It’s fair to say that Markelle Fultz’s rookie campaign has not gone according to plan.
Fultz, a player whose talents so intrigued the Sixers front office that GM Bryan Colangelo traded in some of the team’s prized draft assets to move into the No. 1 slot in order to select him, was supposed to be the culmination of the organization’s multi-season rebuild. At the very least, fans expected him to play a significant role as the Sixers shifted from “The Process” to the postseason.
So far, the Sixers’ young slasher has been stuck in neutral. Fultz labored through a shoulder injury that affected his jump shot and ultimately pushed him out of the lineup after four games.
There’s hope on the horizon, however. Kevin Kinkead’s Sunday notebook included a lengthy update on Fultz’s progress. The rookie’s participation in a full contact practice suggests his return to game action is imminent. The Sixers would certainly stand to benefit from Fultz’s presence in the rotation as they look to make a playoff push during the second half of the season.
No matter what happens this season, the Sixers made the right choice when they drafted Fultz. Ever since the NBA modified its hand-checking rule in 2004-05, point guards have never been more integral to the success of a team. The space-and-pace revolution that has overtaken the game demands a team employ a ball handler who can take advantage of overextended defenses by driving and dishing to open teammates. He also needs to be a perimeter scoring threat on his own who, ideally, can play off the ball as well. After all, the organizations that are excelling in the modern NBA are attacking defenses with multiple athletes who can run the offense.
Fultz’s ability to penetrate and pass to open teammates will make him a good player. But the three-point shooting ability he demonstrated in college will make him special.
There’s still time for Fultz to refine his game, of course. He’s only 19, and in the collegiate one-and-done culture that has been created in the wake of the NBA’s minimum age requirement, more and more players are starting their professional careers as raw prospects. Fultz likely won’t begin to hit his prime until his second contract.
Looking back on the 2017 NBA draft, there was really only one other viable option that the Sixers could have considered with the first pick. They could have taken a chance on Lonzo Ball.
It was never entirely clear how much interest the Sixers expressed in Ball. When the team was still sitting in the No. 3 spot, Colangelo broached the possibility of meeting with the UCLA point guard. A visit never materialized. The Sixers shortly thereafter made their move for Fultz, and Ball’s ticket to the Lakers was officially punched.
Sixers fans should be thanking the basketball gods for this fortunate turn of events. Although Ball is a gifted passer who has the potential to grow into a solid professional, the problems his attention-seeking father LaVar creates outweigh Lonzo’s promise.
LaVar Ball’s only discernible skill seems to be hijacking the stage that his talented sons have built. Much of LaVar’s act is harmless, like when he claimed he could beat Michael Jordan in a one-on-one game. LaVar might say stupid things, but he’s not an idiot. He understands that outrage sells in our reality TV culture, garnering attention and creating headlines. In time, thanks to the hyper-information age in which we live, the fury typically subsides. But the name attached to the headline endures. The trick is to find a media outlet willing to offer a platform on a frequent basis.
In this regard, LaVar Ball has found a willing accomplice in ESPN. The sports network has struggled to cultivate a new identity in a digital world. Now that sports consumers can access any score, statistic, or highlight they desire with the click of a button on their phone, there is little use for the ESPN of yesteryear. Gone are the days of Stuart Scott and Rich Eisen running through game highlights during an hour edition of SportsCenter. In their place are shows dominated by feature pieces, analysis, and the occasional highlight that are laser-focused on star players and personalities.
It’s a symbiotic relationship. ESPN helps to erect the pedestals on which these athletes build their brands (see: Tebow, Tim); in return, the network exploits the fame of the athletes to drive their ratings. Although LaVar Ball’s playing days, mediocre as they were, are long over, he was able to use Lonzo to gain access to ESPN’s brand-building apparatus.
ESPN loves carnival barkers, and LaVar plays the role very well. As evidence, take a look at his appearance on First Take with cartoon-character-come-to-life Stephen A. Smith:
ESPN billed this clip as an “intense shouting match,” but don’t let the title fool you. Game recognizes game, and Smith, a guy who once started a feud with Kevin Durant, clearly respects the way in which Ball has so brazenly inserted himself into the story.
Lonzo has seemed to take his father’s behavior in stride, but LaVar Ball is writing checks with his mouth that his son is on the hook to cash. From his professional debut, Lonzo Ball has had a giant target on his back. And now, thanks to his father’s latest comments, there might be some tension with his employer.
For reasons that are difficult to fathom, especially in light of ESPN’s financial woes, the network sent a reporter to Lithuania to cover Lonzo’s brothers, LiAngelo and LaMelo. The reporter, Jeff Goodman, filed a story and filmed an interview with LaVar Ball, who shared his low opinion of Lakers head coach Luke Walton:
“You can see they’re not playing for Luke no more,” Ball said from a spa resort in Birstonas, where he is staying while his two youngest sons, LiAngelo and LaMelo, get ready to make their professional debuts with Lithuanian team Prienu Vytautas. “Luke doesn’t have control of the team no more. They don’t want to play for him.”
“That’s a good team,” he added of the Lakers, who have lost nine straight games. “Nobody wants to play for him. I can see it. No high-fives when they come out of the game. People don’t know why they’re in the game. He’s too young. He’s too young. … He ain’t connecting with them anymore. You can look at every player, he’s not connecting with not one player.”
Dallas Mavericks head coach and NBA Coaches Association President Rick Carlisle rightly ripped ESPN for its decision to amplify a voice that offers nothing but self-aggrandizing noise:
Rick Carlisle: "Disgrace" that ESPN published LaVar Ball ripping Luke Walton. “They should look at their sources and do a better job of determining whether they have any merit or any validity. Or are they just blowhard loudmouths?” https://t.co/vkKWT5aCDN
— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) January 8, 2018
Could you imagine the damage this man would have wrought on the 76ers’ carefully-constructed rebuilding plan had the team selected Ball in the draft? Imagine LaVar Ball’s outrage as the Sixers featured Ben Simmons as a point forward, to the detriment of his son’s stats. Do you think he would have called for Brett Brown’s ouster during an extended losing streak, or claimed that Brown lost the team? What would have happened if T.J. McConnell were eating into Lonzo’s minutes? Or if too much of the offense were going through Joel Embiid for LaVar Ball’s liking? Or if he hadn’t seen his name in the papers in a few days and needed another attention fix?
“Distractions” are often contrived narratives driven by writers who know that an analysis of the nuts and bolts of a game doesn’t make for exciting copy. People generally don’t want to read a statistics-driven breakdown. They want the soap opera, the personality clash. Unfortunately, there’s an audience for the theater LaVar Ball provides. And, knowing how difficult it can be to find compelling discussion topics, I couldn’t hold it against a beat reporter or radio host who takes a drink from the LaVar Ball quote fountain. It’s easy, and it generates multiple stories. Yet, there’s a frustrating failure among too many media members to acknowledge the active role they play in staging the dramas over which they fret.
The fallout from LaVar Ball’s Walton comments offers a solid example. The ESPN lede on the Lakers-Hawks game story was the LaVar Ball criticism. A 5 a.m. interview with a disgruntled parent in Lithuania is now a “controversy” with which the Lakers must contend. If you scroll down to the sidebar, you will find three additional articles related to the topic.
In a follow-up column analyzing the situation, ESPN reporter Ramona Shelburne placed the onus for controlling LaVar Ball entirely on the Lakers. Aside from a brief acknowledgment that she and her colleagues need to wrestle with the reasons why Ball warrants coverage, Shelburne’s piece was severely lacking in introspection. She asserts that the Lakers need to do something; Shelburne’s employer has left a flaming bag of dog poop on L.A.’s front porch, and now she demands to know how the franchise intends to clean up the mess. The thesis is a laughable abdication of journalistic agency and accountability.
In this instance, ESPN isn’t covering the news. It’s creating the news. Undoubtedly, the network will weave this absurd sideshow into the overall tapestry of the Lakers season. Either the Lakers will exceed expectations and “overcome adversity,” or they will be doomed by LaVar Ball’s comments and fall back into the draft lottery. The truth, that Los Angeles is a young team that doesn’t expect to compete until it lands a superstar free agent in the offseason, is irrelevant. The storyline is the truth.
Sometimes, the best draft decisions are the choices organizations do not make. When the 76ers selected Markelle Fultz rather than Lonzo Ball, they chose the better basketball player. But they also opted to keep the LaVar Ball circus out of town. It’s a decision I imagine they will not regret, no matter how much time Fultz misses this season.