Bryan Colangelo spoke at length about Markelle Fultz’s return to the floor before last night’s game.
It went on for about 21 minutes and didn’t wrap up until shortly before tip-off, so I think most of his quotes kind of got lost in the shuffle as the focus turned to Markelle’s performance and his post game locker room availability.
I wanted to go back through the general manager’s press conference this afternoon and pick out some of the more interesting passages to talk about.
I’ll start with his explanation for Fultz’s shoulder injury. Colangelo has said from the start that he is not sure how it happened:
“It was diagnosed as a scapular imbalance by a well-known expert in Kentucky and the cause is unknown at this stage. We don’t know where it started, when it started, but it was sometime from the time we saw him in summer league – when everyone saw that he did not have a shoulder problem and there was no indication there was a problem with his shot – to something that very quickly rose to awareness in late September and early October as we started the season. Once it was determined that he really was not able to function, we dove deeper to determine whether or not there was something going on. Even though an MRI showed that there was no structural concerns, there was a scapular imbalance, as determined by the doctor in Kentucky. It literally was just a breakdown of muscle function. We don’t know enough about the injury. It’s very uncommon in basketball. It’s very complicated and complex, and that’s why there’s been so much unknown here.
We certainly apologize if we have not been clear, but I could not be more clear. We’re not sure when it happened or how it happened, but it happened. And what we’ve seen is a hard-working young man and a hard-working staff that has done everything possible to get him ready for this moment, to get back out on the court and do what he loves to do, play basketball.”
That’s Colangelo’s explanation. Fultz decided not to talk about it, so now we’ve asked both sides what happened and you can draw your own conclusions from there.
Now to the important stuff – Markelle’s future with the team and how he fits in.
Last night we saw him handle the ball as the second unit point guard, a design that allowed him to run the offense and really, by default, forced him to be assertive in his return to the floor.
I think Colangelo’s most relevant quote on this topic was a four-minute answer to a question posed by Kyle Neubeck over at Philly Voice, who asked about the decision to play Fultz at the one. Neubeck brought up Markelle’s skill-set as a shot creator as opposed to a catch and shoot player, and asked if there were any concerns about the types of shots he can take:
Colangelo: Let’s just step back a minute to his shots at Washington, I don’t recall – and we’ve done a lot of research – but he didn’t have a lot of catch and shoot situations at Washington. He had a lot of shot creation opportunities that he either created himself or it was off the bounce, or it was penetrating and kicking to a shooter. But most of his shots came with motion. I’m not sure he’s a catch and shoot type of player necessarily.
Just looking at the game and how Ben Simmons impacts the game without really catching and shooting – I don’t think I’ve seen Ben take a catch and shoot unless it was a late shot clock situation and he’s throwing it up because it came to him late.
Neubeck: But you know Ben is a different type of player than we expect Markelle to be in terms of shooting and positioning.
Colangelo: Sure, but they both are ball-handling guards, and some people think it’s crazy to call Ben a guard, but he is a guard. He’s a primary ball handler. What we have is a guy is who is impacting the game in so many ways, obviously the way he has impacted his team in such a positive way. In a lot of ways, Markelle is going to be able to impact the game. If we could put five shot creators, five decision makers, five high basketball IQ players out there at the same time, (we would). Put them on the floor with Dario. There’s a lot of good basketball to see. We have struggled with late clock shot creating situations. That’s not something I’m concerned about with Markelle at all, so it’s adding a new element to what we have, if we want to put him into a situation like that, or he finds himself in a situation like that. I think, ultimately, playing him right now, or exclusively right now at the backup (point) guard, situational and position, is just coach’s way of saying ‘I’m going to integrate him, I’m going to put him out there and see how this goes.’
That’s not to say T.J. McConnell’s not going to be on the court. T.J. may find some minutes at the two, where he already plays two alongside Ben at the one. And they kind of interchange who’s going to handle the ball. I’d love to have two ball handlers on the floor at all times if we can. In this case, we’ve got someone who can dribble, create, and pull up. It’s interesting, some players shoot the ball better off-balance, and off their own dribble or bounce, than guys who just catch and shoot. Marco is an interesting study. It seems like the more difficult the shot, the more it goes in. He’s off balance. There are others in history where you can look back and say that they shot the ball a certain way and scored the ball a certain way.
But with regard to Markelle, we’re going to see probably a whole different range of uses right now. Hopefully, as we’ve seen in the last week, there’s going to be some time to put him out on the floor in what we’ll call garbage-type situations where there’s minutes to play that are free-flowing and hopefully we’ll have better results with the way we treat those minutes, but some of the leads have expanded to the point where we’ve gotten different combinations of players out there and that’s enabled us to also rest some of the players that have logged heavy minutes this year.
A lot to unpack there, but the main takeaway is that they want Markelle to just do his thing. You saw that last night with a bunch drives to the rack, eight assists, a strip/steal, and activity on every possession. It makes a ton of sense to play him as the primary ball handler with the second unit to ease him back into the groove of the game via a lot of touches.
So what happens down the road? Can he play next to Ben Simmons as a two-guard if JJ Redick leaves in the summer? I don’t know. We saw a bit at the beginning of the season, but can you really take anything from those four games since he was playing hurt? There were a couple of moments where you saw some nice off-ball things from him, like this play here where he rubs off a screen then finds Joel Embiid for the flush:
On the surface, it may look redundant to play Fultz and Simmons together, since neither is a distance shooter at this point in their career. However, you’ve got three other starters who can shoot the three ball, so if you pull Embiid to the three point line and push Ben Simmons down to the post, maybe there’s enough spacing and room to accommodate both guards’ strengths. You can have Saric and Covington and Embiid as spaced out threats while allowing Simmons and Fultz to do their thing off the dribble. Both will only improve their shooting game from there.
Colangelo mentioned T.J. McConnell in that response, and it’s true that Brett Brown does play him as a two next to Simmons. And a lot of times they do interchange in their ball-handling roles. I think Simmons’ versatility and ability to get down to the low block makes that combination work, so theoretically he should be able to do the same things with Fultz on the floor, right? I just don’t think you’re going to see Simmons drive to the rack and kick it out to Markelle for a catch and shoot three-pointer ala Redick, at least not yet or not now.
Early in the season there was a LOT of offensive overlap on this team. Neither point guard was a great shooter. Every wing was a catch and shoot guy. Think about it; Redick, Covington, Justin Anderson, Jerryd Bayless, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Furkan Korkmaz – were any of those guys going to beat you off the dribble? Nope. You saw some moments from Anderson and Covington on the catch and drive, but they were few and far between.
You wouldn’t see that group of guys, or Simmons, try or even attempt either of these shots:
These are the hesi pull-ups that made Fultz such a tough cover at UW and pre-NCAA. Garbage time or not, great to see him shooting the ball with confidence. Will be a nightmare for opponents if he can eventually extend his pull-up game beyond NBA 3, unlocking his dynamic slashing. pic.twitter.com/bZD3psRBu0
— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) March 27, 2018
Fultz really just adds a skill-set to this team that’s been sorely missed, and that’s the ability to put the ball on the floor and create his own shot off the dribble. Simmons is the only other one who can do it, and that’s on looks at and around the rim. McConnell can sort of do it if you think about how he mashes underneath the basket and makes things happen in that fashion. He’ll find the occasional layup or short pull-up jumper that he’s hitting at a higher clip this season.
Running Markelle as the second unit point guard just makes a ton of sense and allows the team to get him going while simultaneously avoiding the issue of, ‘can he play next to Ben Simmons?’ You just kick that can down the road until next year. No worries.
As far as the issue of disrupting team chemistry or making a drastic change by bringing Fultz in with 10 games remaining, Colangelo referred to the two players added by the Sixers only recently:
“People would say, ‘how can you bring in Marco Belinelli and Ersan ilyasova so late in the season? This team was playing well and had a good thing going.’ Well, we are growing and evolving. You never say enough is enough, and Markelle Fultz has the kind of talent that you want to add to this team if you can. That’s different than adding Marco and Ersan that late in the season. But we’re looking to get better all the time. Markelle has been with his teammates, he’s been in basketball situations and I think there’s going to be an easy acclimation here to game settings and game situations. For the most part, it’s even arguably more familiar to add Markelle to the mix than it was to add Marco or Ersan in that situation. But if we can get better, we’re looking to get better. With 10 games left in the season, I feel there’s ample time to determine whether or not he’s going to be a contributor in those playoff situations we’ve talked about.”
Works for me. I mean, to his point, they drafted Fultz #1 overall knowing that he was (obviously) going to be a huge contributor to this team. Belinelli and Ilyasova were veteran pieces added late.
I said from the beginning that I felt like it made sense to bring Fultz back instead of shutting him down, since the whole point of this season was to get Embiid, Simmons, and Fultz working together with an eye towards the future. The Sixers are overachieving right now and playing phenomenal basketball, but they ain’t winning the title, not over the Rockets or Warriors or Raptors. So instead of shutting down Fultz in fear of “disrupting” a playoff run, they’re putting him out there and getting him the needed experience, getting him ready to roll for next season when the team is coming off a playoff series or two (or three). You’re going to add a max free agent to the mix and be primed to do some great things with much higher expectations.
This year was always sort of a “bridge,” in my opinion, linking the end of the Process era to whatever we’re calling the next phase of the franchise. That’s why it makes sense to get Markelle out there now, even with 10 games left.
Here’s Colangelo’s pregame availability in it’s entirety:
— Kevin Kinkead (@Kevin_Kinkead) March 26, 2018