In a saga filled with strange moments, it was only fitting for the first act to end with one.
Bryan Colangelo was sitting at a lectern less than 48 hours after watching the Sixers' season end with a Game 5 defeat in the Eastern Conference semifinals. One of the first topics of discussion was the offseason plan for 19-year-old Markelle Fultz, who had just joined Anthony Bennett and Kwame Brown as the only No. 1 overall picks in the 33-year history of the draft lottery to average less than 20 minutes per game as a rookie. Earlier, coach Brett Brown had laid out his vision for Fultz's summer, stressing the need for the young guard to play basketball in competitive situations, including the Sixers' summer-league program. Yet when Colangelo was asked if there was any reason he would not want Fultz participating in the annual Las Vegas tournament, he deflected the question.
The possibility of Fultz playing was "certainly on the table," he said. It was, he continued, "a topic that we've broached internally."
"We need to probably discuss it a little more with him specifically and with his agent and representatives and everyone else as we target the best possible plan for Markelle's development," Colangelo said.
There's a certain level of absurdity at which numbness sets in, so it's understandable if this particular comment did not register. After six months of getting shoulder-shrug-emoji'ed by the team whose No. 1 overall pick suddenly couldn't shoot, you would not have blinked if Colangelo had casually mentioned that Fultz awoke for his exit interview having been transformed into an actual gigantic insect-like creature.
Still, the comment was notable — if not in the words themselves, then in what they implied. Since the day Fultz showed up to training camp as a shell of the player the Sixers traded up to draft, the organization has gone out of its way to protect his image, often at the expense of its own. The national headlines have thus far remained clean of the anonymously sourced damage control that a well-connected NBA executive can orchestrate. In less than two years, Colangelo has gone from a GM who inherited one of the most enviable situations in the league to a guy who made the one move capable of knocking that potential off its track. Yet the coach wants Fultz to play summer league, and the boss isn't sure it can happen?
That's a concern. About the player, not the boss. True, it's the sort of thing that would have sent howls of vindication from the anti-Process Luddites had it happened on Sam Hinkie's watch. But there's nothing constructive in what-aboutism, and holding Colangelo at fault betrays a misunderstanding of the power dynamics in play.
The reality is that an organization cannot make a player do something that is not mandated by his contract. It can't stop Joel Embiid from running through the streets of Old City at midnight or throwing down pickup dunks in South Philly, and it can't force Fultz to abandon his summer plans for a program of the organization's choosing. It can build a culture and a program that influences players to conform. But, as we saw down in San Antonio this season, even that has limits.
In reality, the imperative lies solely with Fultz. And if the team wants him to participate in summer league, then it will speak volumes if he doesn't. In his end-of-season press conference, Colangelo laid some preemptive groundwork, pointing to precedent as a reason why Fultz might not play.
"As you look at players who play in the summer league, Year 1 to Year 2, generally there has something to do with draft status and where players were picked, and that might be a factor in this," he said. "But it also is probably more focused on where he is in his development and where we think the best place is for him to get to where he needs to be come September or October when we start camp next year."
In reality, more than half of the players selected in the top five from 2012-16 participated in their sophomore summer league. Last year's edition featured four top-five picks who were coming off underwhelming rookie campaigns, including No. 2 pick Brandon Ingram and No. 3 pick Jaylen Brown, both of whom went on to establish themselves as potential franchise cornerstones this season. Otto Porter (3), Bradley Beal (3), Damian Lillard (6), C.J. McCollum (10) and Harrison Barnes (7) all blossomed into stars after participating in a second summer league. John Wall was two years removed from being the No. 1 overall pick when he played summer ball in 2012.
Fultz sounded amenable to playing in his final public comments of the season, but those comments occurred before Colangelo spoke of needing to talk to him and his agent.
His agent, Raymond Brothers, did not return a request for comment for this column.
This is where the player needs to show some awareness of the reality of his situation. Forget precedent. Being the No. 1 overall pick gets you a contract, and maybe some margin for error. It doesn't get you success, or a spot on the court in a playoff game.
To achieve those things after his lost rookie season will require Fultz to defer to the advice of the people who know what it takes to be an NBA player. In his current world, that list is two people long: Colangelo and Brown. Not his agent. Not his family. Not his personal trainer.