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The 76ers issued an encouraging and confusing health update on Markelle Fultz

Markelle Fultz has played just 76 minutes for the 76ers. (AP)

The Philadelphia 76ers issued yet another update on the status of rookie Markelle Fultz’s injured right shoulder, and your guess is as good as ours as to what it means for his potential return this season.

“Philadelphia 76ers guard Markelle Fultz has been cleared to begin the final stage of his return-to-play program,” the team said. “The program consists of gradual re-integration into team practices and training, complemented with additional conditioning work to support readiness for gameplay.”

This comes nine weeks after the Sixers shut Fultz down with “scapular muscle imbalance,” six weeks after the team announced Fultz’s “return to gameplay will be determined by how the shoulder responds to progressive basketball training and practices” over a two- to three-week period, a month after the team said its No. 1 overall pick’s shoulder soreness is “completely gone” and a week after 76ers coach Brett Brown described his activity thusly, via NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Jessica Camerato:

“[He] continued to work on his movement, trying to build his conditioning, trying to continue to strengthen his shoulder. Slowly moving him to trying to play at a pace and a speed that is more game-like to test it and also grow his fitness base.”

Given the team’s vague injury timelines for lottery picks Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons over the past five years, it surprises nobody that Fultz is taking much longer to return than the Sixers originally indicated in training camp and that the latest “update” offers no reason to believe “the final stage of his return-to-play program” will be anything short of a prolonged absence.

At least when the Sixers opened the curtain on Tuesday’s practice, Fultz could be seen by reporters shooting with his right hand, which is more than could be said in early November, when the media captured him attempting jumpers with his left hand, revealing the severity of his shoulder injury.



“He came out and participated in some 4-on-4 halfcourt stuff with his team, and now you’re seeing what you’re seeing, some light 1-on-1 stuff,” Brown told reporters of Fultz on Tuesday, via the Philly Voice. “The reality of the whole thing is, the more you feel the team and coach the team, his skillset ties so many things together. He can make plays. When you are missing some of those qualities in a group, things get exposed. He can create a shot for himself, and he can create a shot for others.”

The 4-on-4 news is undoubtedly positive, as is just the sight of Fultz putting in work at a practice. And, yes, Fultz was considered a transcendent talent coming out of the University of Washington. Plus, Philadelphia’s trade of two high-end draft picks to take him at No. 1 signaled to the city that the core of Fultz, Simmons and Embiid would finally be the culmination of a half-decade-long tanking process.

Fultz entered the league as a dynamic modern point guard, capable of both playmaking on Embiid pick-and-rolls and scoring off Simmons drive-and-kicks. He has since played just 76 minutes.

A hot start for Simmons and Embiid helped mask Fultz’s absence in the first month of the season, as the 76ers moved to as many as four games above .500 at the start of last month, but they’ve since fallen as many as four games below even, and they now sit in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, a game and a half out of the final playoff spot.

They could use an injection of what Fultz was supposed to be, and not just for basketball reasons. (They owned a bottom-10 offense in the month of December.) From the top of the first round (Jayson Tatum) to the middle (Donovan Mitchell) and even the bottom (Kyle Kuzma), the 2017 NBA Draft has been one of the most successful first-year classes in recent memory, all of which has made the absence of Fultz even more frustrating for a Philadelphia fan base that keeps being told to be patient.

And from the sound of this latest status update, they’ll still have to wait a little longer.

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Ben Rohrbach is a contributor for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!