This article was originally published on October 26, 2017.
One thing is clear: The biggest concern with Markelle Fultz isn’t his shoulder. If anything, the shoulder is a godsend, because it gives the 76ers an opportunity to give their rookie what he really needs, which is some time to reset himself mentally.
That’s the endgame. That’s the primary benefit of the three-game break that Fultz will take after receiving a cortisone shot in his shoulder. The Sixers didn’t say that explicitly when they announced the move Wednesday, but anybody who has spent the last month following the saga of Fultz’s missing jump shot could read the clues.
What the Sixers did in announcing the move was give a young kid some cover. What they did is precisely what they needed to do, the only thing they could do.
Nobody seems to know why Fultz decided to spend his summer tinkering with the mechanics of his jump shot. The Sixers have had a lot of time to come up with some explanation of substance to feed to their fan base. Nearly six weeks have passed since the start of training camp, when Fultz unveiled his reworked shooting form to his coaches. From the start, they’ve been less than impressed. Yet here we are, two weeks into a brutal early-season schedule, still awaiting the first rational explanation for why the No. 1 overall pick in the draft decided that the No. 1 tool in his arsenal needed remodeling.
Whatever the reality, the preeminent concern here is not one of physiology. If Fultz was unable to shoot the ball comfortably, it’s a concern that he did not tell the Sixers. If his shoulder pain and his shooting mechanics are unrelated, it’s a concern that, six weeks after his coaches first expressed concern with the mechanics, he has been unable to iron them out. Either way, he needs a timeout.
Sure, it’s easy to chalk all of this up to the Sixers being the Sixers. And if you are unwilling to afford them the benefit of the doubt, they won’t find much in their track record to serve as a rebuttal. Joel Embiid’s foot, Joel Embiid’s knee, Jahlil Okafor’s entire first year of professional adulthood. Given all that, the tenor of the questions that Bryan Colangelo faced Wednesday afternoon took an understandable form.
When did they first learn of Fultz’s shoulder soreness? Why didn’t they rest him sooner? What changed between now and then?
Colangelo answered as best he could. He said that Fultz has soreness in his shoulder but that there are no structural concerns, certainly none that would indicate a long-term problem. In fact, he said, Fultz’s soreness might actually be a result of his new mechanics, which feature a higher starting position than he used in college.
Whatever the case, it’s clear the Sixers will be taking a holistic approach to whatever has turned Fultz from an aggressive combo guard who shot better than 40 percent from three-point range at the University of Washington to an NBA rookie who shows an alarming timidity anytime he has room to shoot outside the paint.
“We’re looking at everything, and like I said, there’s a lot of noise out there, and you try to put the player in the best possible position to succeed,” Colangelo said. “We’re hopeful to accomplish that, kind of take a step back and just reevaluate the way we are approaching everything. When you take him out of the spotlight, I think it’s going to take a little less focus on every particular play, every shot mechanic.”
The key word there: everything. Sure, Fultz’s shoulder falls under that umbrella, but it clearly isn’t something the team has identified as a chief concern. And, from a physiological perspective, it stretches the bounds of credulity to think otherwise. The immediately searchable historical record is rather sparse on instances of players who changed their mechanics to compensate for shoulder pain. LeBron James recently acknowledged raising his release point while battling swelling in his elbow, but that’s a lot different from the change Fultz has made. The elbow is the fulcrum in the shot mechanism. Besides, James also said he made the change permanent because it helped his shot.
As for Fultz, the Sixers sound as if they’ve run every test there is to run on his shoulder. Scans, MRIs, ultrasounds, even consultations with specialists who have worked with major league pitchers. Yet they still can’t offer a concrete reason why Fultz changed his shot. If the shoulder was the only explanation, or even the primary one, they’d be inviting a lot less scrutiny by saying so.
“The fact of the matter is, he’s had multiple tests, multiple exams, a recent evaluation yesterday,” Colangelo said. “We’re going to continue to see if there’s anything else we can come up with, but at this point, I think we’re just going to take a step back, let everyone take a breath, and reevaluate things next week.”
There’s no getting around it: In a city that has a long sporting history with the bizarre, this is one of the more bizarre situations it has seen.
That said, we should be careful not to extend ourselves too far out into the future when projecting ramifications. It can’t be easy being 19 years old and going from high school to college to the NBA spotlight in a span of 2½ years. The reviews of Fultz as a person, as a competitor, have been unanimously positive from inside the organization. But those same people seem to believe that the best thing he can do right now is go back to doing things the way he did them while vaulting himself to the top of the nation’s amateur basketball talent.