Unterberger: Before The Sixers Figure Out The Draft, They've Got To Figure Out Markelle Fultz
For the Sixers to figure out this draft, they first have to figure out what they think of Markelle Fultz
Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and is now writing for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
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The grind of the run-up period to the draft can turn the most wide-eyed of basketball fans into a hardened cynic. Watch enough DraftExpress scouting videos and you eventually start looking at prospects the way you look at hookups-of-the-week during Sex and the City marathons; yeah, that blandly handsome Wall Streeter that Charlotte's dating seems harmless, but it's only a matter of time before he turns out to be an out-of-control exhibitionist, or a closet puritan, or a commitmentphobe who doesn't have the lateral quickness to stay in front of guards on the perimeter. You find out enough about players' flaws that you can start second-guessing everything and everyone you think you know, permanently compromising your ability to trust in NBA upside again.
Particularly if your team just traded up to get Markelle Fultz the year before.
I'm not going to retry Bryan Colangelo for the Fultz trade here -- lord knows most of us loved it at the time, and I certainly at least liked it. But it's undeniable that we gave up a major asset to move up and draft a guy who seemed like a can't-miss, until he somehow forgot how to do anything but miss. Now we don't know what, if anything, we can count on him for next year and moving forward -- and his uncertain presence looms over this entire draft for the 76ers.
Fact is, we still really need Markelle Fultz to turn out to be Markelle Fultz. As Mike has repeatedly stated on the Ricky, there's a Markelle-sized hole in this team's lineup, which can only be filled by a ball-handling guard with both bounce and wiggle, who can dribble, pass, shoot, and defend at the point of attack. The guy we bet big on at draft night could do all of those things, the guy who started the season for us could only do one or two of them, and the guy who ended the season for us could do more of them, but still not the most important one.
There's reason to be optimistic. Fultz is (hopefully) finally healthy, and working with esteemed "skills coach" Drew Hanlen this offseason to get his shot back on track. And when he did return from his shoulder maybe-injury late in the regular season, he did seem like a more confident player in general, and one slightly more confident in his previously Dark Internet-worthy jumper -- albeit still a far cry from the three-level killer we saw at Washington -- before getting yanked for T.J. McConnell in the postseason. It's not the biggest emotional leap for a Sixers fan to assume that rather than experience the traditional injury-necessitated redshirt season of a Sixers prize rookie, Markelle instead opted to just tank his debut season by choosing to forget his most important pro-level skill -- but that just as Noel, Embiid and Simmons eventually proved worth their wait, so will Fultz for his Official-official rookie season next year.
Unfortunately, the Sixers' coaching staff and front office -- assuming they're not just one and the same at this point -- will probably need more to go on with Fultz. They need to know if they can trust in him becoming who he should be, because if not, they need to get someone who can at least approximate that: a secondary playmaker and off-ball shooting threat who doesn't give it all back on the defensive end. Maybe it doesn't have to be in this draft, but those guys are hardly plentiful in free agency, and aren't often available for trade, either. If they have little faith in Fultz, they might be best off reaching for a Lonnie Walker or Collin Sexton or Trae Young -- none of whom can yet offer the complete Fultz package, but who can get maybe 2/3 of the way there, with hopes of the final third maybe coming in time. But if they think Markelle can still be that guy, those players become luxuries at best and redundancies at worst.
And so, as much research as the Sixers brass have to do about the dozens and dozens of prospects in this draft, the real scouting report they need is on their own second-year point guard. With Embiid and Simmons entrenched as the franchise's two current pillars, everything follows from Markelle at this point -- if he can join them at or near their level, the Sixers are basically set for their young core, and can look to draft for other specific holes in their lineup and fill in further with veterans from there, in trade and fee agency. If he can't, well, that might make Brett Brown & Co. more inclined to do what's necessary to move up for a player like Luka Doncic to get that third young core star, even if if means giving up legitimate assets to get there.
But therein lies the other Markelle-related rub: If the Sixers believe they whiffed on their deal for the top pick last year, do they have another big swing in them for 2018? Fultz busting would not only represent one of the most severe opportunity costs in recent NBA history, but one of the ultimate cautionary tales in moving aggressively and single-mindedly to acquire anyone on draft night -- even if standing pat ultimately represents the more dramatic mistake. Moving up might be the smartest move for the team, as might dealing the pick altogether, but it'd hardly be shocking if the scar tissue from their recent bad experience dealing with Danny Ainge on draft night last year has them feeling a little gunshy about pulling the trigger on any such subsequent deals.
Personally, I'm inclined to think that unless the Sixers are fairly certain that Fultz is a lemon, they're better off convincing themselves on draft night that everything went fine with his acquisition, and moving forward from there. The Sixers need Fultz to be Fultz so badly that it's almost not worth entertaining the possibility that he won't ever get there -- best to continue building confidently as if he will, and deal with the considerable consequences if he won't later. And frankly, it seems unlikely to me that he'll be properly replaced by anyone in this draft class, anyway.
Consider it this way: If Fultz re-entered the draft this year, and was available for the Sixers to draft at No. 10 knowing everything we do about his first rookie season, would we take him over the likes of Walker or Young?
I would say yes, simply because we've essentially seen him be the player we need -- even if just in his Summer League performance -- and I'd rather go with that guy than one we've never seen do it before. But if the Sixers do pick a lead guard with their No. 10 pick, that'll tell us what we need to know about their current Fultz evaluation. They'll likely deny it, claiming it was simply a matter of Best Player Available and that they believe whoever they picked can fit in alongside a healthy, fully loaded Fultz. And maybe there'll be some truth there. But after our experiences with the Noel/Embiid/Okafor mess earlier in the Process, we should know that the fastest way to ensure Markelle never properly grows into himself is by drafting someone at the same position as him immediately after -- as should the Sixers.
I don't envy the team's position on this one. The draft is a hard enough test of one's NBA faith when you're only dealing with a year's worth of big questions; to have the previous year's roll over as well is pretty dastardly. And as with all the other major queries facing the Sixers this summer, this is a tough time to not have a GM at the helm to be the clear and final voice on all such decisions. But in a sense, maybe we're better off without Bryan Colangelo being around for this one, without his trauma from the experience of the Fultz deal either encouraging him to put as much distance between the dude and himself as possible, or to unreasonably double down on him and end up throwing good draft picks after bad. Hopefully management can approach the situation with as much objectivity as can reasonably be expected, and not let the ghost of Markelle Fultz scare them into potentially misplaying their hand on a second straight draft.