What comes next for Markelle Fultz after his ACL tear?

An ACL tear is the latest setback in the young but strange career of Markelle Fultz. What comes next for the young point guard?

On Dec. 27, Markelle Fultz played one of the best games of his still-young career. He took full advantage of the Wizards’ lackluster defense and scored a career-high 26 points while going 11-of-21 from the field and 2-of-3 from beyond the arc. He scored on pull-up jumpers and on contested lay-ups, showcasing a similar skillset to the one of the previous season, albeit one that is now more refined. In his numerous drives, his abilities near the basket was evident — he showcased promising footwork and several different ways of finishing the drive once the help arrived. It was a heartening reminder of the player he was initially expected to be, which only makes what happened Wednesday night more tragic

In the first quarter of the Magic’s game against the Cavaliers, Fultz drove to the basket and while attempting to evade his defender, planted his left leg which buckled immediately. It was the same thing he’d done countless times before, but due to some combination of bad luck and unfortunate physics, his body could not stand the strain. It looked bad and was soon confirmed to be so when it was announced that he had torn his ACL and would miss the rest of the season. It’s only the latest unfortunate twist in the strange saga of Fultz’s young career, but if in the past, hoping for the revival of Fultz’s career required blind faith as much as anything, one now has concrete reasons to think a bright future remains possible

When the Orlando Magic traded for Markelle Fultz in February 2019, it was less because of the player he was at that moment than because of the player he had been and that they hoped he could be again. After a fitful and confusing tenure with the Sixers in which he had only played 33 games, a fresh start on a team that had no current championship expectations seemed like a perfect opportunity for him to start anew. In a sense, his first season in Orlando was functionally Fultz’s rookie season, his first chance to play with full knowledge of what had ailed him and of how to be a good player in light of his injury history

We now know what went awry for Fultz in Philadelphia. It was nothing as confusing or outlandish as theorists suggested at the time, but just an injury, albeit an unusual one. He was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, a nerve disorder that affected his range of movement and his ability to shoot a basketball the way he had at Washington. The problem was not just the injury though, but the expectations that had been so outsized when he entered the league and the confusion and uncertainty that swirled around him when those expectations were not immediately met. There was not only the pressure of being the number one pick, but also that of joining a franchise that viewed him as the final piece of a team ready to contend for a championship. It was an untenable and unfortunate situation for a player just trying to figure out what was wrong with him and how to navigate the eventual diagnosis

In Orlando, Fultz proved himself to be a solid and intriguing, if unspectacular point guard. He started sixty games, averaging 12 points and 5 assists per game over the course of the season. His 3-point shot was not particularly reliable — he made 26 percent from deep on the season — though he did make 46 percent of his long two’s and showed himself to be adept at both getting to and finishing at the rim. He did not often look like a future star, but he was a solid starting point guard for a playoff team and showed enough flashes of potential to offer Magic fans lots of hope moving forward

What comes next for Markelle Fultz?

There remains cause for optimism when looking towards the future. Fultz, despite his career having more dramatic twists and turns than most 10-year veterans can claim, is still just 22 years old. Also, an ACL tear is not the career-decimator that was in decades past; many players have played like their old selves upon returning to the court. If he is healthy at the start of next season he will still have, potentially, a decade left of NBA basketball ahead of him. And with the Magic having extended his contract before the season, it makes sense to assume that they are invested in seeing him succeed

What will be tricky for Fultz in the future will be learning how to make up for the lack of athleticism that will presumably accompany this latest injury. For many players in such a situation, they could retool their game and develop their shooting stroke in order to make up for such a loss. Yet with the nerve damage in Fultz’s shoulders, that may not be an option. However, much of what has enabled him to shine at times in Orlando is the unconventional ways he utilized his natural abilities

He is traditionally athletic, yet he prefers to employ subtler strategies such as changing directions or speeds unpredictably. This keeps his defender guessing, wrong-footing them in the process, allowing Fultz to get by them for an open look. It may be that those abilities are less likely to be impacted, enabling him to return to his former self effortlessly while also laying the groundwork for a brighter future to emerge

Ever since Fultz entered the league, I have desperately wanted him to succeed. He was such a delight as a college player that I, of course, wanted to see him recreate those same plays at the professional level, wanted to be able to watch a player as skilled as him on a regular basis. As time passed and his career took on the tones of a strange tragedy, I came to root for him on a human level. Last season, it looked like fans could finally see him as just another basketball player and not the guy who lost the ability to shoot for two years, which came as a massive relief not just for them but, I would assume, for Fultz as well. Now, it looks like next season, he will be evaluated as a player coming back from an ACL. Hopefully the season after, he’ll be just another point guard, and maybe the one after that, an even better one

If he could get through the first three years of his career and come out on the other side, there’s no reason to believe he can’t handle this setback as well. It’s more than one young player should have to bear, but when he spins around a defender on his way to a smooth and seemingly effortless basket whenever he returns, I hope he feels as free as he’s sure to appear.

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