Markelle Fultz has been among the best performances for the Orlando Magic through the first quarter of the season. They should beware of wearing him out.
Although the Orlando Magic haven’t exactly set the league alight through the first quarter of the season, they will have been encouraged by the performances of some of their younger players. Forward Jonathan Isaac and point guard Markelle Fultz lead this list.
But whereas Isaac was expected to make a leap in his third year in the league, Fultz was a complete mystery. Brought over before the trade deadline from the Philadelphia 76ers last season, he wasn’t seen on the court as the Magic made a successful run to the playoffs.
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Much of the offseason went by without anything from him either, until an impromptu open training day was called, with the sole purpose appearing to be that Fultz was ready to go for the season. Since then he has started 20 of the 25 games he has appeared in and has been among the better performers for the team.
But with this looking like it will be the first full season Fultz will have as a professional in which he is not struck by the strangest basketball injury of the decade, should the Magic take a more considered approach with Fultz, as they risk burning him out as they seek to turn him into the long-term point guard solution that he already looks comfortable being?
We need to preface this conversation by saying that this is not a dire situation that needs to be rectified immediately. Right now Fultz is averaging 25.8 minutes a night, obviously a career high for him personally, but actually split well with current backup floor general D.J. Augustin (25.6 minutes, sixth-most on the team).
By normal standards Fultz is not being overused at all, but we all know that the career of Fultz up to this point has been anything but normal. Perhaps it is the eyes playing tricks on us as well, but in the last couple of games a slight hitch looks to have returned to some of his shots. This was most notable at the free-throw line in the win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday.
Tuesday night’s loss to the Utah Jazz presented no such concerns, although he did seem to be leaning into his 3-point shots (he went 1-of-3) in particular. Really though, this speaks to the potential fatigue in his game; Fultz possibly willing the ball into the net because his body is beginning to tire.
Prior to that game against the Jazz, Fultz had been slowing down offensively and had scored 10 points or less in three of the previous five contests. Through the month of December so far, he is shooting only 25 percent from deep, although this is somehow an improvement on the 22.5 percent he has posted on the season so far.
The game in Utah did highlight all that is good about his game, as he scored 14 points and got into the paint to finish in a number of impressive ways early in the contest. In the open court Fultz is lightning quick and the downhill manner in which he plays, no matter the opponent, is among the best facets of his game offensively.
With the games continuing to come thick and fast and a playoff race that is only going to heat up from here, making sure Fultz is as well conditioned as possible as the calendar flips to 2020 should be a high priority. With center Nikola Vucevic now back from injury as well, the time may have come for the Magic to give Fultz a bit of a breather.
This doesn’t mean sit him altogether, because the team are finding their flow offensively, and there is no doubt Fultz is a key part of that. He drives his teammates forward and is unselfish with the ball in hand. His mid-range game is fast becoming excellent and from the beginning of the season until now he has only gotten better.
It just feels like he is playing with heavy legs more in recent games.
For the month of December, the Magic rank sixth in 3-point shooting percentage (38.1 percent), although they were actually No. 1 in this category before a poor shooting night against the Jazz (7-of-35 from beyond the arc). As mentioned already, Fultz has not been a contributing factor for this particular stat.
Interestingly, he was also a team worst minus-19 against the Jazz, adding further proof that he is tiring and needs a break, especially given that efficiency on the court has been one of his calling cards early in the season. Having Fultz continue to start, but perhaps skewing the minutes a little more in Augustin’s favor, may not be a bad idea.
Augustin had a career year last season and has taken being moved to the bench without causing any trouble. Although he’s run the second unit relatively well, he is still struggling for form so far this season, and is shooting 30.7 percent from deep. This is in stark contrast to the 42.1 percent of a year ago.
His crafty moves around the rim have vanished too, with opponents seemingly swallowing up his shots often.
More playing time for Augustin means more attempts from deep, and with a stroke like his (which is still better that Fultz’s right now) you would think more of his shots would start to fall. The Magic could lean into this team-wide offensive ignition from deep, while giving Fultz some time to get his legs back.
From there, he could once more lead this team as well as he has at times this season.
Michael Carter-Williams is the other option here, another point guard who is at this moment the best defensive player of the bunch. He was also the first player off the bench for the Magic versus the Jazz, when Augustin and Terrence Ross could have gotten the nod.
Like Augustin, Carter-Williams is not the long-term solution at the position. Playing him big minutes over Fultz makes no sense for the development of the former first overall pick.
But at only 16.3 minutes per contest so far this season and with a game head coach Steve Clifford trusts going back to their time in Charlotte together, giving him a couple of the minutes Fultz would have gotten for a small stretch could pay dividends down the road.
In truth there is no great problem here, but identifying and accepting that this is the first full season for Markelle Fultz as a professional, means that the fact he may be hitting a unique kind or rookie wall requires being proactive. The Orlando Magic are in the hunt for a postseason berth and are going through a tricky four-game road trip, of which they are 1-1 so far.
Allowing Fultz to catch his breath now, with the roster back to full strength and guys like Jonathan Isaac and Evan Fournier rolling, is not only a good decision for both player and team, it is the right thing to do.