"I pray for Markelle 'cause they f*cked up his shot,"
When J Cole rapped that bar on 21 Savage's 2018 single "a lot" it was a further indiciation that Markelle Fultz's struggles had gone beyond being a Sixers problem and had become a national concern.
Fultz was selected first overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2017 NBA Draft and was set to be the player who would complete help the Sixers complete 'the process'. Fultz was a five-star recruit out of high school, joining a Washington Huskies team who'd lost Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss in the first round of the '16 draft. The team struggled through the year, but Fultz soared. His 23.2 point average was the highest in the Pac-12 in 20 years. With 5.7 assists and 5.9 rebounds, his was one of the best freshman seasons in the history of the conference. Fultz was the consensus number one pick and was set for an illustrious career. Then things began to unfurl...
Fultz spent one and half miserable years in Philadelphia. A shoulder injury defined as a "scapular muscle imbalance" derailed his debut season. The rest is well known, he dropped to a poor 33% from the field, the Sixers then decided to sit their young hope indefinitely. The injury was a repeated story in the news cycle with debate raging about whether it was a real injury or the yips, then rumors of pre-draft bicycle injury began to make the rounds.
Upon his return that season, it was clear that something wasn't right, his mechanics looked wrong and his free-throws became memes on social media. A full off-season went by and Fultz was named the starter, taking JJ Reddick's spot but then Jimmy Butler arrived from the Timberwovles and he was relegated to the bench again. That November saw his agent release a statement that Fultz was out of action until further notice until his injury was fully evaluated and healed.
Thoracic outlet syndrome was the diagnosis but Fultz wasn't seen in a Sixers jersey again, as he was traded in February to the Orlando Magic. Fultz didn't play again that season due to the "very serious" shoulder injury. He went on to make his debut in the season opener and scored 12 points. Since then Fultz has improved, displaying some of the qualities that got his picked first overall.
Now Markelle Fultz sits below Andrew Wiggins, Jayson Tatum and Brandon Ingram in the betting for the Most Improved Player award at a cool 150/1. Given the quality of Fultz's cameos thus far, it looks to me that the young point guard is incredible value at such a big price.
In mid-November Steve Clifford, Magic HC, told journalist Marc Stein that Fultz would be "at another level" in thirty games and it's already starting to look like a very wise prediction.
He's improving by the game and last night got his second triple-double as the Magic defeated LeBron James' Lakers. A well-executed 21 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists showcased his wide talents and his confidence was clear to see as he went toe-to-toe with LeBron as the game came to a close, with the youngster bullying the King.
Fultz has averaged 11.7 points per game, 3.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists so far this year. As the season has progressed his minutes on court have got longer, his rebounds have increased and all areas of his game are on the rise. His 73.9% free throw percentage is another indication that his managed to conquer his whatever it was that impacted his mechanics.
This leaves Fultz in an interesting situation. He's still only 21 years old and has shown that he has what it takes to come up big for the Magic. It's also becomingly increasingly clear that the Sixers may have made a mistake in jettisoning the Maryland-born hooper so early. At this point in the season we're beginning to see storylines being born and the redemption arc around Fultz is an intriguing one.
The NBA's Most Improved Player award is one which isn't necessarily stats-based, a story and a narrative can be a key factor in deciding the recipient. If Fultz continues this progression then there is nobody in the league with a story like his. He's been down and out, written off and cast aside, only to have refound his mojo in Orlando, offering both himself and the franchise a strong future. At a huge price of 150/1 this is well worth a speculative couple of bucks. People have bet against Fultz before and here he is, defying expectations yet again.