The 2022-23 regular season ends in less than a week, and there are plenty of exciting storylines to follow with multiple teams vying for playoff positioning in both conferences. However, one of the best stories from this season comes from the Orlando Magic, a team that’s missing the playoffs entirely. Specifically, the career resurgence of Markelle Fultz has flown quietly under the radar, but is an occurrence that deserves plenty of praise from anyone who enjoys basketball.
Most fans remember Fultz as the Philadelphia 76ers’ disappointing first overall pick in 2017. Initially compared to players such as James Harden and Kevin Durant in scouting reports, the Washington product suffered heavy scrutiny early in his career for poor production and seemingly losing his ability to shoot the ball. Additionally, Fultz sat out the majority of his first two years while struggling with health issues related to his shoulder and neck, all of which culminated in him receiving the “bust” label and getting shipped off to the Orlando Magic midway through the 2018-19 season.
After enjoying his most successful – albeit interrupted – campaign to that point in 2019-20, the injury bug struck again at the start of his fourth season. Fultz tore his ACL in January 2021, right at the beginning of the COVID-shortened year, forcing him to sit on the sidelines yet again until the end of the 2022 regular season. The point guard showed promising flashes to finish off his fifth year, and the small eighteen-game sample size had NBA fans excited about Fultz’s potential with a fully healthy season ahead.
Unfortunately, the current campaign started on a low note, as the 24-year-old suffered a fractured toe and missed the Magic’s first 21 games. However, once Fultz returned to action at the end of November, his play – and in turn his story – has been nothing short of incredible.
At present, Fultz is averaging great numbers across the board, putting up career-highs in points (14.0), assists (5.7) and rebounds (4.0). Additionally, he’s doing all this on the best percentages of his career, producing a true shooting percentage of 56.2%. For context, this is 4.5% better than any other true shooting percentage he’s had in the NBA, which shows significant all-around improvement from the floor.
Fultz finds most of his scoring success at the rim and in the mid-range, as he utilizes his herky-jerky ball-handling to throw off defenders and reach his spots. He also uses his strong 6’3, 209lb frame to his advantage, as he capitalizes on his strength to create space in the lane to score.
This ability to create his own shot allows him to serve as an exceptional playmaker. Defenses are forced to respect his presence in the paint, and when Fultz draws in opponents he consistently sets up his teammates – evidenced by his 29.3% assist rate.
The three-ball is also slowly starting to come along for Fultz – emphasis on slowly. While 30.5% from deep isn’t great by any means, it is the best mark of his NBA career thus far. Additionally, he’s shooting 36.7% on corner threes, which is only two below the league average (38.7%). Again, not great, but he is showing progression from beyond the arc.
Now, I’d be remiss to only mention his offensive impact, as Fultz is emerging as an exceptional two-way player with the toughness he provides on defense. The point guard is an irritant for opposing ball-handlers, as his intense ball pressure and active hands makes life miserable for anyone trying to attack the basket. Considering Fultz is top-15 in the league in steals (1.5) and boasts a 2.4% steal rate, it’s clear he makes his presence felt on the defensive end of the floor.
Outside of his career-best numbers, the greatest part of this redemption story is the fact Orlando has played .500 basketball since Fultz returned to the lineup. Before the November 30th matchup against the Atlanta Hawks, the Magic were sitting with a lowly 5-16 record; however, Orlando has since gone 29-29 over the 58 games Fultz has played. This rebuilding team has remained competitive for the majority of the season, and it’s in large part thanks to the impact the floor general has provided on both ends of the court.
A career that once seemed lost is now just getting started for Markelle Fultz. The guard is a vital piece for a Magic core on the rise, and at the young age of 24, Fultz will only continue to improve. He’s a talented, athletic ball-handler who can get to his scoring spots, create for others and play impactful on-ball defense; in other words, the exact type of point guard you want alongside budding stars in Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero.
Fultz may never reach the superstar status expected of him when he was initially drafted first overall. However, he’s emerged in the NBA as a quality starting point guard, and the future for him – as well as the Orlando Magic – is very, very bright.