At the beginning of this season, it was pretty hard to go the first two or three months without hearing about the suboptimal start to De’Aaron Fox’s year. There was no shortage of questions regarding his engagement and commitment, especially with the guard-heavy dynamic of a team whose last two first round picks were point guards.
Here in March, all of that talk has been put to bed.
Since January, Fox has significantly boosted all of his numbers, getting off more shots with better efficiency, connecting with more assists, and lowering his turnovers, among many other statistical improvements.
While he made a shift in his play after the turn of the new year, Fox has particularly taken off since the trade was made in February that brought in Domantas Sabonis. In ten games with the former Pacer, Fox is averaging 28.2 points per game on a 51.7 FG%, 6.1 assists, and trimmed his turnover number to 2.1 a game.
What’s really amazing is that Fox has only continued picking up momentum. More specifically, in the last five games, which includes his 44-point performance against the Mavs, Fox is averaging 30 points on 52.8% from the field, including 32% from three (a big leap for him), 7.6 assists, 1.2 steals, and just 1.4 turnovers.
Fox has been shooting the three ball with confidence since the trade and with better success, too. Now, he isn’t dropping it in at an extraordinary percentage, but that element of extra confidence is palpable out on the floor and it’s seen as Fox’s 3P% on pull up attempts has been an uncharacteristically pleasant 34.5% since the trade.
He’s also been scoring about five more points a game in the paint than his season average in the previous five. In addition to that, he’s finishing on the inside with unbelievable success. On shots within 10 feet of the basket and a defender either playing tight or very tight defense, Fox is converting 50% of the time in the last ten games. Regarding all shot distances with a defender in either of those close ranges, Fox is hitting 57.5% of his attempts. Big or small, defenders are making little difference in comparison to Fox’s will to score.
Following the bounce-back win in San Antonio last week, Fox was asked about his subpar start to the season and whether there were any reasons for it now that he thinks back to it from this point where he is playing very well.
“No, not really,” he said. “Just growing and getting better throughout the season.”
The Kings media were not satisfied with that answer obviously. For on Saturday evening, following the tough loss to Dallas, Fox was asked a similar question surrounding his recent play.
“I’m just playing better basketball. I think that’s all it is. The approach hasn’t been any different than normal,” he said at the press conference.
Then what is it?
There is little doubt that the improved play of the Kings overall has been due to the addition of Sabonis and others. The team has refined its scoring, paint points, assist numbers, and the amount of second chance points it allows.
And the direct result of Sabonis on Fox’s game has been more than apparent.
Following the loss to the Mavericks, Fox was asked about his partnership with Sabonis, and with a smirk on his face he noted that he had never “played with a post player like that who’s getting double teams on a consistent basis.”
The double teams on Sabonis open up for so many opportunities for teammates to cut or get open because of the big man’s ability to withstand the pressure and deliver a good pass. The player movement and ball movement is instantly better. And 44% of Sabonis’ excellent passes go to Fox, which can–along with the better overall flow to the team offense–explain a good portion of the increased production.
Of course, then again, Fox has a history of coming out after the all-star break and playing extremely well. In fact, in each of the last three seasons, including this one, there is a clear jump between the split from before and after that annual weekend in February.
In the first 36 games of 2019-20, Fox was scoring 19.7 a game on 46.8% from the field before coming out in the last 15 to score 24.5 on 50.4%. The following year, he took 23.0 PPG on 46.6% and turned it into 28.5 on 49.1% in the final 23. And after averaging 21.8 on 46.6% in the first 48 games, Fox is on his way to doing the same, flaunting 28.3 a game on an impressive 52.4% in a small sample size of 6 games.
But those runs that follow the all-star break are primarily offensive stretches of dominance, with drops in assists and other stats occurring at times, and Fox’s recent stretch has felt entirely different. And not different in some subtle manner, but rather quite overtly.
Coach Gentry notices something different.
“I think since he came back from the ankle situation and stuff that he’s been so focused and locked in. He’s been more verbal than I’ve ever seen him be… To me, just the focus has been really, really good and then his play on the court has obviously been great,” the interim head coach noted of his starting point guard following the victory against the Spurs.
When asked about Gentry’s comments, Fox was as nonchalant as always.
“I’m really just playing the game,” he said in San Antonio. “Obviously, before the trade, Ty [Haliburton] was the vocal one– obviously, [Barnes] as well. Coming back, that’s just something I’ve had to do, and really it’s just trying to embrace that role. But other than that, I’m just playing basketball. That’s pretty much all it is for me.”
“Just playing basketball,” “embracing the role,” he says. Well, whatever it is, it’s working– though, not that there’s any reason to doubt Fox, but he may be playing it a little modest.
Following the loss to New Orleans this past week, word was that when Brandon Ingram was hotter than a two dollar pistol, Fox asked for him as his defensive assignment going into the second half.
Asked about it the following night, Fox said all he wanted to do was present Ingram with a different look defensively.
That’s one of the best offensive guards in the league who’s gone on savage runs in games before likely peeling ideas from his own experience and applying them to the task at hand in order to try and improve his team’s performance. Fox may characterize that as “just playing basketball” and he wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, but he has to be more specific– that’s smart, clear-eyed basketball. That’s leadership.
With such offensive bona fides, the fact he’s taking such an interest in the defense is encouraging, especially for a team trying to establish an identity and winning mentality from scratch after its fifteen-plus year absence.
James Ham asked Coach Gentry about this after the Dallas loss, a theme of his focus on Fox’s recent success.
“On the defensive end, it seems like the last four or five games he really has made a new level of commitment on that end of the floor. Is that something you’re seeing, and just from the Ingram situation to even tonight where he was all over the place?”
Like a true coach, Gentry agreed that he’s been great before commenting how he’d like Fox to stay on the right guy when screens and switches are implemented. But he continued to note how “solid” and how “into the ball” Fox was, saying “that’s all we can ask for.”
Gentry has, on multiple occasions, cited defensive identity, in addition to establishing a home court advantage, as a key factor to cultivating a winning mentality in Sacramento. So it’s more than encouraging for fans to see Fox not only begin stepping up into a leadership role, but doing it with a winning mentality by putting such an emphasis on defense and leading by example.
He’s thinking about what it takes to win, doing what has to be done even if it’s not a featured aspect of his game. And those watching can tell the difference.
So this hardly seems like just another offensive tear for De’Aaron Fox. He’s got new energy, an added drive on the defensive end, and a leadership role in development.
It’s almost like this is a new Fox, a rejuvenated one, confident and reacquainted with his place and purpose within this Sacramento Kings franchise.
It will be interesting to see how Fox can add to this stretch tonight as the Kings take on the New York Knicks at home.