What the Sacramento Kings are doing so far this season is probably not sustainable. I don’t say that to rain on the parade of Kings fans, who absolutely deserve a fun, young team that surprises everyone and makes a run to the playoffs. But the Kings, who entered Tuesday night’s play at 10-10 and in the No. 8 slot in the Western Conference, are not quite as good as their record says they are.
Sacramento has been outscored by 2.5 points per game this season, meaning they’ve probably won about two more games already this season than they “should” have at this point. (Point differential has been shown to be a better predictor of a team’s future performance than has actual won-lost record.) Some of that relatively poor point differential is due to blowout losses at the hands of the Jazz, Rockets, Bucks, and Pelicans, but blowouts (in either direction) have also been shown to be more indicative of overall team quality than the ability to win close games, against teams good or bad.
Still, it’s been quite a while since a Kings team was this competitive, this far into the season, and it’s pretty damn cool. And both the Kings and their fan base can comfort themselves with the fact that, even if they do fall back to the pack, the rise of sophomore point guard De’Aaron Fox seems completely legit in just about every way imaginable. In the midst of an all-around breakout campaign, Fox has the look of a potential two-way star.
After 20 games, Fox is averaging 17.5 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 7.5 assists per game while shooting 47 percent from the field and 38 percent from 3. Run a quick Basketball-Reference search and you’ll discover that, in NBA history, there have been just two other players to average 17-4-7 and shoot 38 percent or better from 3 during either their first or second NBA season: Tim Hardaway Sr. hit all those marks during his sophomore campaign back in 1991, and Damon Stoudamire did it during his rookie year back in 1996 — though both Hardaway and Stoudamire did so while playing more than 39 minutes a night. Fox, on the other hand, is averaging just 32.6 minutes per game. Extrapolate Fox’s numbers out per 36 minutes (19.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, 8.3 assists) and add in the 3-point shooting, and not a single rookie or sophomore has ever done what he’s doing so far this year.
Considering Fox was a below-average contributor pretty much across the board during his debut season, it’s a pretty spectacular leap. Almost all rookies are negative players — especially those on bad teams — and Fox was no exception. He struggled with turnovers. He had sub-optimal shot distribution. (Fox attempted more shots from the deep mid-range than behind the 3-point line as a rookie.) He shot poorly from everywhere other than in the immediate vicinity of the rim. He rarely got to the free-throw line. And his positioning and effort were not where they needed to be on defense.
A year later, almost all of that has changed. Fox still turns the ball over plenty, but his miscues are now more often errors of overconfidence rather than decision-making. His shot distribution has corrected itself, as he’s moved a decent-sized chunk of his shots from the dreaded “long-2” area to either back behind the 3-point line or in the floater range. His finishing at the rim has spiked, as has his conversion rate on floaters, short mid-rangers (he’s got an eye for how to use the glass to his advantage), and 3s. His free-throw rate has nearly doubled. And he’s defending his position far better than he did a year ago. The effects of his improved play are reflected in the Kings’ performance with and without him on the floor: as a rookie, the Kings were 5.8 points worse per 100 possessions with Fox in the game, but during his sophomore season, they’ve been 18.7 points per 100 possessions better with Fox on the floor than off. That is a massive single-season jump.
Fittingly, given his quick rise, almost everything that Fox does well on the floor stems from the fact that he can simply move faster than the man in front of him — no matter who that man is. There are 79 players averaging at least 30 minutes per game this season. Per Second Spectrum tracking data on NBA.com, Fox moves at the fourth-fastest average speed among those players. He moves seventh-fastest on offense and seventh-fastest on defense, making him one of just three players to rank in the top-10 on both sides of the ball. (Miami’s Rodney McGruder and teammate Buddy Hield are the others.)
Fox is actually moving a touch faster offensively than he did a year ago (5.00 miles per hour as opposed to 4.84 per hour), and his insistence on pace-pushing is helping fuel the Kings’ early offense. Sacramento ranks second in the league in average time elapsed on the shot clock before putting up a shot attempt on possessions after an opponent’s made basket. (They also rank third in average time elapsed after both turnovers and defensive rebounds.) Fox can often be seen ramming the ball down the opponent’s throat seconds after it goes through his own rim, and even when that effort doesn’t result in an immediate response basket (and it often does), it affords the Kings extra time to run through their sets and find the best possible shot.
But it’s not just transition where Fox has shown improvement, or where his speed aids his production. Owner of one of the quickest first steps in the league, Fox is one of 33 guards averaging at least 10 drives per game, per Second Spectrum. Among that group of players, he ranks 14th in field goal percentage on drives, just ahead of James Harden. Like Harden, Fox almost always drives to score. His 24.6 percent pass rate on the drive ranks fourth-lowest among that aforementioned group of 33 players. (Harden, Donovan Mitchell, and Damian Lillard are the only drive-heavy guards who pass less often on their ventures from the perimeter to the rim.) When Fox does decide to use his drive to draw the defense and find an open teammate, however, he’s almost always successful. His 13.8 percent assist rate on drives is the third-best mark among that same group of 33 players. (Only Ricky Rubio and Eric Bledsoe have assisted teammates on a greater percentage of their drives.) And Fox so often blows past poor opposing guards that they have no choice but to foul him. His 10.3 percent fouls drawn rate on the drive ranks second among those 33 guards, behind only John Wall.
Because he’s so fast and such a good finisher, teams try to go under the screens that are set for Fox more often than not. Last season, that strategy was wildly successful. Fox shot only 41 percent on the drive, rarely recorded assists, and rarely drew fouls. He also was almost entirely unable to make defenses pay for going under, as he shot a dreadful 33 percent from the field on pull-up jumpers, including 31 percent on pull-up 3s.
He’s learned how better to leverage his speed to get where he wants on the floor and that’s made his drives more successful, but his improved ability to stop and pop has made him even more deadly. Fox is by no means a great pull-up shooter just yet, or even an above-average one. But a jump from 33 percent to 38 percent on pull-ups is nothing to sneeze at, especially when that jump is fueled by a bump from 31 percent to 41 percent on pull-up 3s. Fox made only 22 pull-up 3s all of last season, and he’s already knocked down 13 this year. If he plays the same number of games this season as he did a year ago, he’ll make twice as many pull-up triples. That’s a heck of a year-to-year improvement and in one of the most important areas of the game for a young point guard.
Opposing defenses are still daring him to take that shot more often than not, but Fox is shooting it with confidence as opposed to trepidation. Just a bit more consistency and a bit better balance when he raises up, and suddenly he’ll be even tougher to stop off the dribble — especially if you’re trying to do it with just one defender. Send a second or third guy at Fox while he’s attacking, and right now he can make the right pass, generating a quality shot for a teammate. (He currently ranks seventh in the league in assist opportunities per game.) Give him a bit more time running the show, and he’ll start making the pass that nobody else sees. If and when that happens, it’s all over for opposing defenses.
Fox is still sorting out the nuances of defending his position, but while he learns, he at least has a nose for the ball. Not many guards in the league have similar steal and block rates to Fox, and he’s among the league leaders in recovering loose balls. And unlike a year ago, the Kings’ defense has been miles better with Fox in the game — by 7.5 points per 100 possessions, a team-high among rotation players.
It’s early yet, and Fox still has a ways to go before he fully taps into his star potential. There’s a lot of room left for him to grow. He doesn’t even turn 21 until late next month. But he’s already really, really good.