ORLANDO, Fla. — It was time for the last jump shot of Markelle Fultz‘s workout on the Orlando Magic practice court Wednesday. He let a 3-pointer fly from the left corner and spun around in celebration even before the ball swished through the net.
After two years of problems, he’s feeling good again.
The shoulder injuries that kept him off the court for most of the two seasons since he was picked No. 1 in the 2017 draft are now being managed — he’s hesitant to say healed — and Fultz is expected to be a full participant in practice when the Magic open training camp next week. It’s a significant step forward, though the Magic also know they’ll have to proceed with caution.
In case you were wondering what Markelle’s been up to… pic.twitter.com/3RE39oLN51
— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) September 25, 2019
“Man, I always have joy every time I step in here, no matter what’s going on,” Fultz said after his workout. “As I learned quickly, you can’t take it for granted. You never know when it’s going to get stripped away from you.”
His shot is still a work in progress. Some of his jumpers Wednesday were perfect, some rimmed out and a few took an ugly trajectory to the front of the rim. His release doesn’t appear to be the same as it was during his college season at Washington, part of the retraining he’s done to deal with his shoulder issues.
But he’s on the floor. That’s major progress.
“We’re going to remain patient,” Magic president Jeff Weltman said. “We’re not going to put expectations or timelines on his development. He hasn’t played basketball in a year. He’s played 33 games total in his career. So it’s going to unfold the way it unfolds.”
Fultz has played in 33 regular-season games over his two NBA seasons. His shoulder problems — first called a scapular muscle imbalance, a fancy way of saying the joints in the shoulder weren’t working together properly — took him out of the lineup for the first time after just four games of his rookie season with Philadelphia. He missed 68 games that season before returning for the final few weeks.
Last season was equally problematic.
Fultz started Philadelphia’s first 15 games before things went bad again. He double-clutched a free throw in a game at Miami and was widely mocked on social media afterward. Before long, he was diagnosed with a new problem — neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition where blood vessels or nerves around the collarbone and first rib are compressed.
“A lot of people, they would never go play with what I had and knowing they couldn’t shoot the ball,” Fultz said.
By the time doctors figured out what was really ailing Fultz, he had played his last game for the 76ers. The Magic traded Jonathan Simmons and a package of draft picks to Philadelphia to acquire Fultz in February. He never played for the Magic last season, though the move last week to pick up his $12.3 million option for 2020-21 is a clear sign that Orlando believes in Fultz.
“It was a no-brainer,” Weltman said.
Fultz said he’s not motivated by silencing doubters. But if that was the case, it wouldn’t surprise Mike Jones. He’s the coach at DeMatha Catholic High in Hyattsville, Maryland, a perennial national powerhouse — the school where Fultz played.
Jones also was the coach who didn’t pick Fultz for varsity when he was a sophomore.
“His whole career has been proving people wrong,” Jones said. “When he didn’t make the varsity here, I truly believe that he spent the next two years here making sure I knew that was a mistake. And now, I think he wants people to keep doubting him — because he’s going to show them.”
Lorenzo Romar, Fultz’s college coach at Washington, feels the same way.
Fultz spent some time with Romar, now the coach at Pepperdine, last season. They didn’t talk much about his injury — “the elephant in the room” is how Romar described the situation. But Romar coached Magic guard Terrence Ross in college, has followed Magic forward Aaron Gordon‘s career closely and knows the strides that Orlando took last season while getting to the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
Adding Fultz to that mix, Romar said, is only going to make Orlando better.
“I know the pieces they have on that team,” Romar said. “When Markelle comes back and gets his rhythm back, he’s as good a talented point guard as you will find. He’s an athletic wizard. You put him out there with the rest of that group when he gets his rhythm, they could be special.”
Fultz doesn’t disagree.
He said he dreams of the day he can play 5-on-5 in a real game again. He raves about Magic coach Steve Clifford, raves about what the team’s medical staff has done for him — taking tons of time last season to acquaint themselves with his injury, sending people to Los Angeles to work with him this offseason, then putting together the proper balance of on-court work, rest and rehab in Orlando.
His game is coming back. His confidence is still there.
“I was the No. 1 pick for a reason,” Fultz said. “I knew that I work hard and what I can do on the basketball court. That’s all that matters.”