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How can Markelle Fultz earn playtime in Boston?

He does something only one other Celtic can

NCAA Basketball: UCLA at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Young players usually don’t usually play big roles on winning teams. The Celtics aren’t a normal winning team though. Despite the 53 wins and a trip to Eastern Conference Finals, it’s clear that the Celtics still have a few steps to go before they can truly consider themselves a member of the league’s elite class. But there is a balance. Unlike other teams competing deep in the playoffs, the Celtics don’t have a second unit filled with older veterans. Instead, that unit is home to three lottery picks, two mid-first round picks, two potentially incoming first round picks, and the number one pick coming this June. This balance means that the team can’t just load up its second unit with veterans like P.J. Tucker and Channing Frye because they need to make sure they leave development minutes for the kids that are much more likely to be core members of a championship run.

But that doesn’t mean those minutes are given, and in fact, every guy on the roster is expected to earn those minutes. For Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown those minutes were earned on the defensive side of the ball. Smart came into the league as a defensive specialist and quickly made a reputation for himself as one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, finishing in the top 10 among point guards in DRPM in his rookie year. The same was expected of Jaylen Brown upon his arrival, with Stevens giving the rookie guard a quick hook whenever he made a defensive mistake, but by the end of the year, Brown had shrunk his defensive rating from 106.4 to 103.1 and was one of the team's lone bright spots against the Cavaliers.

At the end of the year when Brown was asked about potential number-one pick Markelle Fultz, he had this to say:

“I think he’s pretty good. I think he has a lot of potential. I’m interested to see what he can do on the defensive side of the ball because that’s how you win games in the NBA… he’s super talented offensively, but it’s going to be a balance between everything.”

The quote was received pretty well amongst Celtics nation and for good reason. Defense traditionally wins games in the NBA, and though Brown didn’t get nearly the opportunities a normal lottery pick may have gotten, he saw first-hand the work it took to get to such high levels in the postseason, and it left him eager for more. But a question that ended up branching from that is whether Markelle Fultz will, in fact, have to prove himself defensively in order to get on the floor.

In a vacuum, yes. You can’t be a speed bump as a rookie and expect to be on the floor for a winning team. However, we’ve already discussed Fultz’s defensive potential, and chances are he won’t be a pushover on the defensive end. But I'll take it a step further: even if Fultz did end up being a lackluster defender in this rookie campaign, he would still get quality minutes. The reason? What Fultz brings on offense, the Celtics just don’t have.

Guard creativity

The Boston Celtics have some of the least creative guards on offense outside of Isaiah Thomas. Let’s specifically talk about Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley since they’re the two other guards who see the lion’s share of the backcourt minutes.

Marcus Smart has evolved a bit from his rookie year and has shown flashes as a passer out of the pick and roll during the regular season. However, when teams challenged him to make more than the initial first read off the pick, he struggled mightily and wasn’t the offensive initiator he had shown throughout the season. As a pick-and-roll scorer during the playoffs, Smart put up a horrendous 0.55 ppp, which for context put him in the 5.3rd percentile. His lack of creation was even more evident in the Cleveland series, where he couldn’t get by Kevin Love or attack LeBron James when the Cavaliers switched him on Smart due to foul trouble.

Avery Bradley wasn’t much better in that department himself. As we’ve discussed during the roster review series, Bradley is still relatively the same player he’s been for a few years in the sense that he still can’t be trusted to run the offense even as an off-ball guard. During the postseason, Bradley didn’t fair much better than Smart, posting a 0.50 ppp out of the PnR position.

The point is that neither guard is much of a creator, and in a league where the best guards’ games are heavily predicated on their ability to create out of the pick and roll, neither player could really do it when the games matter the most.

Insert Markelle Fultz.

If you don’t remember the numbers, here’s a quick breakdown. Scoring out of the pick and roll made up 30% of Fultz’s offense, and he ranked in the 93rd percentile doing it. As a passer, he generated 1.08 ppp and ended up with a higher assist rate and lower turnover rate than the unnamed passing magician from UCLA. But it goes deeper than that—what Fultz does out of the pick and roll is absolutely mechanical.

What makes Fultz so great out of this set is his ability to change pace drastically, split defenders with risky but effective moves, and finish at the rim or from the midrange. At 6’4” with a 6’10” wingspan, Fultz has the ability to see over and bully smaller defenders while also being savvy and quick enough to get by guys who are a similar size or bigger.

The pick and roll is so much about pace and timing because the ultimate goal is to cause a mismatch within the defense that you can exploit. When done right, you get one of your best offensive players against the slowest player on the court. It’s why NBA teams use it so much and its why they put such a premium on bigs that can defend on the perimeter. For the Celtics, the difference between their best pick and roll players and their worst was knowing what to do once they got that initial matchup with the big. That’s where a player like Fultz could really make the difference as another guy besides Isaiah Thomas who can put the defense on its heels and be a threat to either pass or score.

But the offensive profile goes deeper than that. Not only can Fultz orchestrate an elite pick and roll, but he can also make difficult shots.

Via draft express, Fultz averaged 1.02 ppp on pull-up shots. Whether it’s stepbacks, hang dribbles, or spin moves, Fultz finds away to get his shot up no matter what. The thing that separates him from other scorers is that every move he has is for a purpose. He doesn’t play with the ball or try to turn iso plays into an AND 1 mixtape. He gets the ball, he knows knows what spot he wants to get to, and he gets there with whatever instinctual move he sees fit for that situation.

That instinctual nature to his game is what makes his potential so promising. Fultz has such an elite feel that even when he doesn’t have a set plan, he can give what the defense gives him and still score efficiently. But is that enough to get him on the floor consistently?

Different rules for Fultz?

While Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart had to earn their playing time on the defensive end, it’s not crazy to believe that Fultz will get on the court because of what he can do on the offensive end. There’s a reason Damien Lillard and DeMar DeRozan are considered All-Stars while guys like Tony Allen and Patrick Beverly aren’t. You build cultures around defense, but you win games with elite offense. The Celtics have built their identity with a strong defensive unit centered around guys like Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, Jaylen Brown, and Al Horford. What they’re missing is more guys who when the game is on the line can do stuff like this:

It’s important to remember that Brad Stevens has consistently used his second unit as pieces to the puzzle based on what he felt a given game needed. When the team needed more energy, defense on the perimeter, or to get Isaiah Thomas off the ball, they called on Smart. When the team wanted more size at the wing spot, they called for Brown. The team thought they were going to get shooting from Terry Rozier throughout the season, but when he didn’t produce he didn’t play. The point is, guys aren’t necessarily getting playing time because they are young, but rather because they provide a skill that Stevens believes the team needs at the moment. Apply that same logic to Markelle Fultz’s projected playing time, and it’s not hard to imagine that when the team thinks it needs instant offense or a ball-handler who can be a threat with the ball, Fultz will get the nod. And if that’s the criteria, Fultz may find himself as a permanent part of the rotation by the All-Star break since only he and Isaiah Thomas have that skill.

Fultz’s game was made to excel at the NBA level. Though going to a team as good as the Celtics may seem like putting handcuffs on the prospect, he may have found the one team good enough to not put the world on his shoulders yet still have a hole in their rotation that he can fill. It won’t take long for the rest of the league to realize it.

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