BOSTON (AP) — When Markelle Fultz spent two days in Boston last June visiting the Celtics during the pre-draft process, it felt like home.
He walked the streets downtown and later found himself soaking up the history that clings to the championship banners swaying above the TD Garden court.
“It almost feels like I belong here,” Fultz said at the time.
It turned out to be nothing more than a field trip when the Celtics surprised many and passed on selecting Fultz with the No. 1 overall pick. They instead traded it to the 76ers for the third pick, which they used to grab Jayson Tatum, and a future first-round pick.
Right now it looks like a good move for Boston.
The Celtics have a 1-0 lead over Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Tatum has been a revelation on a team battered by injuries.
Tatum’s role first increased when Gordon Hayward went down with an ankle injury, then again following Kyrie Irving’s knee surgeries late in the season. Tatum has responded to every challenge, averaging 17 points, five rebounds and three assists in his first postseason.
“I enjoy it,” Tatum said. “I dreamed of having big moments and having a big role. That obviously came a lot sooner than I thought. I’m just trying to prove that I belong here.”
Fultz is not having nearly as much fun.
He has been reduced to a spectator after a down regular season that saw him go through shooting issues and miss 68 games with a shoulder injury. And this after having his shot dissected during the season.
But he insisted that he hasn’t let any of it frustrate him.
“It didn’t bother me really,” he told The Associated Press. “I was just happy with the team’s success. That’s all I’m about.”
He finally returned for some game action during the final 10 games of the regular season. But it wasn’t until the final night of the season that he provided his best example to date of the potential that the Sixers spent so much capital to draft.
Fultz looked at ease for the first time in months when at 19 he became the youngest NBA player to record a triple-double, registering 13 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds in a win over Milwaukee.
Yet, while Boston is embracing Tatum, Fultz is still looking to make a meaningful postseason impact.
After playing 24 minutes over the first three games of the first round, Fultz was inactive in the final two games of the Miami series and didn’t play in the opener against the Celtics.
He isn’t only playing behind Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons, but Fultz is also watching T.J. McConnell get minutes.
Sixers coach Brett Brown said the decision to sit Fultz hasn’t come without some second-guessing. He left room for the former Washington Huskies guard to make an appearance in this series.
“It’s my decision to go with T.J.,” Brown said. “There are times that you for sure think about it. But to say (Fultz is) dead and buried, that’s not true. But I got a decision to make. And I’ve made a decision.
“It doesn’t mean it’s etched in stone. It’s always something you review and think about. And the care for Markelle Fultz and his future is always on my mind.”
Fultz said he’s ready to contribute in whatever way he’s asked.
“Anything for the team, I’m just here,” he said. “Whenever I get an opportunity I’m just going out there and play my hardest.”
After the Celtics beat the Bucks in Game 7 to advance to the semifinals, Tatum was asked what he learned about himself playing in his first playoff series.
“I love what I do,” Tatum said. I love being out there. It’s fun.”
It’s a feeling that, for now at least, Fultz has only gotten in a small dose.
“For me, it’s all an opportunity,” Fultz said. “When the coaches put me out there, that’s what I’m going to be ready for. Other than that, I’m on the sidelines cheering my teammates on.”
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