CAMDEN, N.J. - Markelle Fultz's return to basketball this season remains uncertain. With 31 games left on the regular-season schedule, the Sixers have not officially ruled if he will or will not play.
"There's always a chance that he's going to be out there soon, and there's a chance that he's not going to play this year," Sixers president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo said Friday morning. "I can't answer that question because we don't know the answer to that."
Fultz has not played since Oct. 23 because of right shoulder soreness and scapular muscle imbalance. What is known is the injury occurred in August; what is unknown is if a change in his shot caused the injury or vice versa. Fultz has been working on getting his shot back since then.
"There was a breakdown in muscle function and coordination," Colangelo said. "Once you get that back, which is not fully back as you're going through this recovery and rehabilitation, you're also simultaneously trying to retrain what those movement patterns were to shoot a basketball. There were some limitations there for him for some time and continue to be as he's getting through it. Again, there's a long recovery. It's taken probably longer than anyone had hoped or imagined."
Fultz's shooting struggles are a stark contrast from his success at the University of Washington, where he averaged 23.2 points and knocked down 41.3 percent of his threes while leading all freshmen in scoring. With the Sixers, he posted 6.0 points and did not attempt a three in his four games this season. His free throw form sparked the most critiques on opening night.
At this point of his rehab work, Fultz is shooting inside the paint. He has been participating in full-contact drills but is not yet going through complete practices.
"Outside of perhaps perimeter shooting, he's doing some things on the basketball court in the limited basketball practice activity that he's taking place in and that he's participating in, and he's dazzling in many ways," Colangelo said. "But when he's going to be ready to help this team and be ready, I can't give you the timeline."
In addition to the physical aspect of Fultz's injury, there also has been speculation about the mental side of it - how much of his recovery is overcoming a mental hurdle? It's a question that can't be measured on a stat sheet.
"I think that mental preparedness and overcoming an injury is part of any athlete, especially an athlete overcoming a debilitating injury," Colangelo said. "It's been proven in studies that is a big component. … We're talking about a situation where someone's relearning how to shoot a basketball, and that was one of his elite skill sets. That's got to be frustrating. But overall, I think he's making great strides in every capacity. We're going to a see a better Markelle Fultz because of it."
Fultz, when healthy, was providing a sixth-man spark. The Sixers' bench has struggled to find an offensive burst, with no player averaging more than 7.1 points in a reserve role. The team did not make a trade at the deadline and could explore players on the buyout market to enhance the roster. Whether Fultz is part of that mix for a playoff push will be determined. In the meantime, the Sixers are encouraged by what they have seen during his rehab work.
"Markelle was drafted here because of his elite talent and his ability to play the game at an elite level," Colangelo said. "We have every confidence that he's going to return to that."