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Markelle Fultz’s high school coach: ‘He is going to get better’

DeMatha coach Mike Jones enjoys the return of his former player to the Sixers’ lineup

DeMatha Catholic High School boys basketball coach Mike Jones walked into BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse in Bowie, Maryland, at halftime of the Philadelphia 76ers’ game on Monday night and asked if they could turn on the game. Knowing that Jones was there to see the return of local star Markelle Fultz rather than just for his order of fish tacos, the server quickly obliged.

The No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft didn’t disappoint in his first game since Oct. 25 after being sidelined with a mysterious shoulder injury. Fultz finished with 10 points and eight rebounds in 14 minutes off the bench during the Sixers’ 123-104 win over the Denver Nuggets.

“I couldn’t be happier for him. I’m definitely not surprised. The sky is the limit for him. He will keep working,” said Jones, who coached Fultz at DeMatha.

There were high expectations for Fultz when he was the top pick of the heralded 2017 NBA draft class. The former University of Washington guard was selected over Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum, De’Aaron Fox, Dennis Smith Jr., Lauri Markkanen, Donovan Mitchell and Kyle Kuzma, all of whom went on to become successful rookies. Before the draft, Fultz received criticism and skepticism for winning just nine games during his lone college season as a freshman at Washington.

When the Sixers selected Fultz first overall, Jones scoffed at the criticism of his former player.

“It’s crazy that people question whether or not he is a winner,” Jones told The Undefeated at the draft. “He’s won at every level he played in except for the last four months at Washington. When they criticize him, they are comparing him to the other guys that are getting ready to get drafted too. All those guys played on teams with first-round draft picks.

“No offense to Washington, but you can’t pick another certain NBA player that is on their roster. Those guys [Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray] left a year before Markelle got there. He led a team that really wasn’t as talented as a lot of other ones. He was at a disadvantage, so I don’t think it’s fair to compare them. And if you look at his entire basketball résumé, you can’t question whether he is a winner.”

Fultz struggled in his first four games with the Sixers, averaging six points on 33.3 percent shooting from the field in 19 minutes per game. The 19-year-old was ruled out indefinitely in October with soreness and a scapular muscle imbalance in his shoulder in one of the NBA’s oddest injury situations. Fultz actually had to learn how to shoot a jumper again.

The Sixers went on to achieve 50 wins and a playoff berth without Fultz, who didn’t speak to the media during the mysterious ordeal.

“We had a couple short conversations, but it was enough to know that he was OK,” Jones said.

Just two years removed from his high school in Hyattsville, Maryland, Fultz returned home during his layoff a couple of times to attend some DeMatha games and watch his former teammates. The 2016 McDonald’s All-American averaged 19.1 points and 8.8 rebounds for DeMatha as a senior en route to the Maryland Private School League Championship.

Jones was confident that Fultz would be just fine.

Markelle Fultz (No. 20) of the Philadelphia 76ers goes up for the layup against the Denver Nuggets at Wells Fargo Center on March 26 in Philadelphia.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

“I know what he has persevered through before,” Jones said. “His high school journey is pretty well-documented. He is not one when things are not going well for him to sit back and let that be. When things aren’t going well for him, he is going to put his nose to the ground and fight and grind.”

Sixers coach Brett Brown shocked the media when he said Fultz was returning to action on Monday night against the Nuggets. Brown also said the rookie would be backing up NBA Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons. Jones got word of Fultz’s return in a text message chat with his assistant coaches. He intently watched the first half from his home before heading out to BJ’s at halftime.

Fultz told the media after the game that when he woke up he decided the time was right to return.

“It was a journey to get here,” Fultz said.

The ecstatic Philadelphia crowd gave Fultz a standing ovation when he entered with 2:54 left in the first quarter. The 6-foot-4-inch guard scored on a layup in his first attempt. Despite an air ball, Fultz calmed questions about his jumper by knocking down some midrange shots. He blocked Nuggets guard Jamal Murray’s shot from behind and nearly had double-digit assists.

The Sixers crowd cheered wildly every time Fultz touched the ball and enjoyed his late jumpers, even chanting, “Fultz, Fultz.” He thought they were chanting for Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles before figuring it out. Fultz joined Danny Ainge, Tom Garrick, John Stockton and Walt Hazzard as the only NBA players to have 10-plus points and eight-plus assists in 15 or fewer minutes since the 1963-64 season, according to Basketball Reference.

“I was just trying to do the little things to help my team win,” said Fultz, who didn’t discuss his injury. “I wasn’t looking for stats.”

Said Jones: “I was very happy. You could tell he hadn’t played in 150 whatever days. To have eight assists in 14 minutes is pretty daggone good. I don’t care who you are. That’s special. He hit a couple jump shots that shut up the big criticism and showed what everybody wanted to see.

“He is still not perfect, but he definitely worked on it. He is going to get better.”

Fultz was just one of the guys afterward as he was praised by Sixers teammate Joel Embiid during a postgame interview while Sixers forward Robert Covington poured two bottles of water over his head. Simmons also screamed like wrestler Ric Flair toward Fultz as he walked by. Suddenly, a smile emerged on Fultz’s face that has not been seen publicly in a while.

Meanwhile, with his fish tacos long gone, a satisfied Jones watched it all while smiling too.

“The one thing that myself and people at DeMatha had said was no matter what, our support is always there. Our support is there for him as a young man,” Jones said. “He can be the No. 1 pick. He can be someone where basketball is not for him and we’d still support him. That’s all we tried to do.

“But we know basketball is what he loves. And to see him out there happy, we could not be happier to see that.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.