A year ago, after four seasons of consistent growth in the NBA, it felt like De’Aaron Fox was on the verge of becoming an all-star. But after a poor start to the season and some missed time, fate had other ideas.
The point guard did end things on an absolute tear following the acquisition of Domantas Sabonis, and his potential still remains sky high, but it’s become obvious that if he’s going to gain league recognition and help deliver success in Sacramento, Fox needs to have a consistent season, start to finish.
It just so happens that with an improved roster and a new coaching staff, this may be Fox’s best chance to pickup where he left off, simultaneously creating his best opportunity to crack an all-star team.
Arming the team with shooters is invaluable to pair beside his ability to assault the paint, but the subtly savvy construction of this coaching staff could play just as large a role if he takes things to the next level.
After sitting down with him following his introductory presser, Sam Amick wrote a story on new head coach Mike Brown. One of the things Amick zeroed in on after their conversation was Brown’s enthusiasm about what Fox will be able to do in the season ahead.
At the presser itself, Brown was adamant that Fox has what it takes to be a great defender based on what he saw from a high school version of the guard at a basketball camp, saying he though he “was a dog defensively.”
To Brown, communication, trust, and, most of all, consistent effort are the foundational principles of good defense. If Fox can give that effort and do it throughout the season, he’ll take more than just progressive steps defensively, he’ll have a chance to lock-into all facets of the game.
After all, it wasn’t just defense, there was more to say about him. A promising tidbit relating to “personal dynamics” can be found in Amick’s piece when Brown describes recently hired assistant coach Luke Loucks’ connection to Fox and the essential functions that could serve.
When Loucks was a player development coach for the Warriors, he partook in an internship program at Cal Berkeley to help college athletes interested in moving into coaching. At the same time, De’Aaron Fox’s current fiancee was playing at Cal and participating in the program. There, she worked extensively with Loucks and the two got to know one another.
Because of this, Brown described a pairing of Fox and Loucks as “the right fit.”
“I mean, (Fox) is getting married this summer and is going on a fascinating honeymoon, and he wants Luke Loucks to come with him,” Brown told Amick. “That’s how vested he is to making sure that he’s coming into training camp this year on a high level.”
Regardless of whether Loucks ends up third-wheeling it or not, the new head coach added praise for his player’s work ethic and noted with excitement how he went down to San Diego to witness it firsthand.
If Brown’s eyes aren’t deceiving him, then this excitement may be an understatement. It’s this added motivation to remain locked-in, non-stop, start to finish, that is the x-factor that can push him over the top because, at the end of the day, consistency is vital. And that truth applies particularly to Fox.
It was just in the early part of last season that Fox was beginning to look like he was taking a step back with his numbers and efficiency all noticeably down. After being labeled essentially untradeable last September, Fox’s name was suddenly dipping into trade buzz by December, especially with the excellent play of Tyrese Haliburton.
As his struggles were baffling and frustrating fans, questions arose regarding whether or not Fox was committed to the task of turning this franchise around. In mid-December, while the trade rumors oscillated, he expressed some frustration about the peculiarity of Sacramento basketball for the last decade and a half.
“I hadn’t lost until I got here,” Fox said, referring to the Kings. “First 18 years of life, 19 years of life, every step that I played basketball, I was winning something.”
It seemed relatively harmless until a few weeks later when James Ham observed that “behind the scenes” word had it that Fox was “not as engaged in the team” as he had once been, calling it “a problem.”
Meanwhile, Haliburton was deepening his stake in the hearts of fans. In fact, he wanted to lead the organization to the playoffs and to a renewed reputation, as he expressed following his trade to the Pacers.
In late-January, Fox went down with an ankle injury, causing him to miss 8 games as he was in the middle of playing slightly better basketball. It looked like just the latest thing to possibly plateau his progression.
Then things were shaken up.
His first game back was the day the Kings traded Haliburton away, which caused an emotional response from a large chunk of the fanbase. However, it didn’t take long to see what a two-time all-star like Sabonis could bring to the Kings.
Not only that, they also happened to gain a better version of Fox at the same time.
While he historically plays his best basketball after the all-star break, it was just a different De’Aaron Fox altogether. In the 15 games he played after Sabonis first suited up for the Kings, Fox averaged 28.9 points on over 50% shooting, 6.8 assists, and 4.1 rebounds.
The fact that Sabonis drew double teams and could facilitate from the the post was an invaluable addition because it allowed Fox to better fulfill what he was expected to do in the run up to the season. Another perhaps less obvious reason was the move appeared to remove any doubt about the point guard’s place and role in the franchise.
As a result, the five-year pro was more successful at many of the things considered areas of improvement–that is, defense and three-point shooting–while riding the wave of an apparent boost in confidence.
The key to defense, as was said, is effort, and Fox turned it up in that department, taking it upon himself to supply added focus and leadership to that end of the floor.
At the beginning of March, the Kings played in New Orleans and Brandon Ingram was on fire in a game where he finished with 33 points. Ingram scored 24 of those points in the first half, and ahead of the second half, Fox suggested that he guard the hot hand so as to give him a different look defensively. The attention to detail showed as Fox contributed to improved team defense.
In those 15 games following the trade, Fox shot 36% from three. That percentage is not sharpshooter status, but for him, that was an exceptional rate. More to the point, he was raising up and shooting those shots with discernible confidence.
Asked after a 44-point performance in a loss to the Mavericks what was causing him to play better, Fox gave what can be characterized as a characteristically ambiguous answer.
“I’m just playing better basketball. I think that’s all it is. The approach hasn’t been any different than normal,” he told reporters then.
It’s clear a major reason was the arrival of Sabonis, but in addition to that was the moment of clarity for Fox in regards to his place in this organization. That sharpening vision he gained after Haliburton departed established that Fox, along with Sabonis, is central to the foundation in Sacramento.
It caused a shift that interim head coach Alvin Gentry noticed amid the surge in excellent play from his point guard, saying that since his return from the ankle injury, Fox was clearly “so focused and locked in” and was proving “more verbal” than usual.
“I’m really just playing the game,” Fox said in San Antonio after being asked about Gentry’s observation. “Obviously, before the trade, Ty (Haliburton) was the vocal one — obviously, (Harrison Barnes) as well. Coming back, that’s just something I’ve had to do, and really it’s just trying to embrace that role.”
Another way to look at it is that Fox, as a whole, was more comprehensively plugged into the team’s overall goal and taking on a bulk of the responsibility.
After seeing the statistical results of that change in mindset, it is beyond necessary that it has to be carried over seamlessly into this next season, and with both Brown’s experience and Loucks’ close connection, the opening has never been so wide to follow through. And if he does, the speedy guard definitely has a good chance to be an all-star.
It’s only July and to claim to know what will happen is evidently imprudent, but if Fox were ever to become the all-star that this franchise could really use to dig themselves out of a record rut, this season probably presents the best conditions yet to make that jump.