NBA Playoffs 2018: Sixers' Markelle Fultz feeling 'beyond blessed', living his dream
New Jersey Local | 4 days ago

PHILADELPHIA -- In the middle of Markelle Fultz's first -- and only -- season at University of Washington, he was experiencing lingering knee soreness. It was truly painful. He wanted to play through it.

The coaches wouldn't let him.

He insisted even though the Huskies -- who would finish the season 9-22 (2-16 in Pac-12 play) -- were already out of contention for the NCAA Tournament.

Finally, the team doctor sat him down, told him he had to sit out and let it heal. Fultz's eyes welled up, he slouched, dropped his head. It killed him.

"He loves the game so much," Romar told NJ Advance Media in December, "and he cares quite a bit."

While he was out, Fultz would retrieve water for his teammates during games. This was par for the course for Fultz, who never quite acted like the star he became. He was an unknown at DeMatha High School in Maryland, cut from the varsity team as a sophomore, before rising to the No. 1 recruit in the nation by his senior season.

Everyone knew Fultz wasn't long for the UW campus, a lock for one-and-done, but he didn't act like a star.

Fultz once cooked chicken and waffles for his teammates. Romar often had his players over for a team dinner and as the entire roster would congregate around the house, Fultz helped Romar's wife set the table in the dining room. His teammates loved him. His coaches adored him.

That continues to be the case in Philadelphia, even as Fultz has experienced one of the more unique NBA debuts in league history.

When Fultz joined the Sixers -- they traded up from No. 3 to No. 1 to draft him -- he quickly bonded with Joel Embiid and became well-known for his Chick-fil-A proclivities. Before he ever fired up the first awkward free throw, triggering a strange and highly-publicized saga -- Fultz changed the form on his shot and battled shoulder soreness (the order of events is unknown), and thus was sidelined after just four games as he attempted to figure things out -- he was already a locker room favorite.

He's only 19 years old, and at the end of practices beginning January, as Fultz would shoot around a legion of iPhones and cameras pointed in his direction by the media, tracking his every move, breaking down the form on his jumper. Media, national and local, fervently (and understandably) reported on turmoil behind-the-scenes. There were even columns questioning his mental stability. Few thought he would play again this season, and many questioned his NBA future.

Well Saturday night, Fultz played in a playoff game. He entered to a loud ovation. Chants of "Fultz! Fultz! Fultz!" reverberated through Wells Fargo Center. The Sixers beat the Heat by 27 points to take a 1-0 series lead. Game 2 is on Monday at 8 p.m. in Philadelphia.

It's been a weird ride. Fultz remains remarkably positive.

"Everything that's going on in my life right now is a blessing," Fultz told NJ Advance Media. "I can't take it for granted, I've got to take advantage of it and be grateful. There's a lot of people that want to be in my shoes."

***

T.J. McConnell has spent his entire basketball life fighting for respect. A short, overlooked point guard from Pitstburgh, McConnell went to Duquesne University without any major college scholarship offers.

He began his career at Duquesne and played well enough to transfer to the Pac-12 and play at University of Arizona in 2012. There, he guided one of the country's best teams to two consecutive Elite Eights and became an All-Conference performer. Still, after college, McConnell didn't receive an invitation to the draft combine until the last minute when someone else dropped out, went undrafted and caught on with the Sixers as a free agent.

McConnell is one of the few true survivors of the process, surviving one of the most constantly evolving roster constructions in the history of the NBA. As such, McConnell often started at point guard for a 10-win team in 2015-16 and a 28-game winner last year. Neither were even remotely close to playoff contention.

At one point in Philadelphia, McConnell had to pay a cover charge at Xfinity Live -- just down the street from the Sixers' arena -- because the club's bouncer didn't actually believe he was an NBA player.

This year, McConnell had a triple-double of his own on Feb. 13 against the Knicks. The city of Philadelphia has embraced McConnell, and he's provided a spark off the bench all season.

Over the last 11 games, McConnell's playing time waned. The reason: Fultz replaced him as the lead back-up point guard. Against the Heat on Saturday, McConnell only played seven minutes.

Last week in the regular season finale, Fultz was one rebound away from a triple-double in the waning moments of a blowout against the Milwaukee Bucks. Fultz came down with the last rebound. He's the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double, and it occurred in the final minutes of an 82-game schedule.

McConnell almost passed out.

"When he got that triple double, I, like, blacked out," McConnell said. "I grabbed him. I was so happy for him. He really deserves it."

Phantom of the Process | Joel Embiid won't play Game 2; Do Sixers need him yet? Not quite

It was less of a grab and more of a tackle, but it was all love.

"If you really pay attention it's a real snapshot to what I'm most proud of," Sixers coach Brett Brown said. "This team is a team. You've got T.J. McConnell hugging him and hoisting his arm up, parading him around the court. That happens to be the guy Markelle took his minutes from."

Said McConnell: "I consider Markelle a brother to me ... He's a special person."

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