Nylon Calculus

Nylon Calculus: What does a fully optimized Markelle Fultz look like?

After two seasons of questions, Markelle Fultz has proven himself a useful NBA player. What have we seen so far and what does it mean for his ceiling?

After a meandering first two seasons that included mysterious injuries, conspiracy theories, a disappearing jumpshot and plenty of missed games, former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz has quietly established himself as a reliable rotation player for the Orlando Magic this season.

With just 66 NBA games and 1545 minutes to his name, this is functionally still a rookie season in terms of on-court experience. As he continues to get his feet wet, Fultz is averaging 11.3 points, 4.4 assists, 3.0 rebounds and 1.1 steals in 26.2 minutes per game. ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus estimates his overall impact to be positive — slightly negative on offense but with enough value on defense to push things above zero. That’s a significant development considering he’s still shooting just 26.8 percent on 3-pointers.

Fultz’s appeal as a draft prospect was his package of scoring skills, the potential to be extremely efficient at all three levels and hitting from beyond the arc both off the dribble and off the catch. Three-level scoring is a stool with each leg helping hold the whole thing up. If a player can’t attacking off the dribble or finish at the rim, defenses can crowd them on the perimeter and take away the jumpshot. If a player can’t threaten a defense from beyond the arc, opponents can sag into the lane and pack the paint, taking away driving lanes.

All that is to say, Fultz is currently sitting comfortably on a two-legged stool. He’s shooting 39.2 percent on pull-up jumpers inside the arc, a less than ideal figure but one that’s at least viable as a change-of-pace. Mostly though, he’s just leaning on his ability to get to the basket, even though defenders know he’s loathe to pull-up from the outside and that driving is really plans A, B and C.

The chart below shows all high-volume ball-handlers this season (at least 7.0 drives per game), charted by their drives and pull-up 3-point attempts per 36 minutes.

You can see that Fultz sits in a regrettably familiar grouping of frequent drivers who rarely fire away from behind the arc — alongside players like Emmanuel Mudiay, T.J. McConnell and Elfrid Payton. Even DeMar DeRozan, something of a best-case scenario for the offensive impact of a 3-point-averse ball-handler, is defined as much by what he can’t do as what he can.

The good news for Fultz, in this comparison, is that he already has several other factors working in his favor. He’s been more adept at creating shots for others than Mudiay and he’s already a much better finisher than Payton. McConnell may have an edge in efficiency but he’s doing everything at a much lower volume and in a much different context. You can see more detail in the table below, which shows the players with the highest ratios of drives per pull-up 3-point attempt.

At the top of the list are players like DeRozan and Ben Simmons who essentially never take pull-up 3-pointers. Simmons is still an enormous positive on offense because of his passing ability, which manifests less off drives than some of the other players here. Just below that is a group of players, stretching from Mudiay to R.J. Barrett. Of this group, Brandon Ingram is the only significantly positive offensive player, in part because of his elite finishing off drives.

With Fultz’s passing ability, Ingram is probably not a great template for thinking about how Fultz could have more offensive value without shooting more 3s to keep pressure on the defense. Simmons is not ideal either, considering the ways in which his size allows him different pathways to offensive contributions. Of the players on this list, I think De’Aaron Fox might actually be the most interesting hypothetical frame to try and stretch Fultz’s strengths and weaknesses over.

They finish at nearly identical rates and create assists on a similar percentage of their drives. Fultz doesn’t have Fox’s pure speed but makes up for it with more strength and finesse. The big difference, at least in this narrow comparison, is that Fox has the ball in his hands a lot more often with a lot more opportunities to create, full stop. He leads the Kings’ primary rotation players in time of possession and average seconds per touch, by a fairly wide margin. Fultz, meanwhile, has played about 20 percent of his possessions with D.J. Augustin, Orlando’s starting point guard and team-leader in time of possession and touch length. He’s also played 85 percent of his minutes with Evan Fournier, a complementary handler who leads Orlando in both isolation and pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions per game.

Locking Fultz and Fournier together in the rotation is probably a good idea, Fournier is the only Magic player shooting better than 36.0 percent on 3-pointers this season and they’ve played opponents close to even in those minutes (minus-1.1 per 100 possessions). Getting some more shooting into those lineups should also be a long-term goal for Orlando, whether by player development or player acquisition. Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac, shooting 29.2 and 33.0 percent, respectively, on 3-pointers, are the other two players Fultz has most frequently shared the court with.

There is still plenty of time and plenty of opportunity for Fultz’s game to evolve but he has at least established a toehold. His potential is still a moving target but he may never be the outlier, high-volume, high-efficiency offensive engine he appeared to be as a draft prospect. Still, his passing, driving and finishing are strong skills and appear viable, independent of his shooting, offering a clear path to being a very positive contributor on offense. Many will likely continue to point at his shooting as the biggest need for development but seeing his stable his ancillary skills are with more offensive primacy is probably the biggest factor in determining his ceiling right now.

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