The Whiteboard: Why Markelle Fultz is the difference for the Magic

Orlando Magic, The Whiteboard

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The Orlando Magic started 5-20 and were as unlikely a candidate as you’d find for a six-game win streak. But Markelle Fultz is back and things are clicking.

To be clear, the return of Markelle Fultz is not the only reason the Orlando Magic are on a six-game winning streak, including consecutive road wins over the Boston Celtics. It’s actually been 10 games since he returned from a broken toe suffered before the season started and the Magic lost the first four. They’ve also benefited from some 3-point shooting luck — hitting 37.7 percent during this win streak, while opponents have hit just 28.8 percent.

But the return of Fultz has been a game-changer for Orlando’s backcourt, particularly with Jalen Suggs still out with an ankle injury, injecting dynamic ball-handling into an offense that has leaned extremely heavily on their talented frontcourt thus far.

What does Markelle Fultz give the Orlando Magic offense

Per game, Fultz is driving about as often as Franz Wagner or Paolo Banchero. The difference is that those two players drive looking to score, passing on just 27.8 and 27.6 percent of their drives, respectively. Among the 51 players who average at least 10 drives per game this season, just six — Zion Williamson, Giannis Antetokounmpo, R.J. Barrett, Tyrese Maxey, Anthony Edwards and Keldon Johnson — pass on a lower percentage.

Fultz, on the other hand, has passed on 48.3 percent of his drives, the sixth-highest mark in the same group of 51. That ability to attack from the perimeter and turn a shifting defense into wide-open shots, not just makeable contested ones, has given the Magic offense a totally new dynamic.

Watch here as he notices Marcus Smart distracted for just a fraction of a second and blows past him to create a wide-open 3-pointer for Paolo Banchero.

Fultz has developed a really nice chemistry with Banchero and has helped generate a lot more open perimeter looks for him. Banchero is 9-of-19 on 3-point passes that have come after a pass from Fultz and you can see here, again, how his dribble penetration (in an isolation situation, no less) is able to occupy multiple defenders and leaver Banchero completely alone in the corner.

What people remember most about Fultz is the way his jumper seemed to disappear with the Philadelphia 76ers, but he’s made himself a very effective scorer, someone who at least needs to be accounted for with the ball in his hands.

Fultz is ranked in the 83rd percentile in scoring efficiency in isolations this year. He’s hitting 42.9 percent of his pull-up 2s and has been extremely reliable with his array of floaters and push shots, one of the reasons he’s shooting 55 percent between five and nine feet from the basket. He’s just threatening enough as an on-ball scorer that he can warp the defense and his ability to turn that into open shots for his teammates has really changed things for the Magic offense.

What Fultz has done at the other end of the floor has been just as important. He’s averaging 3.1 deflections and 1.9 steals per game, many of which have been turned into easy fastbreak buckets at the other end.

The NBA’s defensive matchup data should always be taken with a grain of salt but it’s worth at least noting how limited players like Fred VanVleet, Darius Garland and Trae Young have been when Fultz was their primary matchup.

His point-of-attack defense has been an important counterpoint to Bol Bol’s rim protection and you can see the outlines of some extremely strong defensive lineups built around him, Bol and Jalen Suggs.

The Orlando Magic still have a lot of work to do and the long-term availability of Fultz is going to be a question mark until it isn’t (remember, he’s played more than 20 games in a season just once in his six-year career). But his skills have filled in a lot of what was missing for a roster filled with intriguing young talent that hadn’t been able to regularly put things together until now.

— Ian Levy


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