Sixers have to give Markelle Fultz time to let the NBA toughen him up
The rookie guard is skilled and coachable. But he's just 19 and coach Brett Brown has to prepare him for basketball's highest level.
Up close, Markelle Fultz's face tells you exactly how old he is. There are his cheeks, which have retained a bit of baby-fat plumpness. There are his eyes, big as dinner plates. There is a rogue pimple or two on otherwise glass-smooth terrain. He is 19, and he looks 19. He looks like a kid because he is a kid. He just cannot play like a kid, not if he is to fulfill the expectations and potential that compelled the 76ers to trade up and select him with the No. 1 pick in this year's NBA draft.
That has to be his primary mission in his rookie season, and it has to be one of his coach's, too. No, Brett Brown doesn't have to burden Fultz with the responsibilities of running the Sixers' offense from a game's start to its finish, establishing a tone and tenaciousness on defense, of being the center of everything. Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, J.J. Redick, Amir Johnson — the Sixers have measures of talent and experience now that they didn't through Brown's first four seasons. The coaching and coursework for Fultz will be different from what Brown put Michael Carter-Williams through and that Carter-Williams never fully accepted or mastered, but make no mistake: Fultz has to go through it. Brown will coach him hard because that's what Brown does, what he believes best prepares a young point or combo guard for the jagged-edge basketball of the NBA.
Consider just the Sixers' first three regular-season games. The Washington Wizards, the Boston Celtics, the Toronto Raptors. John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry. Those aren't kids. Those are men. And they promise to make Fultz's early life in the league hell until their and Brown's demands have toughened him enough to go back at them.
"It's two things," Brown said. "The first is the athleticism in the men who jump you right from the get-go. It is relentless. There is a sort of unforgiving stage. It is very, very ruthless, what he's going to experience — not so much in preseason, but when all of a sudden John Wall crawls into him, and Otto Porter's length is alive, you realize there is an athleticism and there are men, and it catches people off-guard. And then we're going to talk about January the 10th, and we're going to talk about a rookie wall because of the nature of our league."
Because of the teammates surrounding him, because of their skills, Fultz may have more room on the court than Carter-Williams did. But that doesn't mean teams will leave him alone. Everyone around the league knows, even from just his one season at the University of Washington, that Fultz can handle the ball and shoot well enough to excel in pick-and-roll situations. Opponents will try to prevent him from creating those matchups when he's on offense, and they'll try to trap him in those matchups when he's on defense.
"Once you get to the middle of the floor, everything's open," Fultz said. "In this game, everybody's good at the one spot, the two, all the guards. Everybody's good at setting illegal screens that the refs don't see, so you have to fight through and get through everything."
The fighting will go on for a while. As the No. 1 pick, Fultz has a bull's-eye on his back already. He's going to get knocked down, going to have officials ignore his pleas to call fouls that college refs would have whistled immediately, and he'll have to get back up, hold his tongue, and keep coming. By all accounts, and based on the discipline he learned at powerhouse DeMatha Catholic High School, he possesses that competitiveness, that willingness to be coached hard and accept the consequences of challenging lessons. "He's been through it," Fultz said of Brown. "He's been to the playoffs. He knows what it takes to get there. For me, it's just listening to what he has to say and going out and executing."
Fultz is accustomed to tough love, and it's a part of his personality that either Carter-Williams didn't have or Brown couldn't awaken. For all the reasons that the Sixers traded Carter-Williams less than a year after he'd been named rookie of the year — his woeful outside shooting, Sam Hinkie's calculated gamble that he'd obtain a higher draft pick (and, eventually, a better player) out of the deal — one that often goes unmentioned was this: Brown's methods weren't working with him. During a victory in Sacramento in January 2014, for instance, Carter-Williams bellyached one too many times over the officiating, and Brown sat him down for the game's closing minutes — an attempt to remind Carter-Williams that he still had some growing up to do. It wasn't the last time Brown felt the need to bench him, and Fultz promises to be an easier project in that regard.
"He is incredible when he wants to please," Brown said. "He wants to learn. He lets us coach him. He's got a foundation that he doesn't want to let people down. Then you look at the other side. He's got a great basketball body. Look how long he is, and he's got those high hips, all that.
"But he's 19, and I think there's a physical side of it where, no matter how good his head and his heart is, yeah, you get back to reality."
The reality is this: Markelle Fultz won't just have to be tough. He'll have to be patient, too. Everyone will.