An Open Letter To Sixers Fans: Regarding Markelle Fultz

Dear Sixers fans,

Let me start by saying that I’m one of you. I’ve spent the last three years counting assets and living and dying with the bounces of ping pong balls. I’ve longed for the Wells Fargo Center to rock the way it did when Allen Iverson stalked the court. And I’ve waited for the day the Sixers’ return to relevance and begin to once again contribute to the great basketball tradition in our city.

Like you, I waited anxiously for last night’s season opener, when we would finally get to see all those assets, the expected cornerstones of the franchise, on the court together for the first time. Despite the outcome, a five-point loss to a very good Wizards team, the night largely lived up to expectations.

Joel Embiid did Joel Embiid things, posting a double-double with 18 points and 13 rebounds, adding three assists for good measure. Not to be outdone, Ben Simmons had a double-double of his own, matching Embiid with 18 points, grabbing ten rebounds, and adding five assists. And then there was Markelle Fultz, our latest number one pick, and the real reason I felt inclined to reach out to you.

On paper, Fultz’s debut was solid if unspectacular. In 18 minutes, he scored 10 points on 5-9 shooting to go with three rebounds, an assist and a block. Sure, Fultz didn’t light the world on fire, but if you followed Sixers Twitter throughout the game, you would have thought Fultz had the worst debut in the history of organized basketball. And this is where my beef with my fellow Sixers fans comes in.

Yes, there are issues with Fultz’s shot. Those issues became even more pronounced at the free throw line. It was clear that those issues were on Fultz’s mind, as he looked tentative throughout the game, reluctant to pull the trigger on anything that wasn’t a layup. He didn’t look like the smooth, confident player that we saw in the Summer League. That is the bad news.

But here is the good news. Despite clearly not being at the top of his game mechanically or mentally, he scored in double-figures and shot 55% from the floor. He had a very nice runner in the lane that demonstrated the kind of mechanics we hope to see from him long-term. He had no trouble getting to the rim. And he flashed the kind of vision that will allow him to be effective as more than just a scorer.

And here’s another bit of good news. Unlike most number one overall picks, Fultz isn’t stepping into a situation where he has to be the lead man right out of the gate. He’s joining two former top-3 picks and one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA. Right now, the Sixers can win games with him doing exactly what he did on Wednesday night. With Embiid, Simmons and J.J. Reddick around him, there’s no need to put pressure on him to score 20 points a night. There is plenty of time for Fultz to find his footing and work on reaching his long-term ceiling without hurting the Sixers short-term prospects.

Markelle Fultz is just 19 years old. He is a bit behind the learning curve after missing time in both the Summer League and the preseason. And he has played in exactly one NBA game.

Fultz is far from the first highly-touted guard to struggle in his debut or early in his career. Steve Nash’s first NBA game? He didn’t record a stat in five minutes. First time he reached double-figures? Game five. But he was dishing out assists like crazy, right? Nope, he averaged 1.6 dimes in those first five games. In his rookie season he averaged 3.3 points, one rebound and 2.1 assists while shooting 42.5% from the floor. He didn’t average double-figures until his fifth season in the league. I think Steve Nash’s career turned out OK.

Without drowning you in numbers, here’s a few other examples of some pretty good basketball players who blossomed after early struggles: Gary Payton, Tony Parker and Kevin Johnson. I’m assuming you’ve heard of them.

At Washington, Fultz proved that he knows how to shoot and that he can score the basketball. The shot will come. As he gains experience, he will get his feet under him and he will start playing with more confidence.

Here’s the bottom line guys. Markelle Fultz is 19 years old. He’s played in one NBA game. He demonstrated at both Washington and in the Summer League that he has the tools to be an effective NBA player. He’s going through some struggles to begin his NBA career. And we as fans have one of two options.

We can boo him and tear him to pieces on social media and sports talk radio. Or criticize the Sixers for drafting him number one overall, and label him a bust before he’s had a chance to catch his breath. We can add to the pressure and make it even more difficult for him to work through this, find his way, and become the player we hope he can be.

Or, we can be patient. We can cheer and encourage and show him we have his back. We can show we believe in him. We can give him time to find his rhythm, to work through his mechanics and find his confidence. Let’s acknowledge that while yes, the wins and losses matter more this year than they have in a long time, the Sixers aren’t competing for a championship this year. The long-term development of Markelle Fultz is far more important to this franchise than some early season wins or losses. And as fans, we have an opportunity to aid in that development, or to stunt it.

I urge you, us, to take the latter approach. Firing off the hot takes, blasting Fultz and throwing around the word “bust” after one game is not only silly, but it’s counterproductive. Philadelphia fans love to tout their knowledge and their passion. Here, I call on all of you to prove that knowledge and to express that passion in the most productive way possible. Let’s get behind our young rookie, show him we have his back, and show him why our city is an amazing place to play sports. Let’s help him through his struggles and to reach his potential.

A certain TV/radio blowhard recently blasted us for running people out of town. While his rant was full of factual inaccuracies and he was laughably off-base, the Twitter reactions to Fultz’s debut are exactly the kind of thing people of his ilk will pick out to question us as a fan base. Don’t play into their hands.

We’ve been patient for three years. There’s no reason to throw that patience away now when one of our most important players needs it most. Relax.Take a breath. Now more than ever, we need to Trust the Process.

Sincerely,

Josh Naso

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