With the Philadelphia 76ers now holding the top overall pick, how will their inevitable selection in Markelle Fultz fit alongside last year’s top pick in Ben Simmons?
Life is full of unknowns. Nearly every major milestone comes on the heels of someone taking a chance with no idea what the outcome will be. In basketball, especially the draft, there are countless examples of this. Sure the management in Golden State would have loved to tell you they knew exactly what Stephen Curry was going to become, but if they were honest with themselves they had no idea the skinny kid from Davidson would turn into something of a transformative talent in the game and help lead the Warriors to multiple championships.
For the Philadelphia 76ers in this year’s draft, their unknown is how the assumed pairing of Markelle Fultz and last year’s number one overall pick Ben Simmons (yes that’s all but official but until the pick is announced Thursday it’s still assumed) will work together on the court after the trade with Boston to move up and select first overall for the second straight year. While I can understand the skepticism concerning their ability to coexist, each seemingly much better with the ball in their hands than playing off, there are some promising signs in my opinion as to their fit together and with time this has the makings of a dangerous combination for the rest of the league.
First, though Fultz is much better off the dribble as a shooter, needing a rhythm to be comfortable and find his spot, I can see plenty of potential as an off the ball shooter. When he is engaged (a problem that needs to be addressed in general) his great length for a guard, 6’10 wingspan, allows him to quickly get in shooting position and rise up over essentially anyone trying to cover him. According to Draft Express he averaged 1.13 points per possession on catch and shoot jumpers and showed plenty of promise as a stand still shooter. There is still work to be done in this aspect of his game and he can be streaky overall but shooting 41.9 percent from three point range shows you how dangerous he can be.
He really moves well off of screens too, putting up 1.15 PPP in these situations according to DraftExpress. He didn’t get much of a chance to show this ability at Washington because of his role as the primary ball handler, but with Simmons the opportunities should be much more abundant. With Simmons’ struggles as a shooter, having someone like Fultz spread the floor a little for him will challenge defenses.
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Having a second ball handler will greatly aid both players in my opinion. Being the bell cow Fultz was as a Husky, he created too many careless turnovers. His turnover percentage was actually excellent, just 13.4 percent which was better than Lonzo Ball, but too often he tried to thread the needle and just didn’t value the possession as much as he should have.
The same could be said for Simmons two years ago at LSU. He was by far their best ball handler and decision maker and that kind of pressure got to him at times and he was careless. Though Fultz’s mere presence doesn’t solve that kind of problem by any means, having a more than capable player take the pressure off when needed is a valuable asset to have. The options for Coach Brown to initiate a set will be endless with these two.
When Simmons is off the ball I can see a dangerous potential as well. Fultz can be deadly in pick-and-roll situations with creative dribbles, vicious and aggressive spin moves and great decision making, and having Simmons play opposite the screen for a dive will be an intriguing option. In a simple post up opportunity this combination could put up plenty of points. Simmons has excellent feel with his back to the basket and despite the narrative I’ve seen and heard among casual fans that Fultz is selfish, in reality he is far from it and will be able to find Simmons when he has position.
As a freshman Fultz’s assist percentage was at 35.5 percent, again better than Lonzo Ball. He has excellent court vision and though he does try to thread the needle a little too often as I stated above, he has the ability to fit passes into tight spaces. Alternatively Fultz has potential as a post-up player as well. That great length and size for a guard creates tough matchups for his defender. He can shoot over them as I chronicled above but he can also face up and attack the basket with his variety of moves off the dribble and his physical nature as a finisher. His feel at the basket to hang around and hold onto the ball until the last second is impressive and he is creative and aggressive at the rim to score through a big that challenges him.
Notice I didn’t say anything about their fit defensively, because to put this kindly, that isn’t exactly either player’s strong suit. Fultz has a lot of potential with his physical profile and decent instincts but he is far too lax at times, getting back cut incredibly often and just appearing lazy. Simmons, well Simmons essentially has little to no interest in playing defense. He is an excellent rebounder but the effort and intensity just isn’t there on a consistent basis.
Offensively, though, this has all the makings of a great perimeter compliment to Joel Embiid. Fultz has the shooting ability that Simmons lacks and Simmons is just a freak with his combination of size and skill with the ball in his hands. I can’t be certain that these two will work together perfectly but the potential is too much to pass on. The Sixers have set themselves up incredibly well through the draft but they still need talent on the perimeter and with a healthy Ben Simmons and the addition of the best player in the draft puts them well on their way to an elite backcourt.