LOS ANGELES — With his game uniform bunched up in a plastic bag in one hand and a satisfied smile across his face, Orlando Magic guard Markelle Fultz walked out of Staples Center victorious on Wednesday.
The Magic edged the Los Angeles Lakers 119-118, snapping L.A.’s nine-game winning streak and Fultz — now a third-year vet but still only 21 years old — looked every bit the special talent that made him the No. 1 pick in 2017.
Fultz, whom the Philadelphia 76ers gave up on last season after a perplexing nerve condition in his neck and shoulder destroyed his jump shot and dissolved his confidence, put up 21 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists to log his second career triple-double.
“What I’ve been through, it just gives me more fire to keep going,” Fultz told ESPN after the game. “I put in a lot of hard work to be where I’m at. I’ve been through a lot, but I never gave up.
“So, it just shows for people out there, whoever is doubting you, whoever is doing something [to you], put something on your mind and if you have something on your mind, go do it. Don’t ever let somebody tell you that you can’t and I’m never going to stop. I’m going to keep working until I can’t play no more.”
After the Lakers stormed back from a 21-point deficit to take a four-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, Fultz went to work. He had six points on 3-for-4 shooting and four assists in the final frame — including four points in the final minute, scoring two difficult layups in traffic — to close things out.
Fultz was Orlando’s lone point guard to play with D.J. Augustin (left knee) and Michael Carter-Williams (shoulder) sidelined, and he handled the increased role as if it were his all along.
“It felt like another game. My mindset, I knew we had guys down and I knew that I had to step up,” Fultz said. “I think I just showed everybody my talents and what I can do, and again it feels good because it’s against a great team. But for me it’s another game and I’m extremely happy, but I’m getting ready for the next one.”
It was such an impressive performance from a player who was shipped to Orlando for the meager haul of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 2020 first-round pick, a 2019 second-round pick and swingman Jonathon Simmons (who is currently out of the league), that even the team he beat was left singing his praises.
“Confidence and opportunity,” said LeBron James when asked to explain how Fultz has turned it around. “They’re confident in him, he’s confident in himself. He’s given an opportunity to go out and play the game how he grew up playing. Everything else takes care of itself. I’ve been supportive of him ever since he was in high school, when he was a rookie in Philly. Been supportive of his situation and still [am] to this day. I’m happy as hell for him.”
Lakers guard Quinn Cook, who also grew up in Prince George’s County in Maryland and attended DeMatha Catholic High School a few years before Fultz, greeted the Magic guard with a hug and a few words of encouragement on the court after the game.
“That’s my little brother,” Cook said. “We’re from the same place, same high school. I’ve known him basically his whole life. So just to see him persevere and doing what he’s doing now, it just speaks on what kind of kid he is. Obviously nothing was handed to him his whole life, and especially since he’s been in the league. It’s been tough on him, but he stayed the course, he stayed resilient and he put on a show tonight and I’m so, so, so happy and proud of him.”
Fultz’s late flurry dampened what was Cook’s best game as a Laker, as he scored 22 points on 9-for-14 shooting, filling in for injured Rajon Rondo off the bench. Like Fultz, Cook didn’t have the smoothest start to his NBA career, spending time with the Cleveland Cavaliers’ G League team and scratching and clawing for playing time in Dallas and New Orleans before latching on as a rotation player in Golden State.
“We stand up for each other,” Fultz said of Cook. “I’m rooting for him. He’s been doing great. He’s earned everything he’s got and I think he was another underdog, coming in and he’s just proving to everybody what PG County has, what that area is made of.”
Fultz, who helped mar the Lakers’ unblemished mark against sub-.500 teams (Wednesday’s loss to the now 20-21 Magic makes L.A. 22-1 against said opponents), not only did it on L.A.’s court, he did it in James’ shoes. He wore a bright red version of James’ signature Nike sneakers as he ran roughshod on the Lakers’ defense in crunch time.
“I love his shoe,” Fultz said. “I’m a powerful guard. People got to see it tonight a little bit. … A lot of shoes I almost rip out of and I can only wear once and they’re done. LeBrons have been a good shoes for me.”
His sneakers got packed up by the Magic equipment managers at the end of the night, tucking them away for when Orlando plays the tail end of a back-to-back Thursday against the LA Clippers, no doubt.
But Fultz’s No. 20 jersey — soaked with sweat from his night’s work, if not the blood and tears from all the nights that preceded it — was coming with him.
“My jersey from the triple-double,” Fultz told ESPN. “I need that, for sure. It’s a milestone, something great and I’m going to hang it up. I’m pretty hard on myself, but every once in a while I got to enjoy the moments when I’m doing good and keep going.”