By Matt Citak
When the Philadelphia 76ers drafted Markelle Fultz with the first overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, they probably were not expecting his fifth regular-season game to occur in late March.
But such was the case with the rookie guard, as a mysterious shoulder injury forced him to miss 68 games this season.
Many Philadelphia fans are still wondering what exactly happened to Fultz this year, with his complete silence when asked about the injury by the media after the game adding to the intrigue. But the 76ers have to be thrilled with what they saw from the rookie in limited action last night.
Fultz played 14 minutes as the backup point guard to starter Ben Simmons. He finished with 10 points on 5-for-13 shooting from the field, eight assists, and four rebounds, all on the offensive end of the court. In fact, Fultz joined Washington Bullet Kevin Porter as the only players in the shot-clock era to record 10 points and eight assists in less than 15 minutes, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Not bad for his first game in over five months.
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With Fultz back in the fold, just how good can the 76ers be moving forward?
The rookie guard is joining a Philadelphia team that has been on an absolute roll. The 76ers have won 18 of their last 23 games, which includes their current seven-game winning streak.
While some may have worried that Fultz’s addition to the rotation could disrupt the team’s chemistry, last night’s performance should relieve those concerns. Don’t forget that veterans Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova were added to the team within the last six weeks, and both have played significant minutes during their hot streak.
Fultz will continue as the backup point guard to Simmons, playing around 14 minutes per game, for the foreseeable future. Of course some will clamor for the rookie guard to crack the starting lineup sooner rather than later. But with the way Simmons has been playing at the one all season, the best role for Fultz heading into the playoffs is coming off the bench.
Simmons, a rookie himself, is enjoying a phenomenal first season in the NBA. The 6-foot-10 point guard is averaging 15.8 points, 8.0 assists, 8.0 rebounds, and 1.7 steals per game, and is the favorite to take home NBA Rookie of the Year.
With Simmons leading the first team and Fultz coming off the bench to captain the second team, the 76ers all of a sudden become even more deadly. Philadelphia will have at least one of the two most recent No. 1 overall picks on the court at almost all times, not to mention Fultz’s major boost to the 76ers reserves.
Fultz’s return to action is certainly a positive sign for the 76ers, but don’t expect the team to rush the 19-year-old into significant minutes anytime soon, even when the playoffs begin. As we witnessed throughout the season, a ton of mystery still surrounds his shoulder injury. The team will be extremely cautious with Fultz as they attempt to prevent any setbacks.
Prior to Wednesday night’s action, Philadelphia holds the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, just above the Indiana Pacers in the fifth seed and one-half game behind the Cleveland Cavaliers in the third seed. With just nine games remaining in the regular season, the 76ers will likely head into the playoffs as a third, fourth, or fifth seed.
Of course, the 76ers won’t know their first-round opponent for a little while. But with the way the team has been playing over the last six weeks, combined with the return of Fultz, Philadelphia will pose a nightmare matchup for any team in the Eastern Conference.
After years of trusting the process, it seems as if Philly fans will finally be able to reap some of the benefits come playoff time.
Matt Citak is a contributor for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter.