Entering the 2021-22 season, the Orlando Magic had two priorities when it came to Markelle Fultz, both of which were going to take time and patience.
The first was helping him become healthy enough to play again after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in January 2021. Fultz’s 14-month-long journey back on the floor ended when he returned in a home win over the Indiana Pacers on Feb. 28.
“He’s done a phenomenal job of getting his body in that position,” Magic coach Jamahl Mosley said at the season’s end. “Our performance staff has done a great job with him. Our coaching staff has done a fantastic job of trusting the time frame of when he was coming back.”
The second priority was putting him in a position where he could be comfortable on the floor.
With a new coaching staff led by Mosley and several new teammates he hadn’t played with before the season, Fultz was essentially returning to a new team.
Among the 15 players Fultz played alongside in 2021-22, only four (Terrence Ross, Mo Bamba, Chuma Okeke and Cole Anthony) shared the floor with him before the season. And in the cases of Okeke (46 minutes) and Anthony (15), who were rookies in 2020-21, the playing time with Fultz had been minimal.
Despite the changes, Fultz’s impact was immediately felt when he returned.
Fultz averaged 10.8 points (47.4% shooting), 5.5 assists, 2.7 rebounds and 1.1 steals in 20 minutes (18 games).
He recorded 10 potential assists — passes to teammates who shoot within 1 dribble of receiving the ball — per game, which was the most among players who averaged fewer than 27 minutes.
Fultz consistently created open looks for teammates in a variety of ways: off drives and kickouts to the perimeter, hit-ahead passes or connecting with cutters.
He also scored efficiently despite attempting 0.9 3-pointers per game.
Fultz made 50.3% of his 2-pointers, 72% of his shots at the rim and 40% of his long midrange shots — all of which were above-average marks for a guard, according to Cleaning The Glass, and were similar to his numbers in the 2019-20 season.
“Markelle just breathes life into the team,” Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said during a recent appearance on FM 96.9 The Game’s Open Mike with the Orlando Sentinel’s Mike Bianchi. “What we saw was a guy who’s exquisitely talented in creating offense for others, who has a high IQ, who has a crazy physical package of size and skills and vision.
“He actually performed at a level that I probably would have not expected right out of the gate. There was a lot of rust there. He’s got a lot of growth and he knows it. But he’s on a track to [being] a high-level player for our team. Very quickly, we played better with him on the court, which isn’t a surprise.”
Fultz can use this offseason to solely focus on further improving his skill set instead of having to also worry about rehab.
As good as he’s become scoring inside the arc, his limited volume of 3s and percentage (4 of 14 on non-heaves) are areas that could improve.
Fultz’s 75.6% free throw percentage, which is a significant improvement from his time with the Philadelphia 76ers, suggests there’s more room for the No. 1 overall pick in 2017 to grow as a shooter.
“I’m honestly the most excited I’ve ever been just to have a summer where I’m not really focused on rehab or recovery and I can really attack my summer head-on,” Fultz said. “I know I have a few goals I want to hit, but this is the summer I can really focus on my summer and enjoy the process.”
This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Khobi Price at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @khobi_price.