At this time last January, Markelle Fultz finally resembled the dynamic, do-everything point guard everyone thought he could be when he was the first player selected in the 2017 NBA Draft. Not only did he have the Orlando Magic off to an encouraging 5-1 start, but he also carved up the Miami Heat for 15 points, five rebounds, and four assists in the opener, and he handed the Washington Wizards 21 and 26 points on consecutive nights.
Then, on January 6, 2021, all that promise and all that hope came crashing down — both for Fultz and the hard-luck Magic.
Visions of Fultz laying on the Amway Center floor, clutching at his left knee, writhing in pain, and audibly screaming have been burned into the memories of Magic supporters on hand that night.
It was a night that would dramatically change the course of Fultz’s career yet again and ultimately set the Magic on a drastically different path.
Healthy and happy, Orlando Magic guard Markelle Fultz seemed on track for stardom
Most basketball fans now know the circuitous route that Markelle Fultz had to take to find good health and happiness on the basketball court. Drafted No. 1 overall in the 2017 NBA Draft by the Philadelphia 76ers, Fultz struggled right away during his rookie season with a mysterious ailment in his shooting shoulder.
He was briefly healthy in his second NBA season, but pain and a lack of strength returned to his shoulder. Philadelphia fans, who aren’t exactly known for their patience and understanding, quickly labeled him a bust — among other things.
It wasn’t until the winter of 2019 that doctors diagnosed Fultz with thoracic outlet syndrome — an impingement of blood vessels or nerves in the space between the neck and shoulder.
By then, the 76ers were heavily into win-now mode, and they didn’t have time to wait on Fultz to heal. Ultimately, they shipped him to Orlando, where the Magic gave Fultz the time and support to help him recover strength and flexibility in the shoulder.
Not long into the 2019-20 season, Fultz supplanted veteran point guard D.J. Augustin as the starter and wasted little time showing why he would likely be the franchise’s face moving forward. He had a career-best 25-point night in January 2020, capped by a game-winning 3-point shot. Nine days later, Fultz delivered a breathtaking 21-point, 11-rebound, 10-assist performance that helped Orlando upset the LeBron James and the Lakers in Los Angeles.
Fultz was solid in the NBA playoff bubble that spring, but it was clear the future was bright for him.
Disaster strikes again for Markelle Fultz and the snake-bitten Orlando Magic
Though veterans Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier, and Aaron Gordon surrounded and supported him, Markelle Fultz was the cog that made the Orlando Magic’s engine run early in the 2020-21 season. However, that engine locked up when Fultz drove hard to the basket, felt a violent pop in his knee, and went to the floor in agony.
Fultz’s torn ACL — combined with a similar injury to teammate Jonathan Isaac — proved to be fatal blows to a Magic franchise hoping to contend in the East.
A few months later, Orlando dealt Vucevic to Chicago, Fournier to Boston, and Gordon to Denver and parted ways with head coach Steve Clifford to begin yet another complete overhaul of the roster. Fultz’s importance was never more evident than at that moment when another injury led to the franchise completely changing course.
Still out of action, Fultz is progressing and eyeing an eventual return
Orlando Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and GM John Hammond have steadfastly refused to offer any timetables for the returns of Markelle Fultz or Jonathan Isaac. Those players could be considered grizzled veterans on a current Magic roster that made NBA history on opening night with its average age (21 years, 213 days). NBA lifers Weltman and Hammond have sports coats older than some of their players.
Predictably, the Magic have the NBA’s worst record, the franchise’s worst 39-game start, and a 2-13 start at home. Apathy reigns most nights at the Amway Center among the franchise’s tortured fan base.
The hope, of course, is that Fultz and possibly Isaac can return this season to provide some hope. Fultz was recently allowed to practice with the Magic’s G League franchise, and he also had one session with the NBA squad.
“It was amazing to be back out there — a, with my team and my brothers and also to be back into things,” Fultz said on Dec. 10 after going through some non-contact drills with the Magic. “I was actually able to go up and down a little bit, and we played five-on-five. Going through this rehab process, I’m taking it one step at a time, and this was one of those steps.”
Fultz’s comeback hit a snag again recently when he spent time in the NBA’s health and safety protocols in yet another cruel twist of fate.
It’s been a year, and Fultz is still waiting for the moment when he is clear to return fully to game action. That time might be later this season, and then again, it might not come until next season since this one is already a lost cause. For now, he can only sit on the bench with the Magic’s youthful roster and try to help them cope with the pain of rebuilding.
Fultz knows a thing or two about pain. Already, he has been through enough pain and stops and starts for multiple NBA careers. He is just holding out hope that a time will come when he can be healthy and happy on a basketball court again.
“I just love this game so much, and I can’t wait to get back out there and hoop again,” he said wistfully on Nov. 26.
Statistics courtesy of ESPN.com