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Derek Bodner said it best a week ago: "The Kawhi Leonard situation notwithstanding, Drew Hanlen is now the key to the #Sixers' offseason."
It's improbable, but true. Now that LeBron James and Paul George are off the market, and a trade for Leonard himself is a remote (though still distinct) possibility, the best chance for the Sixers to add a star to their roster for next season is to recover the one they thought they were drafting a summer ago in Markelle Fultz. And the man who holds the key to unlocking Fultz's All-Star potential is Hanlen, the trainer, skills coach and Pure Sweat CEO who's working hard on returning the point guard prospect to form after his season in the abyss.
At least, we hope he does. Truthfully, Process Trusters don't know for sure if Hanlen or anybody else has the capability of getting Fultz back on track after the weirdest rookie year any pro athlete's had since Henry Rowengartner. We can't be certain until we actually see him out there in game action, and in the meantime, everything that's happening with Fultz this summer that we could point to as empirical evidence of progress is being kept behind the curtain, away from prying eyes and potential Twitter videographers. But we want to believe -- oh, how we want to believe. And Hanlen wants us to believe, too.
In basketball as in life, there's nothing more uniquely disconcerting than someone unexpectedly telling you exactly what you want to hear -- which, for the last two weeks or so, is precisely what Drew Hanlen has been doing for Sixers fans. First, it was his appearance on the Talking Schmidt podcast in late Jane, in which he claimed that he and Fultz were already "way ahead of pace" from where he thought they'd be in terms of progress with his shot," and assured "I think by the end of the summer it will be perfect -- he’ll be back rolling, and he’ll show people why he was the No. 1 pick." Then, a week ago, he responded to a tweet from fan James Santore promising to name his son after Hanlen if he was able to fix Fultz's shot by quipping, "Can’t wait to meet Drew Santore!" And last night on Twitter, the vaguest, biggest tease of all: "Sixers fans... Get excited!"
The toughest part of this to wrap your head around as a Sixers fan isn't just the assuredness Hanlen seems to have in the long-term benefits of the work he's doing with Fultz, but the volume at which he's publicly broadcasting it. In stark opposition to all the other figures in orbit around our ailing point guard the last 11 months, who've seemed about as eager to talk about Fultz's situation as a college coach getting asked about a recruitment scandal, Hanlen is actively going out of his way to swag out over how the dude is doing. He's even dunking on his trainee a little in the process: "The good news is, I can’t go down because it can’t get worse," he yukked on the aforementioned Schmidt pod about how he originally sold his shot-fixing program to Markelle, also mentioning how he constantly reminds him, "I still believe that Jayson Tatum was the best player in that draft."
The chest-puffing is unmistakable, and unequivocal: Hanlen is making no attempt to hide his ambition (and expectation) to be known as The Guy Who Fixed Markelle Fultz's Broken Jumper. "I said, 'Hey Markelle, listen, you’re going to make me really famous, and you’re going to make me a lot of money when I fix your shot and can sell your program," he related in the same interview. Later, he explained even more explicitly that a good deal of his motivation in working with Fultz is how he wants "to arrogantly be able to tell everybody, 'Yeah that’s me right there, I fixed it.'" For a figure best previously known to Sixers fans for being the short, white dude getting worked by Joel Embiid in offsesason YouTube videos, his apparent transition to Drew Hanlen, Sausage King of Philadelphia is a little jarring.
Of course, his arrogance isn't totally misplaced, at least in a theoretical sense. If Fultz's shot is good-as-new going into his sophomore season, Hanlen will become very famous -- about as famous a figure as exists in the world of NBA freelancing -- and his program will become more in demand than possibly any other in pro sports. Fixing Fultz's jumper would make Hanlen a permanent Hero of the Process, as revered as anyone outside of Our Once and Always Dark Lord Sam Hinkie, He'd be a first-ballot RTRS Hall of Famer, that's for damn sure.
But if he doesn't? Gotta hope that Drew Hanlen realizes that that would make him pretty fucking famous too, and in ways he might not be totally prepared for. Hell hath no fury like a Process Truster scorned, and for Hanlen to be describing in such mouth-watering terms what he's cooking up this offseason and the ultimate meal never to be delivered... well, cue the appropriate Frinkiac .gifs. It's not just us either at this point -- hyping himself up to this degree will also ensure that if his pupil doesn't pan out, Hanlen will be permanently known across the NBA as The Guy Who Failed to Fix Markelle Fultz's Broken Jumper, and his credibility will be compromised accordingly.
Knowing that Hanlen has to at least partly understand this to be true, does that mean that we should have faith that his boasting will prove justified? Maybe. The guy has a pretty long NBA track record at this point -- although he's never worked with a player with issues like Fultz's, because no such player previously existed -- and from reports both partial and impartial collected by Philly Voice's Kyle Neubeck, Fultz's progress since working with Hanlen appears to be legitimately encouraging. What's more, Fultz himself seems newly self-confident, joking around at Summer League last week like a guy unafraid of his reception in the snarkier corners of the Internet. If, as Hanlen claimed in that same damn pod interview, it really was just a case of the yips initially plaguing Markelle, then maybe just getting him to believe the program is working is in itself a crucial part of the program actually working.
We won't know for sure until we know for sure, though, and in the meantime, the possibility of Hanlen just being a very aggressive salesperson is real and frightening. In a 2016 blog post for the Pure Sweat website entitled 10 Shooting Keys, Hanlen wrote that the tenth and final key to shooting is absolute confidence. "All great shooters KNOW they are going to knock the shot down before they shoot it," he offered. "If you are out there hoping your shots go in, you have no chance to consistently knock down Js!" It's plausible he may simply feel the same thing to be true of shooting coaches: That if you don't believe with all your heart that you can and will get the player you're training back where he needs to be, you're already doomed before you even start.
That'd be an understandable thought, and there may even be something to it -- particularly if his supreme belief really is inspiring newfound confidence in Fultz himself. But it all still comes down to whether or not it actually works out with Markelle next season, because if it doesn't, it'll be too late for Hanlen to walk back his earlier comments as motivational tactics. Because he's not just a trainer to Sixers fans at this point: He's a rainmaker, promising salvation in the midst of a tough offseason drought. And if he can't deliver, he should know to expect to be chased by angry Process townsfolk for the rest of his career.