By Dan Bernstein
Anyone who has watched Sixers rookie guard Markelle Fultz try to shoot lately has been thinking about baseball.
And not for good reason, either.
Fultz was the top overall draft pick in June, described by a Sports Illustrated scouting report as “regarded around the league as the consensus #1 pick” due to his “athletic tools and versatile skill set” and by Draft Express as “a franchise lead guard” who can “score at all three levels.” The All-Pac-12 performer at Washington was seen as a model of the kind of next-generation creator and facilitator that could thrive in the newly open and speedy offenses in fashion in the NBA.
And then his shot just… broke. The timeline is hazy as to when Fultz seemed to simply lose the ability to release his jumper smoothly. And all the team will say officially is that Fultz developed “soreness” and “scapular muscle imbalance” in his right shoulder as the season began. But something is entirely off.
He now hitches before he releases the ball, and launches it from his chest instead of from above his head. He is practicing with the team as part of a nebulously described program to get him back into real games. But Sixers head coach Brett Brown was honest about the strange situation Monday when he admitted to reporters “I’m old, and I’ve never experienced anything like this.”
People in other sports know more about such things.
There have been any number of golfers who have seen their putting stroke go awry with a case of the yips — the failure of coordination between mind and body that can only be overcome with some change in grip or equipment. Some rely on a longer or counter-weighted putter, or a cross-handed or “claw” technique that reboots the system, while others just work through it with hours on the practice green. Another manifestation of this was seen when Sergio Garcia got a case of the waggles in 2002. Like Hubert Green did years before, Garcia would stand over the ball and wobble the head of his club as he gripped and re-gripped it repeatedly before eventually swinging away.
And baseball has its infamous and well-worn list of players who got “The Thing.” Pitchers Mark Wohlers, Steve Blass and Rick Ankiel all dealt with a sudden inability to throw the ball over the plate, second basemen Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch — both All-Star players — went through periods unable to throw to first cleanly. Catcher Mackey Sasser once could not return the ball to the pitcher without an excruciating routine that allowed opponents to steal bases freely. There are remnant cases in the game still, with free-agent catcher Geovany Soto having to flop forward onto his face as he gets the ball to the mound, and Cubs pitcher Jon Lester still not trusting throws to first for pickoffs.
Basketball has not seen a player’s field-goal shooting form deteriorate like this, however. Free throws are their own story, with certain players just bad at it for no good reason when alone at the line, or reliant on the same kind of quirks and processes that we see putters adopt. We are used to that.
Fultz’s current issue is strange and unprecedented, and has to be sobering to any athlete that takes his or her skills for granted.