EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Markelle Fultz could help Suns, but could Suns help him?

Nov 29, 2018, 7:55 AM | Updated: 3:58 pm

Philadelphia 76ers' Markelle Fultz in a action during an NBA basketball game against the Charlotte ...

Philadelphia 76ers' Markelle Fultz in a action during an NBA basketball game against the Charlotte Hornets, Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

How hard do the Phoenix Suns want to look in the mirror?

That’s the question they have to ask themselves when a No. 1 pick from only one draft ago reportedly becomes available at a position of extreme need.

Philadelphia 76ers guard Markelle Fultz is broken, but the Suns have held discussions regarding a deal for Fultz, according to 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s John Gambadoro.

Philly.com’s Keith Pompey reported Wednesday that the Suns liked Fultz coming out of the draft as most teams did.

Their analytics people thought he had a huge upside, but they had huge concerns about his support system.

In college at Washington, Fultz was an explosive, dynamic offensive threat with a jumper (41 percent from three) that was lethal from both catch-and-shoot and off-the-dribble situations. After seeing him in person twice, I wrote about him as the top prospect in that class 23 months ago. You can see for yourself in that piece that the jumper was for real.

After remodeling his shot after college, going through a shoulder injury his rookie year and playing concerning bits of basketball when he was on the court, the stories off the floor continued to come up as often as the new forms on his jumper.

This year, Fultz has started 15 games and played well on some nights, even with the heeby-jeebies to pull the trigger from deep and the foul line.

But the overlying shadow of his worrisome tendencies never went away. There was even a game against the Atlanta Hawks where head coach Lloyd Pierce had Fultz’s defender Kent Bazemore play blitzer and completely abandon Fultz to pressure the ball.

On top of his mysterious shoulder issues, per The Athletic’s report from Nov. 21, Fultz’s right wrist could be holding back his ability to shoot.

The issue has led to periodic difficulties holding on to the ball during his shot. Specialists have been working with Fultz to figure out how they can strengthen the wrist area to remedy the injury.

If you’re saying, “Well, Kellan, I’m not sure if these injuries are actually what’s truly bothering him,” then you’re not alone in that assessment, especially with this additional tidbit from The Athletic.

The wrist and shoulder injuries’ impact varies; some days they badly hinder him, other days they do not, causing an erratic pattern in which his shot appears to be working one game and is off the next.

No one has publicly said this is a mental obstacle Fultz has been willing to overcome, a next-level case of “the yips.” That’s concerning!

Even worse, The Athletic reports the 76ers were not told there was any type of injury keeping Fultz from being medically cleared to play. That’s concerning too!

Wojnarowski puts it best in his piece.

Fultz, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft, has lost the ability to carry out and follow through on long jump shots, and there has been internal and external debate about how much of this perplexing circumstance is physical versus mental.

 

Fultz is having his shoulder examined in New York, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, and that examination will determine how Fultz’s camp, the Sixers and any trade suitors move forward.

It is, quite simply, the most bizarre NBA story of this decade and is in the debate at the top of the all-time list.

The Athletic reports Fultz would prefer a fresh start. Given the Suns’ current status as a done rebuilding team that doesn’t look done rebuilding, that fired its general manager nine days before the season, that hasn’t announced any replacements for the fired front office members yet and has three different open roster spots, it feels like a laughable suggestion.

But the catch here is Fultz could and would help the Suns, even in his current state.

From the outset, it’s important to establish that Fultz has continued to play hard through his trouble and appears to be anything but an annoyance in the 76ers locker room. Head coach Brett Brown has said as much, and Fultz’s interactions with teammates has reflected that.

As alluded to earlier, he is not an ill-functioning basketball player to the fullest extent. While his effectiveness wavers, dude can still play.

When Fultz gets the ball, he wants to push.

The problems aren’t in his legs, and he has a locker full of herky-jerky moves once he gets within a step or two of the basket, including a signature spin move.

At times, you can see the confidence in the jumper and more specifically, his touch. The reported problems, as Wojnarowski wrote, were with range. That last finish with the left hand showed it, and fallaways like this also showcase it.

Fultz got miscast out of Washington as more of a scoring guard. His vision is for real, as is his skill as a passer. But that’s being rude to his ability and know-how in making the simple, right play as a point guard. Add in the burst in semi-transition, and Fultz creates a handful of easy passes to open teammates every night by keeping the tempo high.

That trait alone makes him intriguing in Phoenix with Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and T.J. Warren spacing out the floor. But more on that in a bit.

All of this, of course, is ignoring how defenses can flat-out leave him. Fultz has to make them pay, even if it’s from inside the three-point line.

Fultz has attempted to make himself as much as a floor-spacer as possible, and he’s more often than not willing to shoot when he’s open.

The issue is the shot going down. This year, Fultz is shooting 41.9 percent from the field. It’s not a back-breaking number, but it’s clear where he is best with his touch as a scorer.

He’s got to make shots like this to survive on the offensive end.

Where the swing is in terms of his value on defense. Fultz competes and uses his feet well.

You can see that upside in how he defends ball screens, and his size (6-foot-4) and length (6-foot-9) bring upside as a two-position guy.

Let’s wrap there and focus on the player Fultz is now. Yes, arguments can be made about “fixing” Fultz and “gambling” on his potential. That will complicate an agreeable trade going down for a No. 1 pick.

Focusing instead on what Fultz can do without the jumper is what works best for the time being.

Without the shooting stroke, he’s a useful ball-handler that can attack defenses by getting to his sweet spots in the center of the lane. Off the ball, he shows enough aggression and willingness to slash that, when left open, you can expect a fine outcome a good percentage of the time. Most importantly, he can provide for others. On defense, there’s a great chance he can be average and potential he can be more than that.

Any team that gambles on him will need to battle through inconsistencies at this stage of his career and bet on the player in the situation, but a good point guard is there, even if he can’t shoot.

Is he a starting-caliber point guard short- or long-term? Tough to say. Can he help NBA teams if he naturally progresses from this form as a 20-year-old? Absolutely.

Examining Fultz as just a basketball player, that’s a player the Suns could use, especially in their present iteration. Only Booker can reliably create his own shot and for others in an offense predicated on having multiple ball-handlers. Rookie Elie Okobo can be added to the list if he keeps playing like he did on Wednesday night, but that’s still only two guys.

Regardless, losses like Tuesday’s to the Indiana Pacers — without Victor Oladipo — keep adding up.

The Suns clearly have a capped ceiling with “Point Book.” So does the workload and growing injury report for Booker himself.

In simplistic terms, the Suns desperately need a player that does what Fultz can do at even a below-average level.

There are two hurdles to overcome, though. One requires a decent running start and another asks for cliff-scaling equipment.

As a former No. 1 overall pick, Fultz makes $8.3 million this year and $9.7 million the next. Even if the Suns acquire him and decline his $12.2 million fourth-year option, they would be paying him the salary of a lower-tier starting point guard. That’s not so easy to take on with free-agent aspirations next offseason as Booker makes $27 million, Ryan Anderson adds $21 million, Deandre Ayton sets you back another $9.5 million and the wings outside of the expiring Trevor Ariza compile to nearly $22 million.

The Suns better believe in Fultz’s talent to take that salary on.

Their real venture, though, is assessing the risk in acquiring Fultz and betting on his “floor” as a prospect. With secure playing time and a season-and-a-half to sort himself out, can Fultz avoid be a stable member of the rotation?

It’s going to take the right team to not only maximize him but keep him even-keeled. The key aspect to take away from the entire saga is the 76ers did just about everything they could to not only help Fultz but provide him with opportunities. He started the year after they won 52 games!

We don’t even need to take a step down the road to explain why the Suns don’t feel like the right place to bring Fultz along. Everyone reading this knows where they stand as an organization compared to the rest of the league. It’s not pretty.

As Suns Twitter Ring of Honor member Scott Howard puts it, “the Suns should try and trade for Markelle Fultz but Markelle Fultz and his camp should be terrified of the Suns.”

I’m not willing to extend myself that far. I’d lean toward “yes” if I had to ultimately choose a side of pursing Fultz or not, assuming the price is low enough, but the reasons why I’m skeptical speak to the larger problem at hand for the Suns as a franchise.

On top of that, the fact that they need a point guard bad enough to potentially go after Fultz, even with all his baggage, says a whole lot.

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Markelle Fultz could help Suns, but could Suns help him?