Markelle Fultz is back. The first overall pick of the 2017 NBA Draft and the final relic of “The Process” returned to action for the Sixers on March 26th after 68 games of inactivity. While it still remains unclear precisely why Fultz missed so much playing time, his absence can be attributed to the combination of a fishy shoulder injury, the bizarre loss of his shooting touch, and a subsequent confidence drain. Without Fultz, the 76ers, led by young stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, have managed a 43-30 record and the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference.
Brett Brown was emotional when announcing the long-awaited return of Markelle Fultz. pic.twitter.com/cyP1CZVK1U
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) March 26, 2018
In his pregame media availability, Sixers coach Brett Brown announced that Markelle Fultz would return to the Sixers lineup for the first time since October 23rd. Brown was visibly relieved to have his 19-year-old point guard back, as if a weight had been lifted off the entire franchise’s shoulders. Brown, with “goosebumps”, describes Fultz’s return as Fultz’s own decision, and references the arduous personal journey Fultz has been on: “I give that kid credit”.
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) March 26, 2018
Fultz checked into the game with 2:54 remaining in the first quarter and was greeted by the Wells Fargo Center with a standing ovation by incensed, loyal Philadelphians. About a minute later, Fultz hit his first field goal on an assist from Joel Embiid–a wide-open layup that he looked like he could have dunked, but instead sensibly and carefully guided in.
All that dunking I’ve seen in the videos and you take a layup smhhh🤦🏾♂️😂😂 @MarkelleF
— Donovan Mitchell (@spidadmitchell) March 26, 2018
Donovan Mitchell had some constructive criticism for his draft classmate. Mitchell, the 13th pick in 2017, is a Rookie of the Year frontrunner along with Fultz’s teammate Ben Simmons. Like Simmons, Mitchell has smashed expectations, leading the Utah Jazz to a 42-32 record and playoff positioning in a dicey Western Conference.
Unsurprisingly, folks were waiting to see the jump shot. Fultz air-balled his first one. But his daring showed confidence, and in the second half, he would hit from both the foul line and the left elbow.
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) March 27, 2018
Fultz played incredibly well–in just 14 minutes, he scored 10 points on 5-13 shooting, including an improbable circus shot (which probably should have been an and-1). Proving that he’s going to be a valuable asset to a scary Sixers team as they storm into the postseason, Fultz racked up 8 assists and grabbed 4 offensive rebounds.
— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) March 27, 2018
Following the blowout win over the Nuggets, Fultz was doused in water by teammate Robert Covington and praised by a very proud Embiid. Embiid tells Molly Sullivan, “that’s another big-time win, and he played a big role in it.” Fultz then elaborates on his decision to play, attributing it to “a little confidence” and an itch to play with his “great teammates”. He explains, “I was just focused on helping the team get the win” as opposed to making any statements about his own play. Fultz and the rest of his team are devoting their attention to the playoffs. With nine games to go, Fultz should have his legs under him by the first round.
— Joel “Do a 180” Embiid??? (@JoelEmbiid) March 27, 2018
Budding superstar Embiid isn’t selfish about his spotlight. He is eager to maintain a healthy team culture, which relies heavily on friendship and trust among the Sixers’ young core. Fultz praised his teammates first and foremost as those who believed in him and continued working patiently with him while he prepared to return to NBA play.
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) March 27, 2018
Postgame, Coach Brown addressed his players in the locker room, complimenting them on “another dominant third period” which led to a significant win over the Nuggets, who are fighting a losing battle for a spot in the Western Conference playoffs. In what has become a ritual with the Player of the Game, Brown singles out Fultz to ring a miniature Liberty Bell. Based on his pregame press conference, Brown was certainly full of excitement and relief for Fultz and hopeful for the Sixers’ still-brightening future.
Caption this! 😂 pic.twitter.com/eL6J2IT2GZ
— NBA TV (@NBATV) March 27, 2018
Markelle Fultz’s extended absence has been both confusing to the general public and nearly forgettable–the 76ers have far exceeded the preseason expectations which forecasted a healthy and productive Fultz. But without Fultz, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid have built something magnificent. The two are playing their first full seasons together after missing a combined 297 games prior to the 2017-18 season, and are finally performing to their potentials on the biggest stage in the world. Embiid and Simmons have come back to make a terrifying splash in the NBA, centering Philly on a map we haven’t seen since Allen Iverson’s prime. Philadelphia trusted the process, and it’s paying off. But we have to wonder: what will Markelle Fultz’s role be with this team, long-term?