Perhaps the biggest criticism on Sam Hinkie’s tenure as GM of the Philadelphia 76ers was that, with the valuable draft ammo he gathered through tanking, he drafted three centers with his three highest picks from 2013-2015. The Sixers acquired Nerlens Noel on draft day from the Magic in 2013, and the next two years selected Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor.
While Hinkie’s argument of taking the best player available made sense theoretically, it obviously did not work out for all three players in Philadelphia. It became evident that none of the players complimented each other, causing a logjam at the center position. The Sixers responded by trading Noel in the 2016-17 season and Okafor early last season, both for very little value.
After Hinkie was fired in 2016, it appeared this ideology would leave with him. His replacement Bryan Colangelo was put in charge, and rather than just draft the best player available, he could build a roster by adding players with skillsets that complement the players already on the team.
In back to back years, the Sixers used their first overall picks on point-guards. In 2016, it was Ben Simmons, a 6’10” point guard who, despite a somewhat disappointing freshman season at LSU, clearly stood out among the potential draftees. One year later, Colangelo traded up to draft another point guard, Markelle Fultz. Fultz dominated in his lone year at Washington, giving the Sixers reason to trade away assets for the elite talent.
The Fultz trade, of course, is well known for not having worked out as the Sixers had hoped. Fultz lost his shot in 2017, which led him to only play in a few meaningless games and act as a non-factor on an otherwise very good Philadelphia team. Over this past summer, Fultz worked on his game and his shot, giving fans hope that he could become another dynamic player on this incredibly talented roster.
For the first three games of the season, Markelle Fultz looked, for the most part, lost on the court. He often shied away from taking open pull-up shots and did not look comfortable without the ball in his hands. Other than hitting the occasional jump-shot, Fultz made virtually no impact on the game when playing off the ball.
Late in the second game against the Bulls, with the Sixers up big, Fultz shined as he assumed point guard duties. He was much more aggressive taking shots and made his first career 3-pointer. Since then, this much has become clear: Fultz is WAY more effective playing point guard than being off the ball. His minutes as point guard, whether it has been with the starters when Simmons was hurt or during backup minutes, have been very impressive.
Based on the eye test alone, it is clear that Fultz is much more comfortable with the ball in the hands. He doesn’t move around the court much off the ball, and is uneasy taking pull-up jumpers. He is also not afraid to attack the rim, whether that results in him finishing or passing it to an open teammate. Even with the uneasiness of his shot, these skills make him a good point guard in the NBA.
Unfortunately for the Sixers, Ben Simmons shares many of the same qualities. He is obviously taller than Fultz, but his game is fueled by elite court vision and his point total relies on him finishing at the rim. The two share many of the same strengths, but perhaps more importantly, the same weaknesses.
So can these two coexist on the court?
The short answer to this appears to be no. As long as Fultz still lacks confidence in his shot, he does not complement Ben Simmons; instead, pairing them on the court bring two players with the same skillset, both of whom are afraid to shoot. This negatively affects spacing, leading the offense to be stagnant at points.
All of a sudden, it seems that Colangelo made the exact same mistake Hinkie got so much criticism for: drafting two players that do the same thing.
The Sixers need to evaluate what they have in Fultz and ultimately realize that he may not have a fit on this roster. He is far too talented to be a backup point guard, and will offer much more value to a team in search of those services. The Sixers will undoubtedly be in trade talks for star players before the trade deadline on February 8th; Fultz may be the ammo they need to get a deal done.
Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports