By: Fawzan Amer
Relationships are complicated, toxic, and a messy subject… Ending them isn’t easy, but bad breakups make for greater song lyrics with animosity geared toward them. Much to the Orlando Magic’s gamble, Markelle Fultz has leaped into a time machine, erupting his play back to his glory days at the University of Washington. Those college highlights that propelled him to be the consensus number one overall pick in the 2017 draft have fruitioned beyond belief, casting a bright light on Orlando’s future, putting the NBA on watch as their “rebuild” revolves into a door leading to contention. That Fultz, however, had disappeared as soon as he entered the NBA. A mysterious shoulder injury plagued his shot, limiting him to only 33 regular-season games in his first two seasons, eventually ending his stint in Philadelphia leading to a trade to Orlando.
Despite the media and the general public as a whole writing off Markelle Fultz due to an injury-riddled career and busted atrocity, that tide seems to be shifting as his two-way brilliance on the court has earned himself and the Orlando Magic a decent amount of buzz amidst a six-game winning streak after returning from missing the first 21 games of the Orlando Magic season with a fractured toe injury. In his 21-game absence to start the season, the Magic quickly dwindled down the rankings, rapidly drowning in quicksand with an overall record of 5-16 without Markelle Fultz. Without true point guard play to keep them afloat, Orlando's offense lacked cohesiveness, continuity, and rhythm, posting a mere 110.4 offensive rating (the 24th worst in the NBA). The offense looked suffocated and fragmented due to a heavy number of ball-dominant players predetermining shots and a lack of ball movement creating havoc on the offensive side of the floor, causing complete disarray.
The return of Fultz has been a game-changer and much-needed breath of fresh air for Orlando’s backcourt, particularly with multiple guards (Jalen Suggs and Cole Anthony out as well), injecting dynamic ball-handling into an offense that has leaned extremely heavily on their talented frontcourt thus far. Markelle’s offensive attack is built around his ability to get to and make plays at the rim from a perimeter standstill. He can get both feet in the paint seemingly whenever he wants. His shot creation is extremely methodical, built on playing with pace and craftiness to break down opposing defenders in his path. Fultz’s usage of hesitations and changes in speed keep defenders on their toes at all times. His use of length continues to be masterful, carving out driving angles with calculated spin moves in any direction leading to him ranking in the 85.9 percentile in scoring efficiency in isolations this year (Only 20 players hold higher percentiles), Excelling in isolations despite lacking the vertical threat as a point guard is difficult, however, a product of Fultz’s finishing is complementary to him staying low to the ground, making great use of his length with high arcing scoops, finger rolls and other crafty layups where his phenomenal touch around the glass and in isolation are on full display.
Markelle, playing the role of the primary creator who creates a large majority of offensive advantages, has opened lanes for himself, allowing him to attack downhill. His strong handle aids him in getting deep within the teeth of the defense at a high rate shooting 61.5 percent at the rim through 13 games, which would have ranked in the 98th percentile among combo guards last season. His 35 percent rim frequency placed him in the 78th percentile last season, primarily due to his insane set of breaks that allow him to create more separation down low. Fultz's dynamic ability allows him to play as a traditional on-ball shot creator, which has been huge for Orlando's offensive versatility. Averaging 11.5 drives per game, he's attempting 4.7 on a nightly basis converting them into 4.5 points per game on a 42.6 percent shooting clip.
While Fultz does most of his damage at the rim, his touch and feel around the glass opens up other offensive options, such as his elite mid-range scoring. To start this season, he's not only going to but converting a large chunk of his scoring, adding more versatility to his shot creation, essentially making him a nightmare to guard by opposing defenders. Only 17 guards in the NBA attempt more field goals from the mid-range hashmark (2.9 attempts per game). His smooth pull-up motion allows him to flow into jumpers right off the drive, where he leverages the threat of his interior game by pulling back and shooting 37.1 percent on midranges in 13 games this season. He’s not only hitting 45.5 percent of his pull-up 2s (15-33), but he’s been extremely reliable with his array of floaters and push shots, one of the reasons he’s shooting 55 percent between five and nine feet from the basket. In these spots, he also draws a decent amount of fouls... Getting opponents off of their feet and drawing contact. The way Fultz has shaped his game to pair his interior game with his mid-range threat is unequivocally flawless.
Markelle made it clear he wanted to unlock his passing skill set as much as possible, creating a movement-heavy offense centered in transition. As a result of his mid-range arsenal and interior threat, teams are forced to send extra help pre-rotation and play ultra-aggressive coverages. This has opened up opportunities for him as a true point guard playmaker. His ability to get deep into the paint forces extra attention as well. Fultz has passed on 46 percent of his drives (5.3 times per game) averaging 1.6 assists on those passes.
The primary beneficiary of Fultz driving passing kicks has been rookie sensation, Paolo Banchero and second year Franz Wagner. Banchero attempts 1.8 attempts from beyond the arc connecting on 39.1 percent of his threes assisted by Markelle Fultz. Zooming out, without Fultz on the floor, Banchero has shot the ball from beyond at 33.3% on catch and shoot threes (1.9 per game) ). With Fultz, Paolo has shot 41.2% on catch and shots from deep (2.6 per game). Franz Wagner has also seen a comparative advantage with a facilitator to help him create, without Fultz, Wagner shot 38.2% on catch and shoot threes (1.6 per game) With Markelle, that number has gone up drastically to 45.2% on catch and shoot threes from beyond the arc (3.2 per game) Fultz's presence alone has allowed wings such as Franz and Paolo to play off the catch and move the ball against a scrambling defense to hunt for easier opportunities. This domino effect has played a vital role in freeing up multiple players all over the court; Fultz feels over helps out extremely well, making high leverage finds across the court.
In pick and rolls, his threat of penetration forces bigs into higher positions creating quick hitters on downhill advantages. He often places passes early with quick shovels or underhand bounces. His feel for interior finds is manifested by the leverage threat of his finishing, laying it down, or dumping it off to cutters or teammates in the dunker's spot despite not having his ultimate paint presence Wendell Carter Jr this season due to an ankle injury. Fultz’s talent, however, has ascended Moritz Wagner into that role, comfortably conveying himself as that “above the rim threat” averaging 10.9 passes per game from Markelle. Moritz Wagner finishes passes from him at a 51.4 percent rate and just shy of 60 percent from 2 point range (59.3 percent)
A staple for Orlando's offense with Markelle on the floor has been using him as a passer for off-ball sets. Having both a point guard and center who can initiate actions and make quality decisions adds a ton of versatility to Orlando's scheme. Orlando's usage of three-man sets offensively with Fultz as the initiator has supplemented his AST% checking in at 27.6 percent with a 26.3 AST ratio. Since December 5th, Fultz's cerebral playmaking has generated 13.8 assisted points created, but the primary ball handling from a true point guard has also aided in Orlando's turnover ratio, net rating, and offensive rating skyrocketing from league-worst to league bests.
Since Dec 5th;
Offensive Rating: 114.1 (12th)
Net Rating: 5.1 (6th)
TOV%: 14.3% (12th)
The Magic have faced continuous trials and tribulations without Markelle Fultz. Throughout that extended duration, his presence has been felt immensely on the perimeter to space the floor and make heavy use of pick and rolls in attempts to generate offense and, more importantly, beyond-the-arc shooting. Since entering the league, he's shown to be an elite space creator, similar to how he creates quality looks on mid-ranges. That space he facilitates has played dividends in the 13 games played this season. The Magic have surged to #13 in 3P% (36.4 percent). Mo Bamba has come alive in his time with Fultz to boost the 3P%, shooting 66.7 percent from deep when the passes are initiated by Markelle. Six players shoot the ball 40 percent or better when assisted by Fultz (Bamba, Harris, Anthony, Franz, Bol, and Ross). Without Fultz, the Orlando Magic have drained 33.9 percent of their threes... That would be good enough for 26th in the NBA in the same 13-game stretch. Perimeter shooting from the frontcourt still comes at a premium, but this new approach to offense revitalizes spacing via quick decisions and connecting with teammates making good cuts if the primary goal is to have a team-executed offensive game plan that prioritizes off-ball movement on the wings.
Markelle's efficiency as a pull-up three-point shooter, however, is all over the place, sometimes looking like an average outside shooter but also going on stretches where he's failing to connect on any; unfortunately for Fultz, he has been a victim in the midst of one of those ugly stretches connecting on only 20 percent of pull up shots from deep. What is consistent, however, is his 3-point shooting off the catch. This season alone, he's hit 54.5 percent of these looks utilizing off-the-screen versatility.
He poses a tough cover away from the ball because although he's a threat to knock down the shot, the alternative might be worse for opposing defenders. Any attempt to help off him and recover with a closeout will probably be obliterating, and you're back to square one. Him in the paint or a mid-range jumper making a play. This skill set bodes well with how he can slot next to other ball handlers or creators (Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero) without diminishing returns. In comparison, he can take on an increased load and serve as a legitimate lead playmaker.
What Fultz has done on the defensive end of the floor has been just as vital to the dominance of this Magic squad. He impacts the game in a variety of ways; he excels at guarding faster point guards due to his explosion has made him a tantalizing player Mosley likes to gadget off of. His long strides and shiftiness to press up into guards’ faces and be a disruptive defensive presence has helped him average 2.1 deflections per game and has tallied 1.2 steals per game (tied for 26th best). He’s a non-stop energy player who seems to have mastered hustle, length, and anticipation and is always on the prowl to get his team the ball back to create more scoring opportunities. Fultz averages 0.5 offensive loose balls recovered (4th most in the NBA) and 1.2 loose balls per game (tied for most), which has paved the way for the undermanned Magic befuddled with injuries averaging the 19th most points per game with him.
In Mosley's scheme, he plays the role of a chaotic defensive presence, freely roaming the court to wreak havoc all over the floor. His cerebralness keeps him engaged on the ball, stealing 0.7 defensive loose balls away (behind only OG Anunoby), always making an attempt to get involved, and relying on his instincts to recognize dual threats and turn them away.
His lengthy wingspan allows him to cover tons of space while his lightning-quick hands make plays on the ball. Away from the ball, defense encompasses his ability to constantly jump lanes and clog up passing lanes and angles, resulting in turned-away drives and tagging rollers and cutters near the nail. This also gives Markelle switchability, where he can match up with bigger players and offer resistance toward the basket.
The ability to perpetuate his footing while exhibiting his impressive footwork to distort defenses with his dribble penetrations as an interior rim threat to the basket, and adding to his bag of tricks a consistent mid-range jumper, adds to the breakout we are witnessing in Orlando. On defense, he is a fearsome menace looking to swipe and deflect any ball in his direction with proficiency. He has all the necessary tools to become a valuable elite point guard and more if he continues to develop at his current trajectory. It's much more advantageous to have a point guard who can facilitate the offense and have reliable skills offensively and defensively to keep things flowing on both ends of the floor. The Orlando Magic are 8-4 in the month of December, largely in part to Markelle Fultz changing the tide. As the chemistry continues to develop and players keep returning, it isn't far-fetched that this talented team filled with skillful players on both ends, led by true point guard Fultz finds themselves tinkering in the midst of the playoffs for the first time since the Nikola Vucevic era.
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