It’s too early—far, far too early, in fact—for any conclusions or pronouncements having to do with Markelle Fultz as an NBA prospect. But if you’ve watched the first three games of Fultz’s career, I think you’re probably feeling the same concern I am this morning: How sure are we that Fultz is healthy enough to play?
After all, he played just 64 minutes of Summer League action, before being shut down on July 9 with an ankle injury. He played just 47 minutes of preseason action, and missed the last two Sixers preseason games with a knee injury. And then there’s the free-throw stroke, which started as a fun and funny and inconsequential thing to follow, until suddenly Brett Brown was worrying about it, and now Fultz is actually using that nightmarish form in live NBA regular season games, where he is shooting just 50 percent from the stripe.
But here’s probably the most worrying bit: through his first three NBA games, Fultz has yet to even attempt a single three-pointer. In fact, by all indications, he has given up on his jumper: per NBA stats, 64 percent of Fultz’s points have come from the paint, and another 27 percent of his points have come from the free-throw line. That leaves just nine percent of his points from mid-range and beyond. In 59 total minutes of burn, Fultz has attempted just six shots from beyond nine feet, an insanely low and troubling number.
When video first became public of Fultz shooting free throws with that whacky new form, Fultz played it down as just an experiment with different ways of performing that specific task, and assured everyone that he would be back to his normal form by the time the regular season started. Later, on October 15, Fultz revealed that it was, in fact, a shoulder injury that was forcing the adjusted form. A week and three regular season games later, Fultz is still Vogue-ing his free throws, and otherwise refusing to even attempt a jump shot. His shoulder is hurting! That’s not someone who should be playing in an NBA game. It’s weird to see the Sixers run him out there, after they’ve played things ultra-cautious in the past with injuries to fellow top picks Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Embiid is still on a heavy minutes restriction, in his fourth NBA season, and the Sixers kept Simmons out for 100 percent of his rookie season after a Summer League injury, even after he was reportedly healthy enough to play down the stretch.
Those were leg injuries, and this is a shoulder, so maybe the likelihood of further damage or a setback is minimal, but this feels like an awful lot of pressure to put on a teenaged rookie. And that’s before we even get to the part where Fultz has a minus-31 net rating and is mostly out there killing his team’s chances of getting a win. This has turned into a miserable, depressing, nightly embarrassment for Fultz, and the Sixers should give him a break and hold him out until his shoulder is healthy enough to shoot free throws and jumpers like a normal basketball player. The Sixers have the third-worst net rating in basketball—they can afford to sit the rookie. Hell, maybe they can’t afford not to.