Orlando Magic

Magic’s investment in Markelle Fultz makes perfect sense

The Orlando Magic are picking up Markelle Fultz’s team option for the 2020-21 season, but given where they’re at, it’s a worthwhile risk.

For most No. 1 overall draft picks, having your fourth-year team option picked up is pretty standard protocol. For Markelle Fultz, it was anything but guaranteed. With that being said, the Orlando Magic decided to do just that Monday, guaranteeing Fultz’s option for the 2020-21 campaign.

Despite the fact that he hasn’t played a single game for the organization. Despite the fact that he’s played a grand total of 33 games in his two-year NBA career. And despite the fact that it feels like we arrived at his diagnosis of thoracic outlet syndrome by process of elimination more than anything else.

Considering his fourth year locks Fultz in for $12.3 million, this is not your run-of-the-mill team option. It’s an investment on Orlando’s part, and a significantly risky one at that, give that they’ll be paying him $9.7 million for the upcoming season as well.

To this point, Fultz’s career has been confounding. He was the consensus No. 1 prospect in a highly regarded 2017 NBA Draft class, but was apparently misdiagnosed for more than a year before “thoracic outlet syndrome” became a term NBA fans needed to learn. Even after the diagnosis, a large number of people remain unconvinced it was anything more than the yips following his shoulder injury.

Indeed, it looked like Fultz had completely forgotten how to shoot a basketball during his limited NBA action. He’s posted abysmal .414/.267/.534 shooting splits in the pros, has attempted a grand total of 15 3-pointers after lighting it up from deep in college, and his free throw routine has featured the type of ugly hitch you’d expect to find in a trailer park, not an NBA player’s release from the foul line.

The fact that he’ll have made over $37 million by the end of his rookie contract, despite playing only 33 underwhelming games, is either revolting or commendable depending on one’s perspective.

However, as much as Markelle Fultz is verging on that dreaded draft bust label — like, surpassing even Darko Milicic and Anthony Bennett in the “biggest draft bust ever” category — there are plenty of reasons to defend this decision.

For starters, as the Orlando Sentinel‘s Josh Robbins points out, the Magic’s front office is clearly pleased with the progress Fultz is making. There’s no timetable for his full return to action just yet, but no team in the NBA would’ve agreed to shell out that kind of money if it wasn’t convinced he was on the right track. Not the Magic, not the Phoenix Suns, not even the New York Knicks. (Okay, maybe the Knicks, but I digress.)

That alone doesn’t exonerate Orlando’s risky gamble here, but context matters. As ESPN‘s Bobby Marks notes, the Magic were already going to be over the salary cap for 2020-21, so if he does have the breakout season everyone’s been waiting for, another team could’ve offered him a lot more than $12.3 million. At this point, it’s really just ownership that’s eating the extra money.

Orlando’s status in the free agency pool also needs to be considered. Re-signing Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross happened because the Magic had the inside track and there weren’t a lot of other suitors, but when has this franchise ever been considered a premier destination for prospective free agents? If landing Al-Farouq Aminu is as good as it gets, the Magic stand a better chance of grooming their own young talent than luring it in free agency.

In this reality where raising Shaquille O’Neals and Dwight Howards is a lot easier than getting them to sign on in free agency, investing a little extra in Fultz makes sense. Keeping the core intact with Vucevic and Ross signals the front office wants to build on last year’s playoff appearance, but the truth is, this organization needs one or two or three of its young players to make “the leap” for Orlando to become a true contender. It also desperately needs a long-term solution at the 1.

This is where youth on a playoff-competitive team becomes a major asset. Fultz is only 21 years old still, which puts him right in line with Orlando’s young core. Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba are both 21 too, Aaron Gordon just turned 24 and even the vets like Vucevic (28), Ross (28), Aminu (28) and Evan Fournier (26) aren’t that old.

It wasn’t that long ago that Fultz’s scoring ability, step-back 3, playmaking skills and all-around size and length made him the most coveted prospect by a county mile. If he can shake off whatever physical or mental ailment has plagued him to this point in his NBA career, the Magic could wind up making good on their initial investment in Fultz when they traded for him.

That primary downpayment came in the form of Jonathon Simmons, a 2020 first-round draft pick (via the Oklahoma City Thunder) and 2019 second-round pick (which became Carsen Edwards at No. 33 and was traded to the Boston Celtics). Cutting bait and letting Fultz become an unrestricted free agent in 2020, even without seeing him play a single game, wouldn’t have made sense unless he was making absolutely zero progress on the recovery front.

Throw in D.J. Augustin’s status as an unrestricted free agent next summer, as well as Michael Carter-Williams’ thorough “meh”-ness, and it makes perfect sense for Orlando to have at least one young point guard on the books for the 2020-21 season. The Magic’s need for a franchise point guard has been dire for some time now, so the upcoming season will serve as a trial period to see if Fultz can find his footing off the bench or maybe even usurp Augustin for the starting job.

The financials add up too; the Magic won’t have the cap space to go chasing a game-changing point guard next summer, and even if they did, it’s highly unlikely they’d be able to attract one. Even if Fultz continues to struggle or barely plays over the next two seasons, he won’t doom their progress on the court or clog up the salary cap sheet for too long.

With the NBA salary cap rising from $116 million next year to $125 million in 2021-22, that might be the ideal time to strike if the youngsters show enough promise to put The City Beautiful back on people’s radar. Maybe the big fish like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James and Paul George don’t bite, but that target window is more realistic, giving the Magic extra time to evaluate their young talent and either invest in that future or make alternate plans.

Next: Meet the 2019 NBA 25-under-25

The franchise known for its pinstripes has a checkered history when it comes to player development, so there’s no guarantee Markelle Fultz pans out to be the answer at the 1-spot. But cultivating young talent takes an investment of time, money and faith to yield results. For as much as the Magic were hammered for giving up on Tobias Harris and Victor Oladipo too soon, only to watch them thrive elsewhere, at least the current regime is taking a more patient approach.

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