The Orlando Magic had their ups and downs on their six-game road trip, but the continued improvement of Markelle Fultz was a real positive.
The Orlando Magic are back home after a six-game road trip during which they went 3-3. It is hard not to feel a bit disappointed by this stretch, especially after their best performance of the season so far in a win over the Los Angeles Lakers, a game in which they were beset by injuries.
They could not build upon this, losing to the Phoenix Suns (before the Lakers game) and lowly Golden State Warriors (after the Lakers game) in the process. Really then it was what we have come to expect from this organization in recent years. Standing up to superior opponents, and sometimes winning, while also playing down and losing to others.
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Despite the inconsistent nature of the trip and the potential trade implications for the roster as a result, one player who stood out throughout the time spent away from Orlando was point guard Markelle Fultz. So much so that his continued improvements over this period could yet be one of the main takeaways from the season once it is over.
Just having Fultz back on the court from the first game of the season was seen as a plus, which is why we take his pedestrian numbers on the season so far with a grain of salt. He may only be averaging 11.9 points and 4.6 assists, but the fact he is putting up numbers at all is great for the future of both player and team.
Aside from these stats, we have seen Fultz quickly grow into the best distributor on the team, while also getting downhill fast and dictating the pace of the game when required. He still makes some silly turnovers and the wrong decision offensively from time to time, but given that this is his first full season in the league, he gets away with these mistakes.
So while his growth was happening at a pleasant pace, fans and the front office alike were hoping that Fultz could take it to another level at some point this season and he duly obliged while out West, particularly in the big-time win over the Lakers.
The Magic don’t get on national television essentially ever, so a game in Staples Center against LeBron James and the Lakers was as close as they were going to get.
This was the moment Fultz picked to have arguably his best game of the season so far and what made it better was that this was his third big-time performance of the month, to go with fine displays in wins over the Washington Wizards and Brooklyn Nets. He had a team-high 10 assists and matched Aaron Gordon with a team-high 21 points.
Fultz also got a couple of signature moments, most notably when charging towards LeBron James in the paint. This typically doesn’t end well for opponents, never mind a guard who is being dwarfed by “The King”. But not only did Fultz manage to score a basket on this play, he also moved the man mountain in front of him, sending James reeling.
Fultz had another big moment against James late in the fourth to edge the Magic toward what would end up being a one-point victory and had himself a triple-double in the process. It wasn’t quite the same story in the loss to the Warriors, but his 23 points on the night was by far a team high.
By the time the trip had wrapped up with a win on Monday night in Charlotte against the Hornets, the numbers Fultz had put up on the six game trip where much more like where fans want them to consistently be. He averaged 16 points per game during the trip, as well as 5.3 assists and 6.0 rebounds (averaging 3.5 on the season so far).
The 22.2 percent he shot from deep was bad — even worse than the 25 percent Fultz is averaging on the season — but his free throw numbers continue to suggest that this is something that will improve over time. He shot 71.4 percent from the line during the six-game span and is shooting 73.9 percent so far this season.
Many believe free throw shooting is an accurate indicator on if a player can improve their 3-point shooting, so this would provide hope for any player. This may be even more the case for Fultz, who despite still having a weird hitch in his shot has found a way for a lot of them to go in, especially at the free throw line and in the mid-range.
Fultz’s free throw percentage was an ugly 56.8 percent last season and 47.6 percent the year before that. He has made massive strides and the hope is that this will cross over to his 3-point game as well. Even if he is never a consistent threat from deep, Fultz already gets into the paint with such ease that his free throw attempts per game (currently only 2.2) will surely rise.
Coach Steve Clifford has clearly noticed what Fultz is able to give the team nightly on a more regular basis, as he saw his minutes increase from the 27.3 he is averaging on the season so far to 31.6 while away from home.
It is fair to say that over the last six games, Fultz has been the Magic’s most consistent performer. He is hugely important for their long-term growth, as well as what he can bring in the short term, with a spot in this year’s postseason far from secure yet. He continues to build momentum, and to do it on the road in recent games has made it all the more impressive.