Markelle Fultz growing into Orlando Magic’s closer

Markelle Fultz had his best game for the Orlando Magic in a big win over the Brooklyn Nets, inspiring hope he can be the team’s closer before year’s end.

The Orlando Magic picked up an important win Monday night, as they beat the visiting Brooklyn Nets 101-89 to move into the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference standings. This was the first of four meetings between the two sides and with the Magic replacing the Nets in seventh, it is clear the two will be jostling for playoff position for the rest of the year.

By far the best development to come out of the game was the fourth-quarter play of Markelle Fultz, who came alive and put the Magic on his back on the way to the victory. He had a career-high 25 points and the manner in which he scored them will have delighted fans and inspired hope that 2020 will see the organization make another run towards the postseason.

Looking at the big picture though, was this the game where Fultz proved that he could be without any doubt, the Magic’s closer in close games going forward? This would have been one of the best-case scenarios of trading for him, but now that it is actually starting to happen, what does that mean for the franchise, especially as the trade deadline nears?

Looking at the game itself, and the Magic allowed a 16-point lead to slip to the point where they were actually a couple of points down early in the fourth quarter. The manner in which they did this was the typical Orlando basketball we have worryingly seen plenty of times before. A solid start wiped out by a lethargic approach to closing out opponents.

When Fultz checked back into the game with the game knotted at 78-78, he injected an urgency right away that reverberated through the players on the court. Up to that point the offense had been stuttering, with Terrence Ross forcing things and Evan Fournier struggling to get going.

If an offensive possession is finishing with Wesley Iwundu dribbling the ball at the top of the 3-point arc before jacking up a shot,  you know that the offense is not working the way it is supposed to. Fultz looked for the ball right away (while not always receiving it) and attacked a Nets team that was quickly on its heels.

He scored seven straight points, getting into the paint with some brilliant moves on two possessions before knocking down a 3-pointer in the corner that forced the Nets to take a timeout. It may look like we are simply breaking down one game here, but the ramifications of what Fultz did stretch much further than that.

This was a game where Nikola Vucevic had only two points heading into the fourth quarter (he finished with 11, while also posting an impressive 24 rebounds), while both Fournier and Aaron Gordon chipped in with 11 points each. Gordon, despite some recent concerns over his Achilles, was active on the defensive end, particularly in the fourth quarter.

So for Fultz to come in and lead this group offensively as he did through a late scoring burst and a couple of lovely assists was huge. It gave us a look at what this Magic roster can be when everybody is playing in roles in which they are more comfortable. Vucevic is still their best player and the offense orbits around him, but carrying the team offensively as a center is a tough ask.

He has always worked best as one of the best skilled big men in the league that can give you a double-double while acting as a release valve for parts of a game. Fournier has been great at times for the Magic this year, but if he is your go to closer and No. 1 offensive option late in games (as he has been), then you are putting a ceiling on how good you can be.

Gordon is at his most devastating when acting as the team’s best two-way player, as he was last season. The games when he does too much offensively and tries to take over are typically the ones where he fails to get out of his own way and struggles as a result. Ross is the Magic’s sixth man gunner, even if he hasn’t always been exactly that so far this season.

Fultz as a closer makes the roster, and the puzzle, look a lot closer to completion. Even after the Nets had zoned in on him and made a point of attempting to foul him hard in the paint after his seven straight points, he still got to the basket. It even sounded like he was receiving some MVP chants while completing an and-one play as well.

That kind of talk is wide of the mark for now, but it does pose an interesting question. If this is what Fultz is going to be  — and really that was the hope when the Magic traded for him, even if it has come along quicker than expected — then how does that change how the franchise approaches the trade deadline?

Should they be looking to move Fournier if possible, given that he has one year and $17 million remaining on his current deal after this season and would be helpful to a contending outfit? Fultz is looking more and more like the cornerstone (alongside Jonathan Isaac), so it should be about putting the right players around them.

Fournier has been a loyal servant for the Magic and really this isn’t about what you may or may not think of him as a player. He was the team’s closer by necessity more than anything else and if Fultz can successfully take up that mantle, like he did against the Nets, then the roster could go in a different direction.

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D.J. Augustin is another player who may be better suited elsewhere, despite being a clear fan favorite in Orlando. The starting point guard role belongs to Fultz now, with somebody like Michael Carter-Williams, a future free agent or a player they trade for a better fit at backup.

Augustin hit probably the shot of the decade for the Magic, but there is nothing wrong with saying goodbye now.

The Magic rank a terrible 27th in offensive rating (104.5), but giving Fultz more responsibility offensively, combined with seeing who else is out there, could be the key to becoming better on that end. Given that Fultz is also an above-average defender already, this would be a great development going forward.

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Monday night’s win over the Nets may only have been one game, but it looked like so much more for Markelle Fultz and his future with the Orlando Magic. He continues to grow and it is no coincidence that the franchise are moving back towards .500 as a result.

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