Welcome to ‘Winning Culture’ the new column focusing on the Philadelphia 76ers for tapintothemainline.com. Throughout the season we will be following the Sixers and trying to make sense of going from 10 wins to hopefully 55 in just three years. Be sure to check back each week for offbeat insights, weird references, and as many words about Joel Embiid as we can write.
On April 4th, 2018 in the Philadelphia 76ers 78th game of the year, Markelle Fultz took his first NBA three-point shot. He took it with just under two seconds left on the clock in the 3rd quarter vs the Detroit Pistons. He was as wide open as you could possibly be. The nearest Piston defender had his back turned until the last second. The shot clanged off the front of the rim as time expired. It was the only three-pointer Fultz would take for the season.
In the grand scheme of the season, the shot could not have been less consequential. The Sixers would go on to win the game and continue their win streak as they charged full steam into their first playoffs since the Andrew Bynum trade. How consequential for Markelle Fultz the shot was is hard to say.
By now, everyone knows Fultz’s story. Drafted number one overall by the Sixers after a blockbuster trade with the Boston Celtics. Solid if truncated summer league, and then disaster. Fultz reports to training camp with a completely broken shot. He plays a couple of games to start the season and looks increasingly awful every game before being shut down indefinitely. Different reasons are offered up before the team finally settles on "scapular imbalance."
Periodically over the course of the season, we get generally cryptic updates that are rarely informative and just fuel speculation. Online arguments rage about whether he has the yips, whether he’s really injured, or whether he’s a bust. This is the first Zapruder era, where we endlessly and breathlessly dissect any video of Fultz doing anything.
This all finally ends on March 26th when an hour before the game versus the Denver Nuggets, Brett Brown announces that Fultz will play. I was present at the game and can attest that the atmosphere was electric. A friend and I stood at a counter eating cheesesteaks on the concourse and the place was buzzing with Fultz chatter. No one knew what to expect, but the Sixers were in the midst of a six-game win streak and everything seemed great.
With 2:54 seconds left in the first quarter Brown called Fultz’s number and he entered his first game since October 23rd. I would argue that it was the loudest, most exciting moment in the Wells Fargo Center all season. The roar that erupted from the crowd and the following "Fultz! Fultz! Fultz!" chants nearly tore the roof off of the place. He would finish the game with 10 points and 8 assists.
The rest of the season for Fultz would have its ups and downs. The highlight would be his triple-double versus Milwaukee in the season finale making him the youngest in NBA history to pull off the feat. He would only play three games in the playoffs, with Miami exposing him as the rookie he was. He didn’t play at all versus Boston.
And then we entered the second Zapruder era of Fultz’s career.
He worked during the offseason with famed shooting coach Drew Hanlen. For a few months, there were enticingly edited videos, encouraging tweets, and rampant speculation. There was no summer league for him, working too hard with Hanlen we were told.
Eventually, a video was released on the Players Tribune showing Fultz’s re-tooled jump shot. The resounding response was ‘Well, ok. It looks like Jayson Tatum’s shot now?’ Despite the many newly minted jump shot experts on Twitter, the feeling was to wait and see.
Finally, we got to see it in pre-season game action against Melbourne, and against NBA competition with the Orlando Magic and Dallas Mavericks. He seemed solid from midrange, and he actually made a three!
It has been a wild trip filled with mountains of speculation and very little actual data. Once again we find ourselves going into a Sixers season with a major unknown involving a key player.
No other team or fanbase has had to work as hard to keep the faith as the Sixers and their fans have the past four years. A big part of the "Trust the Process" mantra has always been about staving off the existential dread that none of the bets would pay off.
Joel Embiid was the biggest, both figuratively and literally, article of faith for everyone involved. He was drafted despite his injuries as a bet that he would realize his mind-boggling upside. We then spent two of the longest years in sports fandom history waiting for him to play. There were all kinds of ridiculous controversies in hindsight, but through them all, we just kept saying "Trust the Process." We then got a 31-game movie trailer of a season that served to work our speculation into a frenzy, while also tempering expectations about his health. Finally, he officially arrived last season and all of the hope and faith paid off as his titanic talent was on display for a full season.
Dario Saric was a different kind of question. The speculation was less to do with his ability and more to do with his desire to play in the NBA and when that might happen. Much like Embiid, we waited two long years before finally, he arrived on a plane one afternoon to be greeted at the airport by Sixers fans. He isn’t the prodigious talent that Embiid is, but he is a potential all-star in his own right and has established himself as a truly gritty player born to play in Philadelphia.
There were fewer questions about Ben Simmons going into what would have been his rookie year, right up until he broke his foot. He spent the year rehabbing from his injury and Sixers fans spent the year learning everything there was to know about Jones fractures. Eventually, he would suit up for his rookie season last year and proceed to show why he was drafted number one overall.
And so, here we are again. Training camp has started and we are wondering just what to expect from Markelle Fultz, former number one overall pick and second-year rookie. Donovan Mitchell won’t need another ‘Rookie?’ shirt, but for all intents and purposes this will be Fultz’s true rookie season. If he is as good as advertised two years ago, the Sixers will be something to behold this season. The reality is, like with Ben, JoJo, and Dario before him, we just don’t know.
Faith has carried us this far, it can carry us a little farther.
Trust the Process.
Jacob Jones-Goldstein has written about the Sixers for Roundballrev.com, loves statistics, and Trusts the Process. He dabbles in fiction, watches a lot of movies, and goes to more concerts than he should.