Markelle Fultz played in an NBA game for the first time in 418
days, returning to the Orlando Magic after a lengthy rehab for a
knee injury. Fultz played 16 minutes in a sizable victory over the
Indiana Pacers, finishing with 10 points and 6 assists, going 5 of
7 from the field.
While Fultz is still just 23 and an intriguing part of Orlando's
rebuild, this team has changed a lot in the year and
change since he last played. What can we glean from his initial
foray to the hardwood this season?
It was just one game and he was on a minutes restriction,
However, I did think it was pretty interesting that he
didn't log a single minute with Jalen Suggs or Cole Anthony. I'd
imagine this is largely due to wanting to get him comfortable in
his first game back, but considering that Suggs and Anthony aren't
going anywhere soon, it definitely made me go "hmmm," as Nekias
Duncan would say (listen to the Dunker Spot).
It's worth noting just how porous the Pacers' defense has been
of late (No. 28 in February, per Cleaning the Glass), but Fultz
dazzled with ease, slicing into the defense.
He pushed the pace off misses and looked for easy kick-aheads in
He primarily operated out of a ball-screen or with a snug screen
on drives (something I particularly enjoyed being thrown in from
Magic head coach Jamahl Mosely).
This allowed him to mostly avoid driving into significant
contact, and he was adept at setting up his man right into the
screener, or even just using his bigs as a barrier if they weren't
setting a screen.
I also loved the utilization of quick pitches and pistol actions
to mimic the action of ball-screens while making it harder to go
under them. Fultz didn't take a three last night, but he also
didn't fully need to, as Orlando schemed to try to make it all
about getting to paint and creating.
This drive still gets stalled, but by using the pitch instead of
the screen, it forces a switch between Chris Duarte and Duane
Washington Jr.; Fultz took full advantage of it by immediately
backing down the latter, as he still got some downhill
Tyrese Haliburton brings late help, but from the strong side and
on a poor angle, and Fultz hits the cutting Gary Harris to draw
In the moments where Fultz was walled off and didn't have an
immediate passing window when he got into the paint, he let his
pull-up jumper fly — and it looked pretty good!
The footwork was immaculate, the jumper was fairly fluid; the
hitch just isn't as big of a deal or as detrimental when he's
inside the arc; there's the slight pause at the top of his release,
but these are crisp shots. (He shot 43.3% on pull-up twos in
2019-20, his last healthy season, a pretty solid mark!)
Fultz felt smooth as a mover throughout his time on the floor,
but definitely seemed a bit fatigued later on, entirely sensible
considering how long it's been since he's played a game. He was
really active on defense, routinely tagging up the roller and using
his wingspan to be a nuisance. You could see some slight struggles
with screen navigation, and he got dusted at the point of attack
pretty cleanly once, but it felt much more due to fatigue rather
than the residual impact of his knee injury.
The most encouraging thing to me from his comeback game? Fultz
was not afraid of contact, a common barrier when returning to
With both of these boards he went after, I let out a little
cheer at my desk! Fultz's game is so predicated on interior play,
so returning without hesitancy is so crucial to his efficacy and
confidence. (Also, oof Mo Bamba.)
Here's my highlight of the night though.
Fultz attacked the second side off the catch on a broken play.
Again, the Pacers' defense was BAD (it helps to have both players
involved in ICE coverage), but the finish was so slick to adjust to
the late contest.
Overall, this was a really fun game from Fultz, as he
demonstrated his feel and court vision. He pretty easily factors in
as the best live-ball passer on the Magic, and I'm very intrigued
to see how he starts to mesh into the current core.
I really liked his minutes with Wendell Carter Jr. and find them
to be a pretty natural pairing. Dynamic screening will be a boon to
helping optimize Fultz, along with mixing in Carter's pop game.
Franz Wagner and Fultz in tandem is so, so enticing, and I
fast-forwarded through the game in hopes of seeing that they played
another stint together. I need more! The people demand it.
While last night allowed for some rose-colored optimism, it's
worth noting that it could be a while before Fultz is fully back to
his true self. Just seeing him on the court again last night and
doing the things that make him such a funky and endearing player
was joyous, and made for a great evening of basketball.
As the Magic look to find further footing in their core the
remainder of the season, it's more than worth tuning in to see how