After each of the Sixers' predraft workouts at their training facility in Camden, head coach Brett Brown would gather that day's group of prospects and offer a quick sideline sermon before releasing them to their fates. Among his points of emphasis was a topic that has resonated throughout the organization over the last several years. Take care of your body, the coach would say, according to one of the players the Sixers hosted. It has always been your temple. Now, it's your livelihood.
To appreciate the importance of that message, all one needs to do is spend some time at court level watching a rookie such as Markelle Fultz interact with his more veteran brethren. There are lot of things about the 19-year-old that catch the eye, most of which reinforce the Sixers' decision to trade up to No. 1 to add him to the fold. But just as conspicuous as the smooth on-court intuition he displays is the package in which his skills are housed: From a physicality standpoint, he has plenty of work to do.
That's hardly an observation of Galilean proportions. Nor is it a criticism. It's just a fact of NBA life, one that is no more relevant now than it was before the Sixers shut him down for the rest of summer league after he sprained his left ankle against the Warriors on Saturday night. And, to his credit, Fultz sounds as if he has a pretty good grasp of that reality.
"I'm not in bad shape," Fultz told reporters a few days before summer-league play began. "I just want to be in the best possible shape I can be in and get as strong as I can before the season starts. Not picking up weight, just muscle tone, so I'm able to guard 'one' through 'four,' or whatever I have to guard."
It would have been concerning had he not felt that way after his first few days in the same building as guys such as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Line them up on the baseline and it isn't hard to identify the player who has yet to submit his body to a professional-level strength and conditioning regimen. Forget about the innate physical differences among them. As Fultz said, the glaring thing isn't height or weight, but body composition. While Simmons and Embiid are all straight lines and angles, Fultz still has a pubescent fluff to his frame. For the first decade or so of his ballplaying life, his skill set has been enough to set him apart from his competition. Now, that competition is coated in multiple layers of muscle, and a spin move won't always be enough to win that pivotal patch of court.
It doesn't take long for a rookie to understand such things. In high school and college, the game is the thing. In the NBA, it's everything before, after and between the games. Timothy Luwawu-Cabarrot saw it firsthand last season when he arrived in the NBA from France. It wasn't the skill that impressed him. It was the freakish level of physical preparation required to keep pace.
"The regularity of the players, the way they play every night," the 22-year-old swing man said last month. "It can be a role player or a superstar — every time they're here, they have to be ready. They eat healthy. They go to bed at 10 (o'clock) or earlier. You just have to be a professional. That's what impressed me most."
From that perspective comes the argument that a player such as Simmons might actually be better prepared now for his second NBA season than he would have been had he spent his rookie season in the lineup each night. Physically, at least, there's a lot to suggest it is so. While plenty of attention has been paid to the effect the one-and-done nature of college basketball has had on skill development, a more significant factor might be the on-the-run physiological maturation that now must occur. In every other sport, physical development is a process that occurs in a controlled environment, from the three years professional football players must spend in college, to the three years baseball players can go before their employers must add them to the 40-man roster, to the junior league circuit through which hockey players progress.
Because of his injury, Simmons was able to spend an entire calendar year with his focus, first and foremost, on his body. Similarly, when Embiid finally checked into an NBA game for the first time, he'd transformed from a gangly youth still in the midst of a growth spurt to a physical specimen, and with a jumper to boot.
Assuming Fultz actually makes it through training camp unscathed, the challenge for him and the Sixers will be balancing his nightly forays through opposing defenses with the continued development of his strength and agility. A quick look at the trajectories of other young stars shows how difficult a process it can be.
Kyrie Irving played 51 games as a rookie in the lockout-shortened 2011-12, then 59 in Year 2 (in fact, he's played under 60 in three of his six seasons). John Wall didn't make it to 70 games until his fourth NBA season, playing 69, 66 (lockout) and 49 in his first three. Anthony Davis averaged 65 games per season over his first four seasons before reaching 75 last year.
With that in mind, the presence of J.J. Redick and Jerryd Bayless should pay dividends well beyond the leadership the Sixers want them to bring. The presence of a couple of a smooth-shooting veterans capable of playing 25 minutes per night should help Brown and his bosses with their utilization of Fultz as he continues to mature.