When he stepped onto the TD Garden floor for the opening tip Tuesday, Markelle Fultz’s face appeared stoic and dispassionate, as if it were another game, another chance to flourish, just another night.
Yet, he was hesitant, reluctant to shoot, lacking the instinctiveness to make plays, but that was expected. The former No. 1 overall pick is entering his first true NBA season after last year’s disastrous rookie campaign, when he was felled by shoulder injuries and shooting troubles.
Fultz was a gifted player during his lone season at the University of Washington, a pure playmaker with scoring skills and a mean streak. Fultz made the game look easy. He swished jumpers. He attacked the rim. He launched 3-pointers.
Something is dramatically different two years later. Fultz has lost his confidence, battling with the mental aspects of the game that separate great from good. Confidence is foremost in an NBA player. And even the most confident players work hard because there is a layer of insecurity that is ever-present. There is fear that someone else is better.
When a player lacks confidence, it’s apparent. Defenses sag off. Teammates don’t pass you the ball. Coaches deny minutes.
For the 76ers, their remedy is to play Fultz until he becomes himself again, unless this is himself. In the opener against the Celtics, he passed on open shots, he disappeared at times, he refused to shoot. But there were flashes. He made a pretty layup. He attacked the basket. He pushed the ball on the fast break.
It’s pretty obvious that regardless of what happens with Fultz, the Celtics won the trade with the 76ers that netted them Jayson Tatum and the Sacramento Kings’ first-round pick (No. 1 protected) for the rights for Philadelphia to draft Fultz. Tatum is an emerging star. Fultz is an unknown.
On Thursday, the 76ers’ second game, Fultz made 5 of 15 shots, including a short open jumper where he was implored by the sold-out crowd at Wells Fargo Center to shoot. It was a sign of progress. Five for 15. It’s better than sitting on the bench, better than being labeled a bust or afraid to make a mistake.
“Going back to that psychological stability and that thing I’m saying and selling to the players, he could be the captain of that challenge,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said. “I think we all, led by me, have to be reminded that he’s 20 years old. I try to coach him without the knowledge of his draft order. Let’s look at him as a 20-year-old talent instead of any type of baggage that comes with being the first player chosen.”
The way the 76ers are going to help Fultz recover his game is by playing him, even if that takes minutes from the more productive J.J. Redick. Fultz’s presence on the floor along with gifted but offensively challenged Ben Simmons and erratic Robert Covington, who had a putrid offensive playoff series against the Celtics, hurts the 76ers greatly on offense.
Redick opens the floor and in all fairness, he deserves to start. But the 76ers don’t want Fultz coming off the bench with the pressure to deliver.
“It’s inevitable he will have ups and downs,” Brown said. “It’s my goals for me that I will get this a chance to help him and grow him with Ben and Joel [Embiid].”
Brown said he wants to surround Fultz with the best talent — the starters — to foster success. It’s unusual for a professional sports team to use top-level games (instead of the minor leagues or G-League) to tutor a young player, but the hope is he eventually turns into a consistent contributor.
“There’s lots of things that influenced this decision,” Brown said. “I lived it in 2006 when we [as a Spurs assistant] brought Manu [Ginobili] off the bench and so there’s another side of there where I have J.J. Redick coming in, lightning in a bottle off the bench that can help us get going. But for me to start [Fultz] and give him some minutes with the people that we are trying to grow, I like that.
“The balance of growing Markelle Fultz, winning games and keeping our program heading in the direction that it was heading in and using J.J. Redick all factor into that decision.”
Fultz is trying to keep a level of normalcy, waiting for that confidence and fortitude to return.
“I put in a lot of work to be prepared in game-like stuff, so I’m going to be ready,” he said. “We’re just going to play hard, do what we do and it’s going to be pretty exciting.”
G-League deal has dubious value
The NBA G-League announced it will offer $125,000 “select contracts” to players who do not want to play in college but are too young to enter the NBA Draft.
G-League president Malcolm Turner said in a statement, “Select Contracts are an answer to the basketball community’s call for additional development options for elite players before they are eligible for the NBA.”
The players will receive basketball development as well as help with life skills and academic training. It’s an interesting concept, an option for players who want to begin NBA tutoring during that one year they aren’t eligible for the draft.
The question is how long this option will be viable, with the league wanting players eligible for the draft directly out of high school again.
Also, the G-League has not proven to be a place where younger players dramatically improve. For example, former Celtics draft picks James Young and Jordan Mickey dominated during their time with Maine but neither made an impact with the Celtics. Young is out of the NBA and Mickey signed a contract to play in Russia.
The G-League has proven to be a solid place to produce NBA role players but it’s absurd to think the bus rides and the run-and-gun style with little defense would prepare a younger player for the NBA more than a year at a Division 1 school would.
The NBA is expected to announce in coming months its intention to allow players to enter the draft directly out of high school for the 2021-22 season.
Green sizes up Leonard, LeBron
Toronto’s Danny Green is notable for having played with both Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James. Green spent the early part of his career with Cleveland, during LeBron’s first stint there, before signing with the Spurs after the 2009-10 season, where he won a title in 2014.
Green was asked whether Leonard was the closest thing physically to James in the NBA.
“Both monsters on the court, physicality-wise,” said Green, who was acquired by Toronto along with Leonard from San Antonio. “But they’re just different in the aspect that LeBron can score the ball and he scores it very easily but he’s more so of a pass-first mind-set.
“He’s more of a Magic [Johnson], in my eyes. He’s more of a facilitator. He definitely does a lot of talking on the court, especially on defense, yelling. Kawhi does talk, but he’s not going to talk as much as that.”
Leonard is considered one of the more mercurial personalities in the league, with his reluctance to talk and guarded public persona. Video of him laughing loudly at his introductory press conference in Toronto went viral because it was an extremely rare show of emotion.
Green said their dispositions are the fundamental difference.
“Bron leads people in different ways,” Green said. “Obviously he does a lot of coaching himself. Bron’s more of a coach-player on the court and a point guard.
“Kawhi, he’s getting it done. He doesn’t have to say much or do much, but he’s probably more of a natural scorer. He probably has more of a natural physique for playing defense and is a better defender.
“Bron is a different type of physique, different type of high-level IQ and a different type of player. But he scores a bunch for a pass-first guy, which is crazy impressive, and that’s why he’s considered one of the greatest of all time.”
Leonard dominates a game without appearing to exert himself. He scored 24 points in the Raptors’ season-opening win over the Cavaliers, his first regular-season game since Jan. 13. It was an impressive performance, and Leonard is only expected to improve once he works himself into basketball shape and learns coach Nick Nurse’s system.
“He’s never sped up,” Green said. “He’s always at his own pace, taking his time, using his body more, using his contact, using his pump fakes and being patient. He gets to his spots, you’re not going to block his shots.”
NO WAY OUT?
Butler puts team in a tough spot
After claiming he would never play for the Timberwolves again, Jimmy Butler reported to training camp and played in the season opener. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to be traded. It means he realizes the best way to increase his trade value is by playing well.
ESPN/ABC analysts Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy weighed in on the Butler situation, in which there seems to be only one solution: trade him.
Butler is approaching 30, and a maximum extension will take a player with a history of knee problems into his mid-30s.
“I think that’s the $100,000 question,” Jackson said. “It’s not Jimmy Butler today and what he’s worth, it’s if you give him that extension, at 34 years old, making that kind of money, it can really handcuff your franchise. And those are the tough decisions that you boil it down to, whether the trade is worth it or not.
“But he’s certainly a heck of a basketball player, and he’s going to help them today. That really makes it tough, and if I was a general manager, I would try to meet somewhere halfway where I’m not paying that kind of money when he’s 34 years old.”
Said Van Gundy, “I’m not at all convinced that every team, like Miami, would do [a max deal]. People would say, well, Houston did it for Chris Paul, but I think Houston, two things: Houston was, is, and was closer to a championship than Miami, and secondarily I think Chris Paul is going to go down as one of the all-time greats.
“So I’m not convinced that every team that will trade or the team that ultimately trades for Jimmy Butler will feel necessary to give him five years. I really do think there will be negotiations. I think the only team that’s committed to paying him five years right now would be the team that has him.”
In the season opener, Butler scored 23 points on 9-for-23 shooting in a 110-108 loss to the Spurs. Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns, a former No. 1 overall pick, finished with just 8 points on 2-for-6 shooting. Butler’s tirade at a recent practice and injecting himself into the team concept after claiming he was done with Minnesota can have an adverse effect on his teammates and the franchise.
“It’s going to have an impact, without question,” Jackson said. “We have already seen that. It’s awfully tough to have situations like they are having right now and not allow it to impact your team.
“They’re still talented enough to win games, but it wears on you. I think the quicker they make a decision, the better off they will be down the road.
“Will it hurt Jimmy Butler? I think it has hurt him to an extent thus far, but at the end of the day, you win in this league with talent. Without question, he’s a high-level talent in this league, and someone will benefit from his presence in the lineup.”
What was supposed to be a chance for former Celtics assistant and Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau to resurrect his career and bring back the Timberwolves has turned disastrous. Butler was acquired from the Bulls to help lead a young, talented team to the next level. Last season, Minnesota reached the playoffs for the first time in 14 years but lost in five games to the Rockets.
Four days after the season, Butler met with Thibodeau, who is also the team president, and asked for a trade. Miami has been the most interested, but the Timberwolves want key contributor Josh Richardson in return, as well as other pieces.
“I think it’s had a huge negative impact on Minnesota already,” Van Gundy said. “If you look at their performance in the preseason, it’s been overwhelmingly poor. I think they’re caught in a quandary. I don’t think people are giving them good trade options. They’re trying to bully them into taking a bad deal. If they get that, that would set their franchise back years.”
“If they keep him and he’s not all in, which he seemingly is not, from what you hear, then that too is a bad option.”
Brown has call to make on agent
Celtics guard Jaylen Brown has gone without an agent for the first two years of his career, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t gotten attention from potential representatives. Brown is eligible for a contract extension after this season, a contract that could exceed $70 million. He has hired consultants to work on his shoe contracts and other endorsements, but it may take an agent to help negotiate his next contract. Look for Brown to be intrigued by Rich Paul, the agent for LeBron James, and Klutch Sports, which has signed Anthony Davis and Celtics forward Marcus Morris in recent weeks. Brown’s goal is not only to improve as a basketball player but also to become a more vocal presence with the NBA Players Association. Various players have hired representation pro bono or represented themselves in contract negotiations over the years, and Brown will have to decide whether he wants to continue without an agent.
The Nuggets signed coach Mike Malone to an extension just before the season-opening win over the Clippers. It’s an indication of the confidence the organization has in him despite missing the playoffs each of his first three seasons. The Nuggets re-signed Will Barton and returned nearly the entire club that finished within one game of the playoffs last season. They are considered a lock for the playoffs this season and will get the recently signed Isaiah Thomas back – eventually. Thomas is still recovering from March hip surgery, the same hip surgery he passed on during his time with the Celtics. Thomas signed a one-year, $2 million deal with Denver . . . Local music mogul Michael Bivins held a high school basketball tournament, the “Rep Your School Peace Basketball Jamboree,” at Madison Park High School last Sunday, with eight boys’ and eight girls’ teams playing throughout the day. Bivins’s quest is to bring back the annual tournament, which was a fixture in Boston during the 1980s . . . Former NBA coach and current ESPN analyst Stan Van Gundy will speak at the Harvard coaches clinic Oct. 28 at Lavietes Pavilion . . . Celtics great Paul Pierce will be one of the honorees at this year’s The Tradition gala Nov. 28 at TD Garden. Pierce, 41, is the Celtics’ second all-time leading scorer and played 15 of his 19 seasons in Boston. He will be honored along with Don Cherry, Jim Lonborg, Julie Foudy, Deion Branch, and Richard Petty.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.