As if the Philadelphia 76ers needed to add any more fuel to their raging fire heading into their Wednesday night home matchup with the Knicks at 7 p.m. at Wells Fargo Center, the return of No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz is giving a jumpstart to a team that hardly appears to need it.
The 76ers have won seven straight, including a 123-104 win over Denver on Monday night that proved only a taste of what Fultz can provide as he returned from a 68-game layoff after rebuilding his shot.
On a night in which they outscored the Nuggets, 72-45, in the second half, Fultz drew the biggest roars on the team as he contributed 10 points and eight assists in 14 minutes on the bench. Recovering from an air-ball on his first attempt, Fultz worked well in the paint, hit from deep and flashed some of the potential that landed him at the top of the draft before one of the strangest stretches for a top prospect in league history.
"He gives us another great pace," Philadelphia center Joel Embiid said. "He can find ways to score and also set guys up. You could tell by his eight assists tonight in 14 minutes. That's big time. That's what we need him to do -- score the ball, get guys involved, and create."
Fultz's return surprised even the 76ers, who seemed prepared to let him work his way back until he felt comfortable.
"We're not sure when it happened or how it happened, but it happened," 76ers president Bryan Colangelo told reporters on Monday. "What we've seen is a hard-working young man and a hard-working staff that's done everything possible to get him ready for this moment, to get him back out on the court and do what he loves to do -- play basketball."
For 76ers head coach Brett Brown, adding Fultz to a backcourt that includes impressive rookie point guard Ben Simmons, who already has claimed the No. 2 spot for triple-doubles by a rookie, and veterans T.J. McConnell and Jerryd Bayless, he's got more variety than a candy store.
"Just look at what he's been through," Brown said. "It's ridiculous what he's been through. He understands it. I understand it. That's the scrutiny you get when somebody says, 'And with the first pick in the 2017 NBA draft, the Philadelphia 76ers select Markelle Fultz.' That comes with pressures and responsibilities and acknowledgements. It's just such an atypical way anybody enters pro sports. Knowing what I know and seeing what I've seen and understanding how special that kid is from a human being standpoint, it's a good day."
If the 76ers have found a major addition late in the season, so too have the Knicks. Guard Trey Burke, who was plucked from New York's G-League squad in January, had 42 points on Monday in a 137-128 overtime loss to Charlotte.
"I want to get somewhere comfortable and want to get somewhere to be there for a long run. I really believe New York is a place like that for me," Burke said.