games with confusing rotations.
Brown’s minute distribution was odd in this stretch; Fultz would start the beginning of games and often sit the second half. From an outside perspective, starting Fultz seemed like a move to give him some confidence back. But were that the case, why not just play him through his mistakes? Up to this point, Fultz was shooting 39.3 percent overall, 30.8 percent from 3, and averaging 9.3 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.1 steals in 24.3 minutes.
November 5, 2018: Hanlen tweets in Fultz’s defense that he’s “still not healthy”; Brown pushes back.
The tweet was later deleted, but Brown was alerted to it: “Nobody’s ever 100 percent healthy,” he said. “To the best of my knowledge, he’s healthy enough to go do what he’s been doing. He’s been playing basketball and doing well. He’s fine. There’s no conspiracy theory out there.”
Fultz echoed his coach’s sentiment, repeating verbatim that “nobody’s ever 100 percent healthy.”
November 7–12, 2018: Fultz starts four games after Hanlen’s comments, making 15 straight starts, and appears to “glitch” tying his shoes
In the fourth quarter against the Grizzlies, Fultz bends down to tie his shoes, then spasms when coming back up:
November 12, 2018: Fultz shoots another particularly cringeworthy free throw, this time against Miami.
In what appeared to be his worst shot yet, Fultz hesitated, raised his heels and pump-faked on a free throw, then released.
November 13, 2018: Hanlen and Fultz end their working and personal relationship.
The two had reportedly fallen out three weeks prior. The reason behind the split is unclear, though the result of their work together wasn’t going very well publicly: Fultz’s form had obviously not improved, leaving Hanlen to publicly defend his own work and his former client one week prior.
November 14–19, 2018: Brown moves Fultz to the bench for Philadelphia’s next four games.
During the November 19 game against the Suns, Brown sat Fultz the second half. He then called on T.J. McConnell, who had not played the three games prior (he was fully healthy), to run the second unit. When asked whether it was a permanent swap, Brown said “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
November 19, 2018: Cowboys’ wide receiver Amari Cooper mocks Fultz’s free throw shot in a touchdown celebration; Fultz responds.
“God got me,” Fultz tweeted afterward. He then retweeted the video of Cooper’s “free throw.”
November 20, 2018: Brothers announces that under his direction, Fultz has scheduled an appointment with a shoulder specialist.
For the second time, Fultz is officially ruled out for the foreseeable future, and won’t participate in games or practices until the specialist had seen him. This time, it was completely at the direction of Brothers, who served as his attorney as well as his agent. According to Buckner’s report, the Sixers organization wasn’t aware of the news until after it had circulated on Twitter.
”This news about his shoulder, it did catch me off guard,” Brown said in response to the appointment announcement. “If it’s that real, and he needs to go see a further sort of consultation, then we support him.”
Also November 20, 2018: Fultz practices with the Sixers, who have no idea what’s going on
Directly contradicting the Fultz camp’s declaration, Fultz engaged in “light shooting” practice with the Sixers that Tuesday, per Keith Pompey. Brothers had told Brand that the guard wouldn’t be able to participate until he saw a shoulder specialist, which was scheduled for the following Monday.
”There’s nothing that we saw medically that didn’t allow him to play,” Brand said. “He played last night. He played two nights ago. Ever since Jimmy Butler came and he wasn’t starting, I felt he played pretty well. I was proud of the way he bounced back from a lot of things.”
November 21, 2018: News of a wrist injury breaks and everything goes to hell.
The Athletic reported that Fultz’s shoulder wasn’t the only thing impairing his shooting form. He was also having issues with his right wrist, affecting his ability to simply hold the ball at all. The Athletic reported that in addition to his second injury (on top of a diagnosed, then undiagnosed first one), Fultz wished to be traded away from Philadelphia. “The player would prefer a fresh start with a new team,” Jared Weiss wrote.
Brothers fired back right away to clear the air, telling ESPN that wasn’t the case. “I have given no indication to (new general manager) Elton Brand or anyone else that Markelle would prefer to be traded. My focus is to get Markelle healthy. End of story.” (When asked, Brand refused to entertain the question of whether or not Fultz had requested a trade: “Seriously,” he told reporters, “I have not read the story.”)
Per Buckner’s report (published a couple weeks later, on December 14), Philadelphia rejected multiple trade offers for Fultz because the return wasn’t of “equal value,” which Buckner wrote “indicates how other teams in the league view Fultz and the rocky start to his career.”
December 4, 2018: A new diagnosis comes to light: neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome.
The shoulder specialist offered a completely different root problem, which ESPN sources said could cause Fultz to miss anywhere from three to six weeks. After the diagnosis broke, The Ringer’s Michael Baumann wrote on what exactly it was:
The “thoracic outlet” of “thoracic outlet syndrome” is the gap between the collarbone and the first rib. A lot of important stuff has to fit through that hole, specifically nerves and major blood vessels, and repetitive motion (such as throwing a baseball) can cause that gap to shrink. When that happens, the collarbone and the top rib compress all the nerves and blood vessels between them like a clamp, which can cause numbness and/or muscle weakness in the hand.
When the TOS is neurogenic, it means the issue is with a compressed nerve, while vascular TOS entails a compressed blood vessel. The most famous TOS case in baseball history came in 1980, when Astros ace J.R. Richard suffered a stroke brought on by the blood vessel constriction of vascular TOS. Richard, then 30 years old and coming off back-to-back 300-strikeout seasons, nearly died and never pitched in the major leagues again.
Prescribing a specific name to Fultz’s issue should’ve helped his camp with two problems: It established a timeline, and it clarified, once and for all, that the issue wasn’t mental—this wasn’t the “yips.”
“People were saying it was a mental problem,” Brothers said, “and it is not. There’s no way you’re the no. 1 pick in the world and all of a sudden you aren’t able to consistently raise your arms to shoot. … Something is physically wrong. Now we have the answer to that problem.”
Philadelphia has been out of the loop nearly every step of the way. Between Williams, Brothers, the doctors, and even the trainers, the accounts are as different as the injury theories. And then there’s Fultz. For most players with great potential ruined by injury, it’s easy to accept physical health as the downfall. But with Fultz the mystery remains. Is the shoulder, the wrist, the yips, or something else to blame? After so long, it becomes a cold case the league will no longer place priority on solving. Without something to blame, Fultz would be one of the most unconventional NBA busts of all time.