Sixers’ Markelle Fultz learns on the job in summer league debut
NBA’s top draft pick gets blocked on potential game-winning shot
SALT LAKE CITY – Markelle Fultz had the ball in his hands in the corner with his Philadelphia 76ers down one against the team that passed on him and time winding down. National television was tuned in for the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft’s summer league debut. As the combo-guard darted toward the basket, he dipped under the rim for a reverse layup that Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown blocked with 1.9 seconds left.
The Celtics won, 89-88, as their prized rookie Jayson Tatum scored 21 points and hit the game-winning jumper on Monday night. A stone-faced Fultz showed sportsmanship when he slapped hands with Celtics players as rapper Big Sean’s hit “Bounce Back” played in the background at Jon M. Huntsman Center. And while 29-point scoring Brown and Tatum stole the show, No. 1 pick Fultz was interviewed live on SportsCenter before heading to the losing locker room.
“I could’ve finished on the same side of the basket,” said Fultz, reflecting on his missed game-winner to The Undefeated. “I was a little bit off-balanced when I got pushed. But at the end of the day, I got to learn from it. I’m going to get better and better each game. It’s going to happen.”
The Bible says to whom much is given, much shall be required. Much shall be required for Fultz to be viewed successful as the top pick of a deep and talented 2017 NBA draft class.
The Celtics passed on selecting Fultz when they traded the No. 1 pick to the Sixers for the third pick (Tatum) and a possible 2018 first-round pick. The second overall pick, Los Angeles Lakers heralded point guard Lonzo Ball, makes his summer league debut on Saturday night in Las Vegas. Several NBA executives believe that Phoenix Suns rookie forward Josh Jackson, the fourth overall pick, is the best talent in the draft. Don’t sleep on Sacramento Kings speedy rookie point guard De’Aaron Fox, the fifth pick, either. Other rookies such as Miami Heat big man Bam Adebayo, Indiana forward T.J. Leaf and Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell shined Monday in summer-league action.
Fultz said he is impressed with the entire draft class, which he said is loaded with talent beyond the top five picks. Regardless, the spotlight will be on Fultz. The Upper Marlboro, Maryland, kid who played one season at the University of Washington does not seem fazed one bit.
“For me, there is no pressure really,” Fultz told The Undefeated. “It’s just stuff I’ve been working on since I was a little kid.”
Sitting behind the Sixers’ bench was former NBA All-Star Elton Brand, who certainly could relate to Fultz.
The Chicago Bulls selected Brand with the No. 1 pick in the 1999 NBA draft. Brand told The Undefeated that he felt immense pressure living up to being the top pick his rookie season in Chicago. He said he constantly kept his eye on box scores for then-Houston Rockets rookie guard Steve Francis and then-Los Angeles Clippers rookie forward Lamar Odom. Brand and Francis ended up sharing 2000 NBA Rookie of the Year honors.
In hindsight, Brand wishes he had tempered his expectations and lowered the pressure he put on himself.
“You want to shine, automatic, and show that I deserve to be the No. 1 pick,” Brand told The Undefeated. “If you see the No. 3 pick getting off, it’s like, ‘I need to get mine.’ I went through that with Steve Francis and Lamar Odom. Steve would have 25 points and 15 assists and Lamar would have a triple-double. And I’m looking at the pressure like, ‘Now, I got to do something all day long.’ What I learned is that you don’t get too high if you have a good game and you don’t get too low if you had a bad game.”
Brand is serving as a consultant for the Sixers and a big brother to a young roster that includes back-to-back No. 1 picks in Fultz and guard-forward Ben Simmons, who missed his rookie season with a broken foot.
“These aren’t two lottery picks. These are two No. 1 picks,” said Brand, who played for five teams during his NBA career and retired in 2016. “You have to worry about the long haul. Don’t get caught up in it even though I got caught up in it. It’s human nature. I don’t want them to get caught up in that. It’s a steady climb. It’s a steady growth. It’s not about this first 10 games. It’s about a season.
“My first summer league game, I did my thing. I think I scored 16 points. Then my first two NBA games, I got my a– kicked. It was the New York Knicks with [Patrick] Ewing … And then it was the Miami Heat with Alonzo Mourning and P.J. Brown. … They kicked my a–.”
The humble-sounding Fultz appears to be a sponge for knowledge who would welcome Brand’s advice.
“If you asked any of these guys, I ask questions all day,” Fultz said. “I am just trying to learn and be the best player I can be. I want to take bits and pieces from everybody. Everybody has some knowledge I may not know.”
Fultz has a calm demeanor on the floor. Behind the scenes at the Sixers’ team hotel, the 19-year-old was ready to play his first game since February.
“I asked him if he was ready to go. He was like, ‘Yeah. I’m ready to go. Let’s go,’ ” Sixers summer league coach Billy Lange told The Undefeated. “He’s a D.C. kid. He played in the W.C.A.C. [Washington Catholic Athletic Conference at DeMatha]. I used to recruit that area well. We talked about big high school games, and I said, ‘This is going to feel like that.’
“He embraces this opportunity. … I told him at the breakfast meeting that, ‘Everybody is going to be gunning for you. Attack.’ He just nodded his head and said, ‘I want to attack.’ ”
Said Fultz: “I was happy. I don’t ever get nervous. I haven’t played 5-on-5 in a while.”
Fultz was solid with a team-high 17 points after missing 10 of 16 field-goal attempts. He also had three blocks and a steal despite his defense being considered his biggest weakness in the scouting report.
“He was very aggressive. You can see what kind of shake-and-bake player he is. He’s on skates a lot. For not playing a competitive basketball game for a lot of months, I thought he did really well,” Lange said.
The slender Tatum had a solid all-around game as he made eight of 17 field goals, dunked hard on Sixers rookie center Kaleb Tarczewski and had five steals and seven rebounds. Tatum also nailed a 16-foot jumper to put the Celtics ahead, 89-88, with 5.8 seconds left. The former Duke star’s grandmother screamed in excitement while putting a No. 1 finger in the air not far behind the Sixers’ bench.
Fultz had a chance to win the game and failed. Lange loved the adversity the No. 1 pick dealt with at the start of his NBA career.
“We wanted to give him the ball. This is what we’re here for right?” Lange said. “As much as we want to win, especially when we are playing the Boston Celtics, this place is to learn a lot and put guys like Markelle, who are part of our bright future, in situations they could learn from. He caught it, he ripped it, he attacked it and he just missed. And they made a heck of a play getting to the rim and contesting it.
“We thought it was over and here you are, you got your guy and he’s driving. The fact that he was ready to do it and he took it aggressively, we are going away from this [satisfied]. It’s not a ‘W’ in terms of the outcome of the game. But it is a ‘W’ in terms of his growth and what we are trying to do as an organization.”