The Sixers' Markelle Fultz had his most uninterrupted point-guard minutes on Saturday night and could be getting more depending on the status of Ben Simmons.
Simmons left after a timeout with 4 minutes, 19 seconds left in the first quarter and did not return. Team personnel attributed Simmons' exit to back tightness.
In the early minutes of the 116-115 win over Orlando, there were clear signs that something wasn't right with Simmons. More than once he winced as he ran to get on defense. He was seen bending over in what looked like an attempt to stretch his back just a couple of minutes after tipoff. And he lacked the usual explosiveness that he's known for. There wasn't the same fight for rebounds or any aggressive push toward the basket from Simmons.
Following the game's conclusion, coach Brett Brown said that while he knew Simmons was feeling some discomfort before the game, he didn't believe the injury was serious and had not spoken with team doctors or trainers at that point.
"I was told that his back was sore before the game," Brown said. "It didn't feel right, it didn't look entirely right."
The Sixers did not provide an update about Simmons on Sunday, an off day for the team. A full update is expected after practice on Monday.
The Sixers play the first game of a back-to-back on Tuesday in Detroit before heading to Milwaukee on Wednesday. With that schedule in mind, and if Simmons' injury is limited to just general soreness, it might be in the Sixers' best interest to give Simmons the night off against the Pistons.
Not only would a night off preserve Simmons and allow some extended healing and treatment, but the Fultz experiment could be given some more breathing room and a larger data sample with which Brown could evaluate.
Brown is committed to giving Fultz time in the starting lineup in order to see what the Sixers have in the young guard, but it's possible that switching rotations at halftime and Fultz playing off-ball in the opening minutes doesn't create the same type of rhythm that a more consistent rotation would.
With that in mind, if Simmons does not play in Tuesday's game, Fultz has the opportunity to string together some meaningful minutes and take another step forward.
The injury on Saturday gave Fultz a chance to freely run the point after Simmons' exit, but by then the Magic had opened up a 12-point lead and the Sixers were playing uphill.
In the fourth quarter, with the game on the line, Brown again turned to T.J. McConnell rather than Fultz. Brown could have easily said this was due to the fact that Fultz had racked up five fouls, but he admitted that McConnell's experience was the deciding factor.
Fultz finished the night with eight points on 4-for-11 shooting to go with seven assists and four rebounds. Though that might seem like a moderately basic stat line, and maybe even one to be happy about, the same problems Fultz faced in the first two games (in Boston and vs. Chicago) were the ones he encountered against the Magic; the defense paid little attention to Fultz on the perimeter, choosing to double-team Joel Embiid rather than guard Fultz.
In order to demand attention from opposing defenses, Fultz needs to extend his shot beyond the paint. On Saturday, he took only three shots outside the paint and connected on just one from above the free-throw line.
Through three games, Fultz hasn't given the opposition any reason to believe he's a threat beyond tips-ins, dunks, layups, and the occasional short jumper.
Efficiency from longer shots can come later and he can build up to that, but there needs to be at least a threat that he will shoot from outside of 14 feet.
If Fultz wants to shake off some of the early criticism and become an outside threat, he should use the next few days as a springboard. He doesn't need to take 10 three-pointers a game, and he doesn't even need to convert the shots that he takes.
Five to seven shots per game from 17 feet or beyond would go a long way in Fultz's development and the way teams scout and game plan for him.
If Simmons' injury is nothing more than just a blip and he is good to go for the two road games on Tuesday and Wednesday, that doesn't let Fultz off the hook. Even with the ongoing rotation experiment, Fultz will need to extend his game.
Brown has said there is no timetable for figuring out if Fultz works in the starting lineup, but that doesn't mean that he will continue along this path for the entirety of the season. There will come a point at which the Sixers will either fully put their trust in Fultz, or will step away from him. The only person who can sway that decision is Markelle Fultz.