By Fawzan Amer
Over the course of the 2022-23 NBA season, the Wendell Carter Jr and Markelle Fultz two-man game has blossomed into the beating heart of the Orlando Magic offense. Their system is built on freedom of off-ball movement and constant actions to free up shooters and cutters with Wendell Carter Jr controlling the middle of the floor in their 5-out offensive scheme. A specific tactic Orlando has attempted to implement especially to close games in the fourth quarter, the "two-man game" between the duo of former lottery pick castaways.
They had to work on establishing their own rhythm and chemistry, appearing in only nine games in the 21-22 season but when the need arose they progressed remarkably quickly in building an arsenal of different looks to throw at opposing defenses. The chemistry the pair of traded players captured in such a short span of 51 career games sharing the floor has been nothing short of remarkable. The timing on pick-and-rolls and dribble handoffs seemed to emerge almost organically from the flow of the offense as if they were reading each others minds.
The very first pick-and-roll Markelle Fultz and Wendell Carter ran in an NBA game together as members of the Orlando Magic was on March 8, 2022. It came midway into the third quarter down double digits at home to the Phoenix Suns. The play unfolded at blazing speed, Carter Jr dove to the rim after setting a pick on Mikal Bridges to finish the four foot layup softly using his right hand off the dish from Fultz's off hand.
The duo have been frequent recipients of each other’s passes among Magic players this season. The variety of scoring looks the pair creates together, as well as their adaptability in reading and reacting to different defensive coverages, provides Orlando with a potent and effective offensive foundation.
Markelle Fultz -- Wendell Carter Jr: 71 AST
Wendell Carter Jr. (541 passes)
Wendell Carter Jr -- Markelle Fultz: 18 AST
Markelle Fultz (603 passes)
They'll get into these actions in a plethora of ways attacking the two-man game to disrupt even the most formidable defenses off balance. The full-body, bone crushing screen frees up players and force the screener's defender to make decisions that cause other players on the defensive string to malfunction within the line of assembly. This is a set Orlando spammed against the New York Knicks twice in a matter of minutes netting them crucial buckets down the stretch against identical coverages.
The high pick and roll with Markelle handling and Carter Jr screening has become a staple of Orlando's offensive scheme. This season, Wendell set Fultz 7.9 ball screens per game, scoring an impressive 1.17 points per possession. Just minutes after the initial pick and pop set between the duo Orlando keeps a note of the Knicks switching to blitz in their back-pocket as they'd go back to it in the closing minutes of the final quarter in regulation against the Knicks at home. Both offensive possessions Carter Jr screens off Fultz's defender with his man (Robinson) in drop coverage to deny a rim run by the primary ball handler. Wendell's ability to act as a perimeter threat allows him to step into open space instead of rolling to the basket as he rises up off both behind the back passes from Markelle for quality long range bombs.
Markelle frequently initiates pick-and-pops with Wendell whose 3-point shot is a legitimate enough threat between the pair that defenses anticipate it which in turn opens up opportunities for Wendell to attack close-outs for ferocious two handed slams. In the play below, weak-side action between Gary Harris and Banchero allows Carter Jr and Fultz to play catch on the strong-side. The handoff from Wendell drags both defenders down near the low block, Turner realizing he left a glimmer of light for a 35.6% season three point shooter retrieves for a contest. As opposed to shooting the quick trigger Carter lowers his shoulder with Turner now behind him for a point blank driving dunk.
Wendell Carter Jr shot 45.3% from downtown off passes from the former number one overall pick, his 29 made three-point field goals resulting in the second most makes off a Fultz dime. Although they employ a variety of creative sets on the menu, one of their go to's is the Duke product pounding in the low block and feasting off dump offs down low , as evidenced by Carter Jr's 54 post ups on 0.89 points per possessions.
Another way they'll get into these actions is with Wendell on the ball flowing into dribble-handoffs. On the season Fultz scored 0.79 points per possession after receiving a handoff. This enables Carter to make decisions with the ball, a concept Jamahl Mosley has instilled in Orlando's scheme since his hire. Chris Paul does a great job of staying attached at the hip and preventing Markelle from receiving the dribble handoff while Ayton is back in helping position. Wendell surveys the court, keeps and throws his receiver open with a rainbow pass over the head of the ageless wonder allowing Fultz to finish the go ahead reverse layup at the basket to cut the lead to a one possession game.
The role big man Wendell Carter Jr plays for the Magic is similar to that of the Celtics, Kings, Nuggets, and Warriors. All those teams allow their big men to be facilitators in this new center-centric approach to offense is proof in the pudding that it is no longer necessary to have front-court spacing as much as it’s vital to have a big man who can make quick decisions and find teammates making good cuts. Getting into these plays almost always creates an instant advantage to attack due to the frame of the screener. Wendell's 6'10 frame and 7'5 wingspan unleash him as a brick wall added with his intellectual understanding of the timing and angles to bump chasers out of the play.
Wendell's malleability and handle to act as the ball carrier up the floor provides Orlando with comfort in their scheme as they go to their Miami Action (a dribble handoff followed by a ball-screen) out of the inbound. Donte Divencenzo has no chance at recovering after contact with the screen allowing Fultz to step into a warmup 15 foot elbow jumper.
Pick-and-rolls/pops and handoffs are the heart and soul of the Fultz-Wendell two-man game, and much like Carter Jr's go-to shot is the pick and pop, for Markelle it is the pull-up mid-range jump shot. Fultz utilized the mid range the second most times amongst Magic players in 22-23 (2.7 attempts per game), his 42.6% shooting from that range puts him in the 70th percentile in percentage.
Fultz excels at making use of Carter Jr's screens to shake off defenders and create space. These screens allow Markelle an ocean view of space to get into his attack where he's a multi-layered scoring threat. Here it is again, Markelle making use of one of Wendell's 3.8 screen assists per game where players would score 470 points off of. An empty corner pick and roll between the duo causes a defensive breakdown with a miscommunication between Jokic and Murray leading to a patented free throw line jumper for two.
Forcing opposing bigs to step outside of the paint to contest has allowed Markelle and Wendell to establish counters as well, freeing up Carter to do damage in the paint off rolls. This often develops when a drive off an initial pick-and-roll or handoff gets stymied and they reset to run a second one which forces defenses to react to a different look. Sabonis slides over to help alter Markelle's step-back jumper leaving nobody down low to put a body on the roll allowing a wrap around pass for immediate points.
Markelle has become adept in these situations at recognizing when the mismatch is coming and exploiting them instantly . Carter Jr lands a screen on Coby White forcing Nikola Vucevic to step out to the perimeter creating a mismatch down low to unleash hell upon his former team. When bigs step out and Carter Jr gets the ball on a pass any defense allowing him to attack with numbers is sentencing themselves to a death sentence.
In addition to his array of mid-range jumpers, Fultz makes good use of driving to the basket and putting up running floaters in the lane. His ability to the turn the corner at lighting speed and use his handle to get deep into the paint where he showcases his vast arsenal as a finisher. Including a unique package of layups, crafty angles and dunks you can often find him attacking the basket given a spec of daylight, which he often attains using Carter's screens.
These efforts are the intro, rising and falling action of every page in Orlando's book. The deeper into a game Orlando goes the more they tend to lean on their two-man game exonerating a positive outcome to stop scoring droughts. Deploying their 5-out scheme below with all five players well beyond the arc after the initial screen doesn't work Wendell just bullies Mobley out of the play using his hands to give his partner in crime a free rim run for a two handed slam.
Fultz is also a threat to reject the screen making him a pest to guard while having to navigate screens in a timely fashion knowing an endless barrage of counters are coming. Often times opposing defenses will hedge with point of attack defenders forcing the ball-handler into using the screen and meeting that second body but when it gets rejected there's no immediate help creating easier lanes to the cup.
On top of being a dynamic scorer using ball-screens he's also a strong downhill playmaker inventing endless possibilities. Sometimes their pick-and-roll is a designed decoy for something else throwing defenses out of whack. Orlando isn't loaded with shooters to surround these actions but the two-man games effectiveness brings in help away from the ball making it an unplausable option to shield yourself from every pathway it may lead to.
What truly makes them nearly unstoppable is how they're able to weaponize the threat of these offensive actions into other wrinkles and offensive pathways. The defense is expecting the pick and pop between the two-man game shown earlier in the article. Mitchell Robinson and Grimes are in harmonic precision to defend the play but Fultz catches Immanuel Quickley sliding over to the nail to take away a right hand driving angle. This frees up a two-handed pass into the shooting pocket of Gary Harris for a 26 foot bomb to extend Orlando's lead.
The duos unique skillset to mind read doesn't just make their two-man game work but with incredible success. In 42 games played together this season the pair recored a 111.9 offensive rating in just over 1,000 minutes sharing the floor on 54.7% eFG. The two chemists working together like Walter White and Jesse Pinkman to create endless amounts of options that defenses just cannot find an answer for. From using the two-man game as a decoy to running their favorite go to sets the action is still in it's early stages of development, a scary sight for teams playing Orlando on a nightly basis.
This season’s emergence of the two-man game between the pair of castaway draft picks left to re-invent their game in Orlando lead to a 29-31 record sharing the court this season. The only force that has had success thus far in hindering their ability seems to be the injury bug, both missing a combined 40 games this season. The Markellle and Carter two-man game has already progressed at an impressive level. Given their young age and experience as they turn the corner into their prime, one can only assume that they have only scratched the surface of the potential heights they might reach as their individual abilities and chemistry as a pair continue to develop overtime.
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