If you had said, back in 2019, or really at any point during their collective Philadelphia tenure, that Markelle Fultz, inside of five years, would become a better basketball player than Ben Simmons, you would've been laughed out of whatever conversation in which you found yourself.
Markelle Fultz? The guy with the yips?
He's going to be better than a three-time All-Star?
Of course, you wouldn't have had any logical basis for suggesting this five years ago, or even three years ago, when Fultz had become such a mental and physical mess that the Sixers had no choice but to send him to Orlando months after literally sending him home.
By that point, Simmons was universally regarded as a star, and fast becoming a superstar. There seemed no feasible scenario in which these two career trajectories could flip so dramatically.
But here we are, in 2023, and to tell you the truth, it's not even that close. Fultz, who showed enough after arriving in Orlando to earn a $50 million contract in late 2020, has evolved into an indisputably better player than Simmons, who has, on the other hand, deteriorated into an ill-fitting, self-conscious shell of the player he used to be, let alone the one he was tracking to become.
For Simmons, what he can't do on the court has increasingly overpowered the things that he can do, to the point that he now represents a big enough hurdle for his own team to clear that he's been removed from the Nets' starting lineup and doesn't sniff the court in closing time. He is making $35.4 million this year.
For Fultz, who is currently costing Orlando less than half of Simmons' annual salary but could be looking at a significant bump as a free agent next summer, it's the opposite. It's all about what he can do.
It starts with the shooting, which, inside the arc, has turned from an Achilles heel to a legitimate weapon for Fultz, who is connecting from the midrange at a 47-percent clip, per Cleaning the Glass -- better than noted midrange masters CJ McCollum and Dejounte Murray, among others.
Sag back against him, and he doesn't hesitate.
Chase him over the top, he heads downhill and is comfortable taking and making contested jumpers.
Thwart his initial plan, and he has counters. When Scottie Barnes slides over to cut off Fultz's spin move to the rim, he casually plants and fades away for a baseline bucket.
When was the last time you saw Simmons make a decisive move to the rim, and then, when cut off, answer with a fluid and confident counter that isn't, at best, some variation of a half-hearted jump hook? Like so:
There is nothing assertive about what Simmons does these days. His preference to existing almost entirely on the periphery, unless basically forced to engage, comes to a head near the rim, where he now avoids shots as often, if not more often, than he takes them.
In the clip below, Simmons catches the ball as a trailing wing with a head of steam and a six-foot downhill runway. He doesn't even look toward the rim. Instead, as is his passive instinct nowadays, he wants to roll right into a dribble-handoff, only Royce O'Neale is denied. Simmons has to stop. Pivot. The momentum of the possession is thwarted once, but it won't be the last time.
Simmons now passes back out to Cam Johnson and moves into a ball-screen position. The defense lets him roll free, because why not? Simmons catches with a clear lane to attack the rim but instead dumps a last-second pass to a totally unsuspecting Nic Claxton, who, with the possession now stalled for a second time, has to try to create something out of nothing against a dwindling shot clock.
Two times Simmons had a chance to be assertive and attack the paint/rim on that possession, and both times he wanted nothing to do with the opportunity. At the very least he could've drawn a foul, but he has no interest in a trip to the free throw line -- where he has one attempt, a miss, in the month of February.
Contrast that kind of passivity with what Fultz does in the clip below. There's no calculating. No second guessing. The instant that he sees Nikola Vucevic move up in anticipation of his using the ball screen, he rejects it, splitting the straight-line opening before it has a chance to close for a slithery finish.
That was Fultz's finesse. This is his power. In semi-transition, he detects the slightest of runways amid a retreating defense and, with zero hesitation, puts his foot down straight to the rack for a monster finish.
That is not a man afraid of contact. Fultz was getting something out of that attack, be it a poster dunk or at least a pair of free throws, which he's making at a 75-percent clip this season, another dramatic difference between him and Simmons, who shoots 44 percent from the line when he accidentally ends up there.
Fultz has been exploding with vertical force like this more often of late. Below the Bulls lose track of him in transition, and before they can even think about recovering into his path, he accelerates and punishes them with a hammer.
Speaking of hammers ...
Markelle Fultz was floating on this putback 🤯— NBA (@NBA) February 8, 2023
WATCH: https://t.co/1pomQZMAZK pic.twitter.com/iPAT3Ml0iJ
If you watch much of the Magic, you know these are not cherry-picked highlights. Fultz is a player. A two-way one at that. People who don't watch and speak only on what they hear might argue Simmons is the better defender, but even that is debatable. Simmons has declined in that regard, too, while Fultz is still growing into his defensive skin.
You want ball pressure?
How about an aggressive closeout turned backpedaling defensive slide to cut off penetration and force a turnover?
Care for a LeBron-like chase-down block?
Markelle Fultz times the chasedown block perfectly 👏@OrlandoMagic in front in Q3 on the NBA App!— NBA (@NBA) February 14, 2023
➡️ https://t.co/0rrSPxOHD0 pic.twitter.com/yeHOYAM4ZD
When Simmons was at his best, he was a defender defined by versatility and disruption. Fultz possesses both qualities. He's not as tall as Simmons, but his combination of strength and athleticism makes him a viable competitor in higher weight classes and his pressuring style combined with prodding hands qualify as a certifiable nuisance.
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Fultz averages 2.7 deflections per game, the same as Simmons. He averages 1.5 steals, more than Simmons. None of this, mind you, is to suggest Fultz is some kind of budding star. That ship, seemingly, has sailed. He averages 13 points and five assists. The Magic register as a bottom-dweller offense when he's on the court, and statistically, the defense isn't that much better.
But that's deceiving. Watch the Magic play, and you'll see how much Fultz lifts them. Since beginning the season 5-20, the Magic are 19-15 over their last 34 games with Fultz in the starting lineup.
Everything from the pace to the pressure ratchets up when he's on the court. He probes the lanes and finds shooters. His footwork in the paint allows for multiple-move buckets, spins and pivots and pump fakes from the Jalen Brunson book, his effectively sleepy, arrhythmic cadence is something of a Luka Doncic knockoff as he earns incremental downhill leverage until he can use his strength and craft to seal the deal.
Fultz's impact has been showing up in the most important columns for some time now. Since he got to the Magic, they are 57-52 when he starts and 103-211 when he doesn't play. That is not a fluke. This is a player and a team on the rise, while Simmons, unfortunately, is headed the complete other way.