25-under-25: De’Aaron Fox is ascending toward stardom


Entering his third NBA season, De’Aaron Fox is on the cusp of the stardom with the Sacramento Kings. What’s in store for the electric guard?

Many of the individual talents who govern today’s NBA brand their superstardom with a signature play. Steph’s relocation 3. Harden’s step-back. LeBron’s chase-down block. Giannis’ Eurostep dunk. They are the ways in which their basketball ethos are stained onto the hardwood: sequences that concentrate their brilliance into mere seconds, reminding audiences of their historical immortality.

De’Aaron Fox is not yet in the pantheon of superstars but already has a trademark that captures his impending greatness: the end-to-end baskets quicker than the snap of a finger.

Bobbing, weaving, slicing his way through an entire defense and gracefully finishing with a lefty layup. He is an Earth-bound Hermes — the ball his staff — determined to popularize his message: good luck staying with me in the open floor.

These plays are spectacles and Fox on the fast break is appointment viewing — in a similar vein to Harden toying with defenders on the perimeter or Steph traversing off-ball screens. The ingredients for a highlight are baking in the oven during these moments.

Fox’s half-court possessions sometimes serve as a pit stop for the wheels on his race car but they do not entirely short circuit his turbo engine. There are too many instances of electricity, slipping through creases, buzzing past stalwart defenders, operating with breathtaking simplicity.

A sophomore season rich with effortless, deceiving, downright silly buckets — exuding a certain level of mastery — make it easy to forget the brutality of Fox’s rookie year. Disconcerting decision-making, bricky jumpers and a misunderstanding of how to properly apply his nitro against the defense.

But that was then and this now, the summer following a marriage of speed and discretion. A partnership that left Fox as the face of a franchise and city, and competing for All-Star teams. And wowza, did the cheeta-turned-hooper take a leap.

Aside from offensive rebounds (0.8 both seasons), he improved every per 100 possession statistic last season. All of them. Points, assists, steals. You name it, he did it. His true shooting percentage jumped from 47.8 to 54.4. After finishing with the 15th-worst Player Impact Plus-Minus as a rookie (minus-4.03), Fox was 57th overall in 2018-19 (plus-1.69). His plus-5.73 improvement was the best in the entire NBA this year.

It is not exclusively as a scorer in which Fox’s athletic tools embed themselves into the consciousness of his fanatics. He functions with the elasticity of a rubber band, contorting his body to erase shots, pluck passes and reach preferred regions of the floor. Fearless spunk defines these highlights.

The strides Fox enjoyed as a scorer and shooter in year two are readily apparent, bumping up his overall efficiency by over six percentage points and morphing from substandard to serviceable beyond the arc (30.7 to 37.1 percent). Perhaps even more valuable than that transformation, however, was the one he exhibited as a floor general.

Fox ranked in the 81st percentile in assist percentage (32.3) a year after finishing in the 27th percentile (24.1), per Cleaning the Glass. His assist-to-turnover ratio moved from 4.4:2.4 to 7.3:2.8. He finished eighth in the NBA in assists per game at 7.3 a night.

A cliche it may be, but the game slowed for Fox. Manipulation, accuracy and punctuality replaced haste and confusion as the preeminent traits of his playmaking. He learned to occupy defenders with a live dribble and optical trickery. Opponents bore witness to the precision, deft touch and timing of his passing.

For Fox, the sequel washed away the bitterness of the original. But expectations are mounting in Sacramento with a fan base craving the playoffs, wary of stagnation and praying to avoid regression. Fox represents these hopes and dreams. Approaching stardom is relatively easy for a player as talented as he. Bridging that divide between ascension and arrival is the challenge. In part, doing so requires a remodel of his shot profile.

Forty-four percent of Fox’s field goal attempts came from mid-range last season (81st percentile), though he only converted 37 percent (27th percentile) of them. It was slightly lower than his long-range profits (37.1 percent) and yet, he only bombed from deep 19 percent of the time (ninth percentile). That allegiance to efficiency purgatory is responsible for his pedestrian 54.4 true shooting percentage (league average was 56 percent in 2018-19).

Fox’s passing and sprightly athleticism establish the pillars of an elite offensive engine. The next step is either weaponizing the mid-range — a la Chris Paul — or triggering more 3s; at his current production, living in the mid-range isn’t viable. His low volume nature beyond the arc allows teams to skirt underneath screens in anticipation of his blazing speed and finishing savvy (81st percentile at the rim last year).

Unearthing efficient avenues to individual scoring when defenders curb his speed in the half-court is paramount moving forward for Fox. He’s a ball-dominant point guard surrounded by off-ball guards in Sacramento; it leans on his creation skills. In the near future, the Kings will be locked in a tight postseason battle, needing points and looking Fox’s way. The type of speed Fox possesses can’t be entirely neutralized but it can be contained when the pace slows — which often happens in the playoffs — especially given his shaky jumper. There are minor holes to address in his game but none trump his continued development as a shooter.

When engaged, Fox translates his rare athleticism to the defensive end, applying tenacious on-ball pressure and using his quick hands to turn over lead guards (2.1 percent steal rate was in the 85th percentile). This is the film that suggests he wields All-Defensive Team upside.

His slender frame is conducive to warping around screens and staying attached to assignments while his horizontal and vertical burst lend themselves to highlight-reel plays. Off the ball is where Fox’s motor often sputters, losing backdoor cutters, trailing picks and generally lacking the verve he displays at the point of attack.

A year ago, Fox didn’t make The Step Back’s 25-under-25. He wasn’t even listed among the 10 players who just missed the cut and ranked 35th-26th. He was an eager, chaotically charged point guard desperate for discipline, in line as yet another blemish on Sacramento’s draft resume.

Meet the 2018 NBA 25-under-25. dark. Next

Now, Fox fuses youthful vibrancy with imminent stardom. Ear-to-ear grins. Hypnotizing highlights. A Karate Kid headband. Unmistakable joy and comfort with the sport.

To watch Fox is to be teleported to a middle school playground, where the asphalt courts are defined by a free-flowing style of play and bubbly optimism — each character preparing for a career in the NBA. Fox carries himself like that of a youngster living out his dream.

Every end-to-end bucket is an ode to the natural gifts that brought him this far, the same talents that will fuel the next steps of his journey, ones filled with All-Star appearances, All-NBA berths and a revitalization of Kings purple and black.

The insider’s perspective

by Rafe Wong

Get ready to witness the next star point guard in the NBA. Going into the draft, the sky was the limit for De’Aaron Fox, and across his first two seasons he has shown a gradual pattern of improvement, becoming a dominant two-way player in front of our eyes. Expect Fox to continue that rise in his third year, and be a key factor as the Kings can finally break their 13-year playoff drought.

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