Editor’s note (Oct. 29):? The piece has been updated with the news that Fultz is out indefinitely and will be re-evaluated in three weeks due to shoulder?soreness and muscle imbalance.
Are? Markelle Fultz’s early struggles and shoulder issues indicative of a larger problem for 2017’s No. 1 pick? ESPN Insiders Mike Schmitz — who has scouted Fultz since 2015 — and Kevin Pelton discuss the point guard’s jumper, his play so far and what it might mean.
Kevin Pelton: Mike, you started the ball rolling on one of the most important stories of the young season when you noted on the first day of Philadelphia 76ers training camp that Fultz had changed the form he used to shoot free throws.
At the time, it didn’t seem like a big deal, but Fultz’s form has continued to deteriorate since then, culminating in him almost seeming to punch the ball toward the basket. First off, what did you notice when you first posted about Fultz’s shot and what are you seeing now?
Mike Schmitz: Fultz has always been more shot-maker than pure shooter, but the mechanics we’ve seen this season are a drastic overhaul from how he shot the ball during his one year at the University of Washington and years prior. What stood out most about the change was the lack of rhythm going into his motion, the Shaq-like under-the-chin starting point and the eventual push toward the rim.
Just look at the difference in his free-throw stroke from 2015 …
… compared to now:
Fultz’s mechanics have changed gradually since he finished up at Washington, which he has said is connected to the shoulder injury that ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Tuesday led Fultz to have a cortisone shot on Oct. 5. Then on Wednesday, Sixers’ GM Bryan Colangelo announced Fultz will miss three games due to soreness and that the PG will see a shoulder specialist. The team released an update on Sunday that Fultz is out indefinitely and will be re-evaluated in three weeks.
According to one team that worked him out, the difference in his shooting stroke was beginning to become more apparent during predraft workouts. Seeing him live in Salt Lake City at summer league, I noticed his shot looked different than I had become accustomed to since first scouting him in 2015.
Check out his release point on this 3-pointer from a game against Arizona. This is Fultz’s patented hang dribble pull-up that made him such a tough cover at the collegiate level.
Now compare it to the second shot in this clip, from Utah summer league.?While not as drastically different as his change in free-throw mechanics, the slight change with the ball farther away from his body was noticeable.
At the time, the extended release point seemed like a potential adjustment to the length of the NBA 3-point line, and the fact that he made six of his 13 3s and shot 4-for-5 on free throws was encouraging.
Whether due to injury or not, the away-from-the-body release point was even more exaggerated in Vegas Summer League and eventually evolved into what we’ve seen so far this season. Fultz has been unable to shoot the ball from outside of 10 feet, and has looked very labored in even those attempts.
Pelton: One of the questions I’ve gotten about Fultz lately is whether there was any indication going into the draft that his shot might be an issue. Having watched basically every game he played at UW, my answer is a firm no. While Fultz’s free throws didn’t always go in, he never shied away from contact or displayed any lack of confidence. He was plenty confident in taking jumpers, both off the dribble and in catch-and-shoot situations.
Now he has zero 3s in the regular season, after just three in the preseason. You watched Fultz more at an earlier age than I did. Did anything stand out to you as a red flag?
Schmitz: Fultz’s perimeter jumper was a slight question mark very early on in his career, as he was more comfortable attacking the rim and pulling up in midrange spots than shooting off the catch from deep. As you can see in the 2015 Adidas Nations championship game below, he had a tendency to shoot on the way down, which led to inconsistent results.?This is something he fought at times while in Seattle but was able to iron out on most nights in the NCAA.
That tendency, and sometimes turning down spot-ups for pull-ups, were the only potential questions about Fultz’s jump shot at a young age.?He has made great strides as a shooter since 2015, impressing scouts and executives with his tremendous shot creation and pull-up ability before his 25 games with the Huskies.
So while there were some questions about the consistency with which he shot the ball early on and how good he’d be off the catch, there was nothing to suggest that he’d ever develop into a non-shooter. According to the DraftExpress database — which tracks Fultz’s stats through the NBA regular season, preseason, summer league, his college career (33 games) and 15 games before he arrived at Washington — Fultz is a 38.4 percent 3-point shooter on 198 attempts, many of which came with a hand in his face.
What has been more troubling is the mental block that seems to have developed, likely a result of the dwindling confidence that has come from the reported injury. I’ve always been most impressed by how easily the game comes to Fultz. A gym rat and? trick-shot artist with natural touch, Fultz has typically been the type of shooter who can go 2-for-10 in warm-ups (with a slightly different release every time) and then knock down five straight pull-ups when the lights come on.
He has looked as if he were playing a different game than others — poetry in motion, simply reacting instinctively rather than thinking too much about the moment, sometimes for better or worse. Shoulder injury or not, Fultz has never been one to overthink the game, and the fact that he has had to second-guess himself almost every time he catches a pass has led to a lot of the indecision you’ve seen so far.?
Pelton: As you noted, Fultz’s problems at the free-throw line have carried over to his unwillingness to shoot jumpers in the half-court set. As a freshman at Washington, Fultz shot 42 percent of his shots from beyond 15 feet, according to Synergy Sports tracking, and 28 percent as 3-point attempts. In his first four NBA games, Fultz has yet to attempt a shot beyond 15 feet. What problems is that creating for him offensively?
Schmitz: Fultz’s pull-up jumper is what set up so much of his game at Washington. He has always had a natural ability to create separation off the dribble, and used the threat of his pull-up and his athleticism to knife through the lane to score or facilitate.
According to Synergy, last season Fultz scored 1.02 points per possession (ranking him in the 88th percentile) on 140 pull-up jumpers, many of which came heavily contested on a nine-win Washington team. Fultz made more than two pull-up jumpers per game as a freshman, and at 6-foot-5 his ability to use that hang dribble pull-up as a setup move made him a devastating scorer.
Now Fultz is bypassing pull-up opportunities and struggling to find space to create at times when on the ball as teams go under ball screens. You can see that hesitancy in some of these clips from the NBA regular season (about 20 seconds in):
A big part of this is Fultz’s adjustment to playing more off the ball next to Ben Simmons. He has proven that he can play the 2 for stretches in the past, but he has always been far more confident as a lead guard. Like Simmons, Fultz is best with the ball in his hands, and regardless of how long it takes him to get healthy and regain his shooting touch, finding more ways to eventually put him on the ball with shooters around him will best utilize his herky-jerky playmaking ability.
He’s clearly not helping the Sixers while off the ball right now.
Pelton: Yeah, he’s definitely not helping. Philadelphia has been outscored by 26.5 points per 100 possessions during his minutes,? according to NBA.com/Stats. (In fairness, relatively few of Fultz’s minutes have come with Joel Embiid, which has exacerbated the issue.)
What do you think about Philly’s decision to sit him until he feels better physically and rebuilds confidence in his shot?
Schmitz: We don’t know for sure what is going on with him physically, but history does show that shoulders are one of the toughest parts of the body to diagnose, as we’re seeing now. Fultz has always been a humble, high-character kid who doesn’t seem like the type of person to complain when he’s in pain. The gradual but drastic difference in mechanics hints at discomfort that may have led to the change in his shot, and eventual lack of confidence.
As he works his way back, it’s important for Fultz to visualize what his jumper looked like at Washington, ridding his brain of the free-throw mechanics that caused fans to question what the Sixers were thinking selecting him No. 1 overall. If I were in Philly’s video department, I would provide Fultz with several positive reinforcement edits, showing clips of his cleanest jump shots from the 2016-17 college season. While he’s recovering physically, I would have Fultz consume those clips on a loop for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
So much of shooting is mental, with visualization playing a huge role. Reading “The Inner Game of Tennis” by Timothy Gallwey, a well-known book that dives into the mental side of sports, could go a long way in Fultz clearing his head. If healthy enough, dialing in on form shooting and getting reps with his old mechanics would be a sensible next step. Filming that and showing his best shots before every session would be another sound positive reinforcement method that several shooting coaches use. Once Fultz is finally ready to go, I’d consider giving him a game or two in the G League to build his confidence.
Fultz has been too good a shot-maker for too long to lose his shooting touch altogether. We won’t see the real Markelle Fultz until he rediscovers the hesi pull-up jimbo that made him so tough at Washington, but he remains an ultra-talented lead guard prospect who has an extremely bright future, and I’m confident he’ll get healthy and regain the stroke that made him such a coveted player.
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