ORLANDO– Desperate to hang onto the good basketball vibes and rhythm that he had established during his finest season yet as an NBA player, Orlando Magic point guard Markelle Fultz made an important purchase just three days into the league’s abrupt stoppage because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Not sure how long the delay in play would keep him and his teammates out of action in early March, Fultz feverishly shopped around online and found an NBA-like basketball hoop at a nearby Wal-Mart that he could purchase and construct in the driveway of his suburban Orlando home. After a bit of initial haggling with the construction, Fultz built a stanchion, backboard, rim and net that would ultimately prove to be a safe haven of sorts for him during one of the craziest times of his young life.
In addition to serving as a means for Fultz to stay in shape and keep his skills sharp, the basketball hoop reminded the 22-year-old guard of many of the reasons that he fell in love with the sport of basketball. For Fultz, shooting baskets in the driveway while listening to music, brought a calmness to him during these most uncertain of times.
“It was pretty crazy, and it turned into me feeling like I was a kid again,’’ joke Fultz, who took part in a virtual Zoom call with media members on Monday. “I had an outside hoop immediately, and that was a challenge for me to put that up. I got past that and then it turned into me waking up in the morning and going outside and getting up shots every day in the Orlando heat, which can be challenging.
“I didn’t know if the season was going to start again or not, but I wanted to be ready,’’ Fultz added, referring to his daily regiment of basketball drills during the quarantine. “Every day, I would run two miles, I would ride my bike and I would be outside getting up shots. I couldn’t tell you how many hours, but sometimes I’d be out there for three hours, sometimes an hour or even longer, just having fun, listening to music, trying to get into a rhythm and not thinking about everything that was going on (with the pandemic). That’s like me meditating, me going out there and enjoying myself on the court.’’
Fultz, who had averaged 12.1 points, 5.2 assists and 3.3 rebounds in his first 64 games with the Magic, did his best to keep himself ready for an NBA season that is starting to ramp back up in earnest. Soon, players will begin team workouts before heading to a campus-like environment at Disney World. Fultz’s Magic, 30-35 and currently No. 8 in the Eastern Conference standings, will restart the regular season on July 31 against the No. 7 Brooklyn Nets (34-34).
The Magic will play eight “seeding games’’ prior to the start of the playoffs, which Orlando is hoping to be a part of for a second consecutive season. Fans will not be allowed to attend the games as the NBA and Disney look to try and keep players, coaches, referees and staffers safe from the spread of the coronavirus.
“I feel as though whatever team can get in the best rhythm and get in the best shape the quickest will have the best opportunity in this situation,’’ said Fultz, whose Magic had won three games in a row, six of nine and eight of 12 prior to the stoppage in play back on March 11. “I feel like this is a unique situation and anything can happen. There’s not one team that has homecourt advantage or anything like that. … I just feel as though whatever team can get their chemistry back and get in shape the quickest can put themselves in the best position to go in here and give themselves the best chance.’’
The stoppage in play interrupted a season in which Fultz – the heralded No. 1 pick of the 2017 NBA Draft – was finally starting to live up to his massive potential as a difference-making point guard. The Magic traded for Fultz in February of 2019 – even though he was limited to just 33 games in his first two seasons because of a painful condition in his shooting shoulder. That condition was ultimately determined to be Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, and the Magic supported and were patient with Fultz throughout last summer as he rehabilitated the shoulder back to full strength.
The payoff for the Magic came this season when the 6-foot-3, 209-pounder posted career-best numbers in every major statistical category and evolved into being the dynamic playmaking point guard that Orlando has sought for years. This season, Fultz has scored in double figures 45 times and topped 20 points six times, including a career-best 25 points against Brooklyn on Jan. 6. Arguably the best game of his career came on Jan. 15 in Orlando’s stunning upset of the Lakers in Los Angeles when Fultz posted a triple-double (21 points, a career-best 11 rebounds and 10 assists).
In the stretch of games just before the stoppage in play, Fultz seemed to have found the best rhythm of his young NBA career. While leading a Magic offense that was clicking as well as it had at any point in the season, Fultz averaged 15.4 points and 6.4 assists while shooting 55.7 percent overall and 42.7 percent from 3-point range in five March games.
Not only did the stoppage in the NBA season shock Fultz’s system, but it also interrupted the best stretch of a career that had been marred early on by injury.
“I feel like I was in such a great rhythm,’’ he said. “I feel like I was steady getting better and better, as was our team. I was in a crazy (good) rhythm and I had a routine that I was doing every day and I’ve stuck to that routine. My mindset going back into it is that I will have to ramp it up slowly, but that’s something that I’ve been doing.’’
Fultz said, in a weird way, that his injury troubles early in his career might work into his favor with the NBA season restarting after what will eventually be a four-month layoff.
“I feel like I have an advantage going back into this (restart) because I’ve sat out for a long time (before),’’ he said. “I learned how to stay active in certain ways to make sure I sharpened up the tools that needed to be sharpened.’’
Fultz said that he and teammates have already discussed ways that they can use the international platform provided to them by the NBA to try and enact change in terms of social injustices for African-Americans. Fultz said Magic teammates have already discussed filming a video that calls for change in the way African-Americans are treated socially and by police officers. Also, Fultz is debating other ideas with his family and management team. He said he would be in favor of a proposed plan that allows players to have social messages placed on their NBA jerseys in place of their usual nameplates across the shoulder blades.
“I think there are a lot of people, just in general, who don’t believe what’s going on in the world (in terms of racial injustices), and I think that we have to use our platforms to stand up and speak on that,’’ said Fultz, a native of Upper Marlboro, Md. “Just getting together as groups and teams and figuring out ways we can deliver our message will be important. Doing it unified and all together doing it will be a big thing. As long as we come together as a group and try to deliver the right message, I think it can be something that’s very powerful.’’
Fultz is hopeful that the Magic can be a powerful force in the NBA once returning. Regaining the chemistry that the team had just before the stoppage – when it won three games in a row by whipping Minnesota, Houston and Memphis – will be key to Orlando picking up right where it left off, Fultz said.
Fultz, too, is hopeful of continuing the season that he had going – one that is among the most stirring, feel-good stories of the year in the NBA because of all the pain and misery that the guard endured in his first two NBA seasons. He is hopeful that the work he put in during the time when most NBA players were quarantined – especially the work he put in on the driveway hoop that he constructed himself – will allow him to quickly regain the flow and rhythm that he had built up in early March.
“The last couple of months have been kind of crazy, something that I’ve never experienced in my life. None of us have. But it’s also has been a great learning experience and a chance to reflect what’s going on in the world and my life,’’ he said. “I’ve tried to stay in shape the best that I can and really communicate with my family, get closer with them and what makes them happy.
“I’ve just been sticking to what I know – working as hard as I can, running to stay in the best shape that I can and working with the resources that I have,’’ he continued. “Workouts have been different, but it’s starting to ramp up now. Like (Magic) Coach (Steve Clifford) said, `It’s just about getting the ball back in my hands and getting up as many shots as I can.’ It’s just about getting that rhythm back, and as soon as we work out as a team, it’s about getting that chemistry together.’’
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