Fans wonder what went wrong with the jump shot of the Philadelphia guard who was a good shooter during his season at UW. He has been diagnosed with a physical problem, but some speculate a restrictive and controlling inner circle is to blame for some of his difficulties.
PHILADELPHIA – About an hour had passed after Markelle Fultz’s last appearance on an NBA court, and the former Washington Huskies guard had something to say.
It was Nov. 19, and Fultz had played a mere seven minutes. Several games earlier, he had lost his spot in the Philadelphia 76ers’ starting lineup; during this victory over Phoenix, Fultz split the backup point-guard minutes. For more than a year, his jump shot had been the subject of scrutiny: The gift that had lifted him to the top of the 2017 NBA draft mysteriously had developed a strange hitch, precipitating his tumble down the Sixers’ playing rotation. So that night at 10:40, Fultz blasted a message to the world.
“God got me!” Fultz assured his 228,000 followers in a tweet with a praying-hands emoji.
The message provided a brief window into an athlete whose life has been cloaked in secrecy.
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A day after the tweet, Fultz’s representative, Raymond Brothers, announced Fultz would not participate in games or practices before an appointment with a shoulder specialist. Last week, Fultz and his small inner circle were told his physical problem is thoracic outlet syndrome, a compression in the area separating the neck and chest.
Fultz has started rehab in Los Angeles with a physical therapist. He is expected to miss at least a month.
Some close to Fultz believe the problem is more than physical. In interviews, they describe a life burdened by a number of factors, from a restrictive inner circle to lost allies to outside criticism.
At the center is a 20-year-old who seems to be struggling to exert control over his own life and career.
Keith Williams, a prominent basketball trainer based in Maryland, mentored Fultz before anyone thought the once-clumsy kid could be an NBA player.
Williams taught Fultz the jump shot with which the Huskies and eventually the 76ers fell in love. But Williams noticed a change in that jumper during the summer before Fultz reported to his first NBA minicamp.
Fultz’s release point started at his chest, not above his head as usual. Williams asked about the funky release and said Fultz told him, “It feels like somebody’s holding my arms down.”
A common narrative blamed Williams for altering the technique. The thoracic outlet syndrome diagnosis suggests the changes to Fultz’s shot resulted at least in part from a physical malady, but Williams doesn’t celebrate the revelation. He said he feels for Fultz.
“He’s a sensitive young kid, and I think emotionally he went through so much,” Williams said.
Before the draft, Williams served as Fultz’s representation before Fultz’s mother, Ebony, and Brothers took control of the player’s off-court life. “Everybody mishandled all of his relationships,” said Williams, who no longer speaks to Ebony, once a close friend.
People with knowledge of the situation describe the mother as an imposing figure in her son’s life.
During Fultz’s first season with Philadelphia, Ebony had cameras installed inside his New Jersey home, according to several people familiar with the setup who described the indoor surveillance as unusual. The cameras have since been removed.
Multiple people said Ebony has asked some who have dealt with Fultz to sign nondisclosure agreements, for reasons unclear to them.
Sixers front-office officials declined to comment publicly for this story. Ebony Fultz did not wish to address other people’s claims about her alleged over-involvement in her son’s life.
“My focus right now is on my son and him getting healthy,” Ebony said, not wishing to elaborate on the situation.
Ebony has long been known as an involved mother. A single parent, she did her best to provide for and protect Fultz and his older sister.
Ebony attended some practices for his AAU teams and served as team mom. During one summer game with the under-15 DC Blue Devils, a bag belonging to one of Fultz’s teammates was stolen; by the next tournament, Ebony had purchased a bike lock with the intention of securing all the players’ bags. But when Blue Devils coaches did not properly secure players’ bags with the lock, a witness said Ebony confronted the staff in the middle of a game.
The summer before Fultz’s senior year at DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, Md., Ebony did not take kindly to former AAU coach Corey McCrae chastising her son after McCrae had to drag Fultz out of bed before a tournament game in Atlanta. According to a person familiar with the incident, Ebony cursed out McCrae, which several people believe caused the coach to return to the Washington, D.C., area and quit the program. McCrae declined to comment for this story.
Fultz is a professional on a four-year contract worth $33 million, but close associates said Ebony still goes to great lengths to shield him.
A few hours before a recent Sixers game against the Washington Wizards, someone has placed a scouting report on Fultz’s chair inside the Wells Fargo Arena home locker room. A gray special edition 76ers jersey with the name ‘FULTZ’ stitched on the back hangs in his stall. Two pairs of fresh-out-of-the-box Nikes are stacked neatly atop each other and on the shelf sits a bottle of Degree spray deodorant. Fultz is nowhere to be found.
Instead of preparing to take on his hometown Wizards, he was heading to St. Louis in search of a specialist. The problem soon had a name, and Fultz will remain away as he tries to heal. Philadelphia center Joel Embiid, who missed his first two NBA seasons because of injury before developing into an All-Star, can relate to his teammate.
“I went through the same thing and I know what it feels like,” Embiid said. “I can see myself and I know he’s going to put in the work and come back and prove them wrong – just like I did.”
Embiid did not want to comment deeply on Fultz’s personal life.
“I don’t talk about it. That’s none of my business,” Embiid said. “I just know that he’s a great person. He comes in every day, does his job and tries to make the team better. He’s a great guy. Everybody around loves him. I love him personally but that’s his business. I don’t want to get into the whole family thing.”