Huskies in the NBA: Washington basketball’s Markelle Fultz is blossoming in Orlando

In his first season in a fresh situation, the Washington basketball alum and former No. 1 pick is showing star potential.

At the beginning of the 2019 NBA offseason, it was fairly clear that former Washington basketball alum Markelle Fultz and the Philadelphia 76ers were headed for a particularly costly and messy separation. After the acquisitions of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris throughout the season and Fultz’s subsequent refusal to play, we were left to see which team wanted to take a chance on a player for which Sixers GM Elton Brand traded up to draft at No. 1 overall.

Fultz’s trade to Orlando signaled the end of two seasons of futility, where he played a total of 36 games in two full years. In that span, he averaged 7.7 points per game on 41.4% shooting from the field. His potential was undeniable, but struggles with shooting and injury generated plenty of questions about his mental game and willingness to play. A particularly awful free throw form after his first return from injury went viral and led to even more scrutiny.

Along with the respective successes of the other top three picks in their first two years (Lonzo Ball and Jayson Tatum), there was plenty of “bust” talk already being thrown around.

But in the 64 games in Orlando since that trade, the turnaround has been nothing short of remarkable. Fultz has already silenced some doubters and shown a marked growth in confidence and aggressiveness en route to reasserting himself as a high-ceiling playmaker who can lead a team. With more freedom within the flow of offense and patience from the organization, his game this season has looked much more like it did in college.

 

Other than three-point shooting, which is still an area that he is working to improve, Fultz’s offensive stats improved in every area. This year, he’s averaging 12.1 points and 5.2 assists per game in 28.3 minutes a night.

As a patient midrange rover, Fultz excels at finding open space in opposing defenses and using his athleticism and size to blow by defenders when he finds it. He plods, takes his time, surveys for an opening, and then capitalizes. He’s finishing drives at a 49% clip, which is among the top 20 in the league for point guards. His 6’9” wingspan also helps to finish aggressively in the paint even over bigger and better-positioned defenders, and when he gets a chance to explode his verticality is impressive.

His passing ability has also been critical for the Magic — he generates more points (13.7) with his assists than anyone else on the roster. He makes passes and finds small openings so rapidly that sometimes even his teammates aren’t expecting them yet. Just look at all 14 dimes in his career-high against the Hornets:

Jump shooting is still an issue, as it has been for the past two seasons. His shooting splits have improved this season as his form came along, but still linger near the league’s 90th percentile. The good news: he is taking far more shots from midrange and 3 and forcing defenders to close out on him with the ball on the perimeter, which bodes well for continual improvement in that area. The difference in confidence between Orlando and Philadelphia is visibly apparent when looking at the increased volume of tougher shots Fultz is taking and making.

As the season has progressed, Fultz has taken significant strides month by month. In the last three games for the Magic before the league hiatus, he was coming into his own even more. Averaging 18.7 points, 5.3 assists and three rebounds on 59.5% shooting from the field, along with a strong 24-point performance against the Timberwolves, it was hard to deny that Fultz was on the verge of something greater.

As of right now, the Magic are a playoff team, 5.5 games ahead of the Washington Wizards in the East’s No. 8 spot. Regardless of whether the season returns or not, Fultz has positioned himself as a future leader for this team who will only continue to progress.

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