Markelle Fultz’s enthusiasm was palpable for the Orlando Magic’s Monday night road game against the Philadelphia 76ers.
The matchup was Fultz’s first game back in Philadelphia since the 76ers, the team that selected Fultz with the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft, traded him to Orlando on Feb. 7, 2019.
“I’m excited,” Fultz told the Orlando Sentinel ahead of Monday’s game. “It’s a little bit different. Obviously now, they got a different coaching staff. They got some of the players but still the same feelings as far as going back to Philly, play there and have the chance to play in front of their fans.”
Playing against the 76ers in Philadelphia has been a long time coming for Fultz.
He’s missed the Magic’s previous five games in Philadelphia because of injuries. The lone “road” game he played against the 76ers was the Aug. 8, 2020, matchup in the league’s “bubble” at Disney World.
“I wanted to play as soon as I got traded,” said Fultz, who sat the rest of the 2018-19 season after being traded to the Magic. “Obviously, I wanted to go there and play against them. With injuries and everything, I never had a chance to go in Philly and play them.”
After nearly four years, the wait for Fultz ended Monday.
“He and I talked about that,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after Monday’s shootaround. “Obviously, he talked about the fans have always been great fans. This is a fanbase city. They’re excited. They get behind their team. This is a young kid who was drafted here, so I know there’s going to be love for him here because of the young man he is.”
Being back in Philadelphia allowed Fultz to reflect on the city in which he spent the first 1½ years of his NBA career.
“Just passion,” Fultz said. “I feel like, it’s kind of close to home. Philly being a grimy city and the way they love their sports teams are kind of different. They give tough love sometimes. My time and experience there was very dope, especially with the city. I felt like they gave me a lot of love. Just living there for a little bit, being able to embrace the culture they have there is pretty dope.”
He added: “It was a positive thing. Everything happens for a reason, I’m a firm believer in that. I’m very thankful for everything that Philly’s done for me.”
Fultz’s time with the 76ers was rocky.
He played in just 33 of 136 regular-season games across the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons with the 76ers because of a nerve issue in his right shoulder that was later diagnosed as Thoracic Outlet Syndrome before being traded to Orlando ahead of the 2019 trade deadline.
Fultz has turned his career around since arriving in Orlando.
“Not necessarily — I just think it was a matter of me getting healthy, really,” Fultz responded when asked if the trade was needed for him to get his career back on track. “Everything happens for a reason. I feel like I can bring value to any team I’m on. It just happened I was traded and got a new opportunity. Of course, I’m thankful for that opportunity. It definitely opened up a new pathway.”
His healthiest season came in 2019-20 when he played 72 games (60 starts) and averaged 12.1 points (46.5% shooting from the field) and 5.1 assists in 27.7 minutes.
Fultz missed most of the previous two seasons because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that he suffered in January 2021, just eight games into the 2020-21 season.
After a 14-month absence, he returned to the floor on Feb. 28 and averaged 10.8 points (47.4% shooting), 5.5 assists, 2.7 rebounds and 1.1 steals in 20 minutes (18 games).
He missed the first 21 games of this season after fracturing his left big toe late in the offseason but has been a significant reason for the Magic’s turnaround.
Fultz entered Monday averaging 12.1 points (career-high 50% shooting), 5.6 assists and 3.8 rebounds in 27.9 minutes (29 games).
The Magic were 14-15 in the games with Fultz compared to 5-16 without him.
“I feel amazing,” Fultz said. “I still feel like I have a lot to improve on and work on, but I’m really enjoying this process of just waking up every day, enjoying it and being able to play the game I love and have fun doing it. The biggest thing is that I’m out there competing and having fun. I’m really enjoying the process of getting better every day.”
Every Magic player traveled for the four-game trip, including Chuma Okeke, the lone injured player.
“Having all our guys [here] is fantastic to see,” Mosley said. “We had a film session with everybody in the room, which was awesome.”
Okeke missed 13 consecutive games from Nov. 25-Dec. 18 because of left knee soreness before undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery (a chondroplasty — a procedure that involves shaving/smoothing damaged cartilage) on Dec. 19 that’s kept him sidelined since.
“Chuma being here, it’s great to have him on board,” Mosley said. “He’s moving around on the court, getting shots, getting work in and getting more physical contact with guys. It’s really good for him to be on this trip.”
“We’re slowly gonna move him into getting some contact with players as we go. He’s going to slowly ramp up.”