PHILADELPHIA — The curious case of Markelle Fultz took a surprising turn when the No. 1 pick of the 2017 draft was in the lineup for the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday (Tuesday, Manila time) for the first time since October.
All-Star center Joel Embiid tweeted a GIF of WWE star The Undertaker rising from a casket.
Fultz's season has certainly sprung back to life.
With a playoff berth clinched for the first time since 2012 and only 10 games left, Fultz decided the time was right to come back from an injured shoulder and busted confidence that had cost him all but four games of his rookie season.
Fultz, who did not speak to the media, came off the bench against Denver.
"It was his decision," coach Brett Brown said. "It's been fluid. I get goosebumps telling you all that. I'm so proud of him. The people around him have done great things. I give that kid credit."
The 19-year-old Fultz played the 76ers' first four games of the season but has been sidelined since.
He was ruled out indefinitely in October with soreness and a scapular muscle imbalance in the shoulder. The team announced Dec. 9 the soreness was gone, the imbalance had been resolved, and he was going to participate in "elevated on-court basketball activities." Then on Jan. 2, the team announced Fultz had been cleared to begin the final stage of his "return-to-play program."
The whole saga has mostly been a mystery, from likely return dates to the origin of the injury.
"The cause is unknown at this stage," team president Bryan Colangelo said. "We don't know where it started, when it started. But it was some time from the time we saw him in summer league ... to something that very quickly rose to awareness in late September, early October."
Fultz struggled with his mechanics when he did play, and his shooting form was widely mocked around the NBA. No one in the organization can pinpoint when Fultz's form went awry, though he's had soreness since the summer.
"This recovery was a little bit longer than expected," Colangelo said.
The 76ers traded the No. 3 overall pick and a future first-round pick to the Boston Celtics for the No. 1 pick with the intention of drafting Fultz.
Fultz, a 6-foot-4 guard, kept a low profile and the only updates came from media shooting his video drills where he usually seemed to have little range, an inability to hit catch-and-shoot jumpers and an awkward form.
The scrutiny surrounding his broken shot rattled the University of Washington star and he seemingly had been healthy enough to play — but his morale needed as much of a lift as his jumper.
"Never was it at a stage where it definitely was going to happen," Brown said. "Today, I felt something good with the performance he has been having in practices and some workouts. You could tell he has a confidence and a spirit."
Fultz averaged 6 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.8 assists in his four games this season. He didn't attempt a 3-pointer. Colangelo said he didn't know if Fultz would play in the summer league.
"The risk-reward, I'm going to lean on reward," Brown said. "He's different than anything that we have."
Colangelo said a drop-dead return date was never established, though the Sixers were getting closer to having one.
"There's going to be setback along the way in terms of your confidence," Colangelo said. "I'm not even certain we can he's 100 percent. But he's 100 percent ready to get out on the floor in his own mind."
Led by Embiid and rookie of the year favorite Ben Simmons, the Sixers have won 42 games and put one of the worst stretches of basketball in NBA history behind them.
"The Process" orchestrated by former general manager Sam Hinkie and now led by Colangelo has seemingly worked — and a healthy, confident Fultz could only make the Sixers a force in the Eastern Conference for years ahead.