Starting or not, Markelle Fultz needs to learn to play with Ben Simmons



It was a curious decision when Brett Brown named Markelle Fultz a starter.

The Sixers had the most effective five-man lineup in the NBA when it came to their starting unit last season. JJ Redick, who enjoyed one of his best NBA campaigns, would be coming off the bench.

But lost in all of the debate over whether Fultz should start is that it really doesn’t matter. What matters more is his compatibility with one the team’s superstars in Ben Simmons.

If the Sixers are going to get to places they want to go, that duo will have to learn to coexist on the floor.

“What I’m trying to do is have it all,” Brown said postgame Monday. “You can play them a little bit together then separate them. Give one the ball and then the other person the ball. I’ve said quite candidly that Markelle is a point guard. And Ben is the Rookie of the Year as a point guard. We mix and match a little bit but it is a challenge.”

After a sluggish start in the Sixers’ 113-92 win over the Hawks at the Wells Fargo Center (see observations), Fultz flipped the switch during his second-half run off the bench. The numbers won’t tell the story (16 points on 7 of 16 shooting), but Fultz gave the team a nice jolt offensively in the second half.

Fultz nailed another three and recorded seven assists with just one turnover — he also caught another body (see video). Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce, a former Sixers assistant, opted to play way off Fultz, daring him to shoot. In the first half, it worked to perfection. Then Fultz hit a three, which seemed to open the floodgates.

What’s still a little discouraging is his play with Simmons. In over 75 minutes together this season, Fultz and Simmons have a net rating of minus-17.6. For those who don’t know much about analytics, I’ll break it down for you: It’s not good.

When Fultz was playing without Simmons in the second half, you saw an aggressive and decisive player. While starting the game with Simmons, not so much.

“Every time we get on the floor we’re trying to get more comfortable [together],” Fultz said. “We’ve only been out there together but so much. We’re taking it game by game and every time we get out there we’re looking forward to growing as a team, growing as teammates and getting better.” 

This relationship on the court still needs time to grow, but therein lies the problem. This isn’t “The Process” anymore. You can’t just roll with Fultz and Simmons and let them take their lumps.

This team has big aspirations. The Sixers won 52 games and a playoff series last season. They’ve made it clear that their goal as a team is to win a championship.

But getting to those heights probably doesn’t happen unless Fultz becomes the player he was drafted to be. It’s an unenviable task that Brown is now faced with.

“Although it’s early days, I’m aware of the numbers,” Brown said. “You could just keep burying your head in the sand and just keep doing it and doing it — you could do that. I choose to walk that line of trying to grow it and win. That’s part of my challenge.”

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