They think they’ve finally found out what’s wrong with Markelle Fultz’s shoulder, a condition that has prevented him from shooting the basketball during his first two seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers.
When you’re drafted No. 1 overall, as Fultz was two Junes ago, because of your ability to score, the mysterious shoulder ailment and Fultz’s penchant for treating the basketball like a hot potato before shooting foul shots only brought on unimaginable levels of embarrassment for the player and the team.
Even NFL players mocked Fultz’s tortured shooting motion, that’s how bad it got.
After all, as Fultz couldn’t do the basics for a team that looked at him as their third star behind Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum of the Celtics has started off on what looks like an All-Star level career. The Sixers traded up from the No. 3 slot to get Boston’s No.1 overall pick, also giving the Celtics a future No. 1 pick, to get Fultz, then 19 and a one-and-done player from the University of Washington.
Now that Fultz, now 20, has been diagnosed with Neurogenic Thoracic Outlet Syndrome – irritation in the area between his lower neck and upper chest — he’s out indefinitely, according to the team. NBA insiders say it looks like the rehab process could take anywhere from three to six weeks, as he tries to regain his normal range of motion. The news is grim for all involved, but for Fultz obviously most of all. Last year his rookie campaign amounted to a major washout. While Fultz struggled in his 14 games and as of this moment has to be classified as a bust, Tatum emerged as a budding star by helping the Celtics get to within a win of the NBA Finals.
But the saving grace for the Sixers is their trade for Jimmy Butler, who has made two game-winning buzzer beaters since joining the team in a blockbuster deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves on Nov. 10. Since Butler’s arrival, the Sixers are 8-2 and third in the Eastern Conference at 17-8.
‘That’s what the team needs me to do late, close out a couple of games,” Butler said after scoring 13 fourth-quarter points in the team’s most recent win, over Memphis. ”It didn’t come down to the buzzer-beater thing. I think all in all in the fourth quarter, I scored a few points.”
Unlike Fultz, Butler, a seven-year veteran and All-Star caliber player at both ends, has been the perfect fit. The trade did leave the Sixers with some depth problems, as they had to part with Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Jerryd Bayless. They still could use more perimeter shooting, the next issue for the team’s new GM, Elton Brand.
But Brand looks like a genius now because Butler has been the shot-creator the team desperately needed, as Fultz continued to be plagued by his mystery shoulder issues from last season. His plight had gotten so bad, the Dallas Cowboys’ Amari Cooper mocked Fultz’s convoluted shooting stroke after scoring a touchdown against Washington on Thanksgiving.
Butler can do right now what the Sixers had drafted Fultz to do one day down the road. The Fultz Fiasco had left a gaping hole in the Sixers’ late-game offense in close games. For all of the projections that he’s going to develop into an All-NBA player, Simmons continues to be a reluctant shooter. He has yet to attempt a three-point shot this season after trying only 11 three’s when he was named Rookie of the Year. What makes him even more of a liability as a closer, besides the fact he doesn’t want to shoot, is that he’s been a terrible foul shooter during his first two seasons. His his accuracy just shy of an abysmal 60% for this season. In addition to Simmons’ drawbacks as a willing shooter, the Sixers have learned that they can’t always rely on J.J. Redick, their top outside shooter, but severely limited with his inability to create shots for himself.
Butler solved the problem with his ability to get his own shots, late in shot-clock situations and at the end of games. Because he’s given the Sixers exactly what they’ve needed, it’s relieved coach Brett Brown of having to devise special plays to put Simmons or Redick in positions to close out games.
Now all Brown has to do is give the ball to Butler and watch him go. So far, it’s worked as well as the Sixers could have hoped, with his last-second, three-point shots in wins in Charlotte and Brooklyn. Overall as a Sixer, he’s averaging 18 ppg on 49% shooting and 45% from three-point range. Butler came with a lot of baggage from Minnesota, not the least of which was his propensity to verbally beat up on the team’s two young stars, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. As a Sixer, with Embiid and Simmons, Butler has been on his best behavior. Some of that, obviously, can be attributed to his desire to land a five-year, $190-million, “max-salary” deal with the Sixers this coming July 1 when he becomes a free agent.
That could be money well spent, especially if Fultz never becomes the player the Sixers hoped they were getting.
Listen to Mitch Lawrence on SiriusXM NBA Radio on The Starting Lineup, Above The Rim, NBA Today and NBA Weekend. Follow him on Twitter: @Mitch_Lawrence.
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