The Philadelphia 76ers will learn more about Markelle Fultz’s status this week, after he wraps up appointments with specialists to learn about the condition of his right shoulder. Barring a medical explanation for Fultz’s difficulty shooting from the perimeter, the Sixers will have to figure out how to proceed with the No. 1 overall pick of the 2017 NBA draft, who has yet to perform in the NBA like he did during his lone season at the University of Washington.
Philadelphia’s deal for All-Star wing Jimmy Butler accelerated the team’s timetable for competing in the Eastern Conference, and at this point Fultz doesn’t appear capable of contributing to that goal. Before leaving the team to meet with specialists, Fultz was set to share time as a backup point guard with T.J. McConnell, leaving his role in doubt.
With the Sixers looking to win now while keeping an eye on potential cap flexibility this summer, what should their thinking be with regard to Fultz’s future?
Can Fultz be effective without a jumper?
Outside shooting is the key difference between the Fultz for whom Philadelphia traded up to draft with the top pick and the version we’ve seen on the court the past year-plus. Fultz shot 41 percent from the college 3-point line, and though there was reason to be skeptical that would entirely translate to the NBA — Fultz shot just 65 percent on free throws, also a key predictor of NBA 3-point success — nobody could have predicted what has transpired since then.
Fultz did not make a single 3-pointer during a rookie season shortened by scapular muscle imbalance that kept him off the court for 68 games; he attempted just one shot. After spending this summer working with skills coach Drew Hanlen, Fultz’s early 3-point success — he went 3-of-6 beyond the arc in the season’s first five games — soon faded. He has not made a 3-pointer in the past 12 games he has played, attempting just one in the entire month of November.
During the draft process, the 76ers surely envisioned Fultz complementing 6-foot-10 point guard Ben Simmons as a secondary playmaker who could be an effective catch-and-shoot jump shooter. Whether the cause is physical, mental or both, the deterioration of Fultz’s jumper has prevented that. Philadelphia has scored just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with Fultz and Simmons on the court together this season, per NBA Advanced Stats, so it was no surprise when Fultz lost his starting job after the Butler deal.
When he did play as a rookie, Fultz showed the ability to contribute without being a perimeter threat. He handed out 9.3 assists per 100 possessions and grabbed a robust 9.2 percent of available rebounds, highlighted by his racking up a triple-double (13 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds) in 25 minutes during the Sixers’ regular-season finale against the Milwaukee Bucks — making Fultz the youngest player in NBA history to do so. His assist rate has tumbled by nearly a third this season, and while it’s tempting to attribute that to more minutes with Simmons, Fultz’s assist rate has been just 6.8 per 100 possessions when Simmons has been on the bench.
In part, Fultz may be suffering because defenders are staying home when he penetrates and daring him to finish. According to Second Spectrum tracking on NBA Advanced Stats, Fultz handed out assists on 11.5 percent of his drives last season, which is down to 6.2 percent so far this season. And while that has helped Fultz finish better (his shooting percentage on drives is up from 37.5 percent to 46.8 percent), Second Spectrum data shows the 76ers still averaged more points per chance on Fultz drives last season (0.91 points per chance) than this season (0.89).
It’s certainly possible to be an effective point guard without a reliable 3-pointer, though it’s become a lot more difficult given the importance of the pull-up 3 to modern pick-and-roll play. But Fultz’s shooting has also been inaccurate inside the arc. Per Basketball-Reference.com, his 31.7 percent effective field-goal shooting on attempts beyond 3 feet ranks fifth-worst among the 171 players with at least 100 such attempts this season. Add in poor free-throw shooting (57 percent this season, 53 percent career) and Fultz would have to live at the rim to score efficiently.
That stat points to the importance of Fultz rediscovering his jump-shooting ability. So too does the track record of players most similar to Fultz’s NBA career thus far. None of the eight players with a similar score of 95 or better to Fultz using my SCHOENE projection system established themselves as reliable NBA starters, so if he continues down his current path it’s unlikely to yield positive results. That’s a huge issue for the Sixers given his contract situation.
Where Fultz fits in Philly’s big picture
We’re used to thinking of players on rookie contracts as bargains, and typically this is the case. However, the combination of Fultz being drafted No. 1 overall, rising contracts for rookies under the new collective bargaining agreement and his poor play means that’s not the case. He’ll make $9.8 million next season, with a $12.3 million team option for 2020-21, the final season of his rookie deal. That’s important for the 76ers because next summer will almost certainly be their last chance to use cap space before signing Simmons to a lucrative extension and — barring an unexpected change of direction by either party — re-signing Butler to a much larger contract.
Assuming Butler declines his 2019-20 player option and goes to free agency, under current projections for the salary cap ($109 million) and their first-round pick, the Sixers are looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million in cap space if they renounce the rights to all their free agents — a group that includes starters Wilson Chandler and JJ Redick. Moving Fultz’s salary, as well as this year’s first-round pick, would get Philadelphia up to $30-plus million in projected space — in the ballpark of the maximum for free agents with seven to nine years of experience (currently estimated at $32.7 million).
It’s quite possible that after adding Butler, the 76ers would be uninterested in signing another max free agent, which would surely push them deep into the luxury tax once Simmons’ extension kicks in. Given this strategy would force them to replace two starters with one player, similar to the trade for Butler, Philadelphia might also prefer to use its cap space to build up depth instead.
No matter the approach the Sixers choose, with a top-heavy roster and limited depth — they have just six players currently under contract for 2019-20, not counting Butler — maximizing cap space this summer will be crucial. And that makes dealing Fultz to a team less concerned about preserving cap space a more appealing option for Philadelphia, even if the return would be underwhelming.
On the Ryen Russillo Show last week, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said the 76ers “probably can’t” get a first-round pick in return for Fultz at this point and aren’t currently looking to trade him.
“Philly’s not there yet,” Wojnarowski said. “Their plan right now is, assuming [Fultz] comes back from these appointments in New York and is able to play relatively soon, that they’d try to put him back into that role he was in, see if he can fit back into that.”
With more than two months until the Feb. 7 trade deadline, Philadelphia doesn’t need to make a decision on Fultz now. But if he continues to struggle, his contract could compel the 76ers to deal him sooner rather than later.