It all runs together, when things are going bad, in ways that are embarrassing to say out loud. You’ve got elected officials trying to decertify a valid election, a ragged and pathetic crew of armed insurrectionists doing more or less the same thing, and meanwhile the pandemic death toll keeps climbing, and the coffee you ordered appears to have gotten lost in a shipping facility in Texas, and you’re concerned about a friend who seems dangerously unwell, and your checking account is getting low, and your laptop battery is kaputt, the fridge is making upsetting noises. You’ve been keeping a log of what you get done each day, and it is crushingly unimpressive. Then Markelle Fultz blows out his ACL. Dammit, he was doing so well.
It is, each miserable concern a force multiplier upon all others, part of the baroque tragedy of being alive, or of it being Wednesday. This is a basketball column. Let’s explore that aspect.
It was seven games, it wasn’t much, but Markelle Fultz came into this season with bona fide bounce. The Magic like him, they’ve said as much publicly and put their money where their mouth is in signing him to a $50 million extension shortly before the new year tipped off. That has to help, having the finances sorted and an organization behind you, and Fultz repaid that faith by playing more freely than he ever has. Though the numbers were uneven, as you might expect over such a small sample, with a player who’s still a pretty dreadful shooter, Fultz—there is no other way to put it—looked good.
The jitters that crippled him in Philly seemed only a memory and it was easier to recognize the best parts of his game: that he’s a remarkably fluid athlete, as comfortable creating for others off the drive as finishing the play himself. He almost singlehandedly put the Wizards away in Orlando’s second game of the season, and on nights when his field goal percentage was rough, he showed an ability to shift his focus and rack up assists. These weren’t star performances, not every night, but it also wasn’t a case of the Magic playing somebody clearly in over his head for the sake of his development. Markelle Fultz was a net positive, a decent starting point guard, with plenty of room to grow.
Now he’s done for the year. He dribbled at Isaac Okoro, planted his left leg to take off, and it gave completely. With Jonathan Isaac already set to miss all of 2021 with a torn ACL of his own, that makes two catastrophic leg injuries for Orlando's young core. After a few seasons of nibbling at the edges of the playoff picture, admirably but with a creeping sense of ennui, Orlando’s now going to roll out a collection of middling vets and scantly promising young guys, just kind of trudge through the remainder of their schedule, maybe look to move Nik Vucevic and/or Aaron Gordon, and hope for much better luck in 2021-22. It sucks that this had to happen at all, but for it to occur early in the calendar, with the team flashing some feistiness at 6-and-2, is even worse.
If there’s solace to be found here, it’s in the fact that ACLs on players in their early 20s tend to heal up alright. And Fultz has been through much worse, that wretched confluence of phantom shoulder trouble, actual shoulder trouble, cratering confidence, and the pressure of being picked first overall making it basically impossible for him to succeed in Philadelphia. I wrote last month about how being in Orlando has been good for Fultz, because Steve Clifford’s a fine coach and the franchise is patient, but also because nobody outside of central Florida particularly cares about them. Fultz will return next season to very little notice. He’s not Zion Williamson; a minutes restriction or some early struggles as he gets his legs back under him won’t make national news. We don’t know what he’ll be able to accomplish on a surgically repaired leg, but it’s hard to fathom that a reattached ACL is going to hamper him more severely than the scrutiny he faced in Philadelphia. Our man almost had a career-ending case of stage fright. He can handle this new setback.
In Orlando, Fultz has developed a move when he’s penetrating—it’s what he was trying to do to Okoro when he hurt himself—where he puts his shoulder into the chest of the backpedaling defender and then springs back into a little floater or a 12-foot jumper. He’s not the only one who does it, but it’s what we could call a quintessentially Fultz-y maneuver. It’s a big guard thing, and it works because he’s strong enough to use his frame and momentum to nudge his man toward the baseline, while also being agile enough to pause his drive and fire. After establishing that action, he’ll sometimes feint like he’s going to lower his shoulder and then blow by the defender with bracing speed, or shoot before they can react. It’s not exactly James Harden’s stepback, but it’s nifty, a sign that Fultz is learning what he’s good at and building out his toolbox.
He’ll turn 23 while in the middle of his rehab. Not remotely old. There’s no reason besides the general shakiness of his professional tenure to fear that he won’t come back and continue to improve. It’s just that, with Fultz, whatever you don’t see, you begin to worry about. But perhaps those worries are in the past. It would be nice to think that going forward, he’s simply an interesting player at the outset of his second contract, with an abundance of possibility in front of him. It’s important, perhaps now more than ever, to be optimistic when you can afford to be. All there is to do is hope for the best, for Markelle Fultz: to believe that something better is possible.