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The evolution of De’Aaron Fox is no accident

The young point guard has dramatically upgraded several key aspects of his game.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Sacramento Kings Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Just over a month ago, Sacramento Kings Head Coach Dave Joerger made an unexpected declaration regarding De’Aaron Fox and his lofty placement within the franchise:

“The best thing you can do for him is play fast and give him as much room as possible, to play small and try to do that is best for De’Aaron. He’s our franchise guy. I think he is and I think everybody kind of agrees on that.”

Joerger appointing Fox as the franchise cornerstone came as a mild surprise due to both the recent drafting of number two overall pick Marvin Bagley, and De’Aaron’s own rookie struggles, which, while expected of a 19-year old point guard, didn’t necessarily embody the play of a future superstar. Most observers recognized loads of unrealized potential saddled with several legitimate concerns; his path to above-average starter was by no means guaranteed.

Fox’s start to the 2019 campaign has justified every bit of faith from every disciple of the Church of De’Aaron. The 20-year old is scoring more and more efficiently, while grabbing more rebounds, dishing out more assists, and leading his young, but fun team to an unexpected 3-3 record. His performance from last season to the current is as antithetical as the bank accounts of our former and current owners:

Rookie vs. Sophomore Production*

2017-18 27.8 11.6 4.5 10.9 0.412 0.6 2.1 0.307 0.478 1.9 2.7 0.723 2.8 5.70% 4.4 24.6% 1 0.3 11.2
2018-19 32.5 17.7 6.2 13 0.474 0.5 2.5 0.2 0.544 4.8 7.3 0.659 4.2 6.60% 7 28.4% 1.3 0.5 18
*per basketball-reference

Fox’s sudden jump from poor performer to above-average starter is not just the result of an increased minutes allocation or the massive uptick in Sacramento’s pace, although those factors have helped to bolster his numbers. His transformation as a player has generated from his offseason work, which clearly focused on addressing several obvious deficiencies from his first year in the pros.

Improved Pick-and-Roll Execution

Mastering basketball’s most elementary play, the pick-and-roll, is an essential component of any point guard’s skill set, and De’Aaron was not particularly proficient in that situation as a rookie. He struggled to effectively navigate defenders, often unwisely pressing the attack when his roll man was open or costing the team a turnover by forcing a pass to the front court player despite being granted enough room to pull up for a 7 or 10 footer. Those mistakes caused Fox’s efficiency to plummet when running the pick-and-roll:

Rookie PnR

Season Frequency of Play Points Per Possession eFG% Turnover Frequency Shooting Foul Drawn League Percentile
Season Frequency of Play Points Per Possession eFG% Turnover Frequency Shooting Foul Drawn League Percentile
2017-2018 42.7% 0.7 40.7% 20% 6.7% 27th

The former lottery pick has completely reconstructed his approach to the pick-and-roll in his sophomore season, regularly flummoxing opposing big men with a combination of sound decision-making, elite speed, and some surprising finesse in the mid-range. He takes the open jumper when given opportunity, makes the right play if he’s double-teamed, and blows by defenders if left in isolation. Studying his performance against the New Orleans Pelicans perfectly encapsulates his growth in this crucial area.

The first clip shows a high pick-and-roll executed by Fox and Willie Cauley-Stein. Elfrid Payton allows Cauley-Stein’s screen to take him out of the play, forcing Anthony Davis to try to cover the rim, the big man, and Fox’s attack. The Pelicans star seemingly made the correct choice, assuming he was facing the rookie-version of De’Aaron Fox, and backpedaled to barricade the rim against a driving attack or a lob to Cauley-Stein. Instead, Fox hits the easy 12-footer.

Later in the game, Fox and Cauley-Stein once again run a high pick-and-roll against the Pelicans defense. Just as before, Elfrid Payton is removed from the equation, and Davis is put in a perplexing situation. De’Aaron Fox drives hard at the rim, switching the ball to his left-hand as if he were going to take a shot, causing A.D. to fully commit to his attack, leaving Willie Cauley-Stein wide open for an easy jam.

The third example of Fox’s development also comes against the looming Anthony Davis. In this instance, Cauley-Stein sets a high on the perimeter, E’Twuan Moore fails to follow, and Anthony Davis again chooses to hedge against big man. For the third time that evening, Fox shows solid judgment and nails a little floater past the retreating arms of Davis.

The maturation of Fox’s read-and-react game has resulted in frequent layups and dunks for both him and his teammates. If the opposing big man covers the rim and lob attempt, De’Aaron knocks down the short jumper; whereas in situations in which he’s double-teamed, Fox can sneak a pass to his forward or center for the easy slam. And if he’s left in isolation against a taller, slower player, he’s going to use his quickness to blow right by them to the rim:

Every starting-caliber point guard in the NBA can punish lazy and unorganized defenses in the pick-and-roll, and De’Aaron Fox’s increasing acumen as a lead ball-handler has been on display each and every night during this young season. The differences between his rookie and sophomore seasons are staggering:

Rookie vs. Sophomore PnR Execution

Season Frequency of Play Points Per Possession eFG% Turnover Frequency Shooting Foul Drawn League Percentile
Season Frequency of Play Points Per Possession eFG% Turnover Frequency Shooting Foul Drawn League Percentile
2017-2018 42.7% 0.7 40.7% 20% 6.7% 27th
2018-2019 60.7% 0.84 44.2% 16.2% 16.2% 50th

Upgraded Offensive Arsenal

Characterizing Fox’s versatility on the offensive end of the floor as “upgraded” initially feels like a bit of a stretch as he’s struggled mightily from the three-point line this year. Friday night’s 2/5 effort against the Washington Wizards brought his percentage up to 20% on the season, well short of the needed accuracy for most modern point guards. While he still has a ways to go from deep, the complexity of De’Aaron’s attack has developed far beyond the simple debate of two-pointers and three-pointers.

Throughout his initial season as a pro, Fox stuck mostly with the simplest choices when shooting the ball. Layups, midrange jumpers, and the occasional three-point attempt constituted the majority of his shot-types. He rarely ventured into the world of floaters, step-back jumpers, and other, more difficult offensive maneuvers, and when he did attempt those more intricate shots, they rarely found their way into the hoop.

This season, several new options have emerged for the up-and-coming guard. The first bit of nastiness that he’s unleashed comes in the form of an impossible to guard fade-away jumper. Fox has made 3 of his 6 attempts in six games, compared to missing all 12 of his step-back shots over his first 73 contests. To set up the shot, he initially uses his renowned speed to attack the basket, causing the defender to concede significant ground. The moment that occurs, he follows up the feint with a step-back, crossover dribble through his legs or behind his back, smoothly switching the ball from his left-hand, to his right, and back to his left before sinking the shot:

The other bit of bad news for opposing defenses is Fox’s growing reliance on a pop-up floater when challenged in paint. In his first NBA season, De’Aaron attempted about one floater per game and sunk only 45% of his attempts from the field: not a particularly lethal weapon for the young guard. During the 2019 season, he’s upped his accuracy to 53% and is taking two per night, hitting them over esteemed defenders such as Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis, and Steven Adams:

Increased Physicality and Aggression

When De’Aaron isn’t able to find a big man rolling to the basket, and his options as a finesse scorer are eliminated, he still has one considerable advantage to deploy: straight-line drives to the basket. He held the same edge last year, but too often sought after a foul call rather than playing through contact. As a thin, rookie point guard, officials were reluctant to side with him in questionable situations, resulting in far too many missed bunnies and wild shot attempts at the rim. He’s displayed a wholly different mindset in his second season, retaining his focus and fighting through physical defenders:

Fox’s refusal to allow rough play to deter him has garnered the respect of the referees, as he’s not only finishing through contact, but he’s more than tripled his trips to the free throw line on a nightly basis. He took just 2.3 per game in his rookie year, but has increased that number to 7.3 as a sophomore. In a broader context, De’Aaron ranks fourth among all NBA point guards, sitting behind All-Stars Damian Lillard, John Wall, and Russell Westbrook. Fox also places 7th in personal fouls drawn per game.

The combination of these added skills has not only opened the game for De’Aaron Fox the scorer, but also for De’Aaron Fox the facilitator. Opponents have struggled to find the correct balance between preventing Fox’s devastating attacks at the rim and his developing passing game, especially in transition:

Pausing the clip at about the three second mark grants the perfect encapsulation of Fox’s gravity when charging at a defense. All five members of the Jazz defense are entranced by De’Aaron’s speed and aggression in the open court, swiveling their heads in his direction, leaving Cauley-Stein open for the easy dunk:

Elevated Impact

Outside of immediately recognized superstars, most first year point guards fail to make their teammates better, and De’Aaron was no exception to that rule last year. The Kings were a better team when he donned warmups, as his inconsistent performance on both ends of the court often hurt Sacramento: an expected, but negative effect of a first year primary ball-handler. The complete opposite is true for the start of 2019, as his overall impact on his squad’s play has been purely positive:

Rookie to Sophomore Team Impact

Season Points differential w/ Fox on floor Points differential w/out Fox on floor Fox total differential Net rating with Fox Net rating without Fox Net rating differential
Season Points differential w/ Fox on floor Points differential w/out Fox on floor Fox total differential Net rating with Fox Net rating without Fox Net rating differential
2017-2018 -414 -159 -255 -10.1 -4.3 -5.8
2018-2019 41 -61 102 10 -30.5 40.5

The Kings play like a contender when their young guard is leading the way, and they fall apart when he walks off the hardwood. Sacramento has been outscored by over 10 points per game when he’s had to take a seat on the bench, another indicator in a long list of signs that the 20-year old is becoming a quality point guard in a league stocked with excellent options:

Per-game Rank Among Point Guards

Category Rookie Rank Sophomore Rank
Category Rookie Rank Sophomore Rank
Points 35th 12th
FG% 48th 13th
3P% Yucky More Yucky
FTA 25th 4th
Rebounds 40th 14th
Assists 34th 8th

Comparing Fox to his fellow point guard draftees from 2017 also demonstrates his immense growth in almost every single category. Heading into July, most basketball authorities would have ranked the fifth overall pick well behind Lonzo Ball and Dennis Smith, while the mystery of Markelle Fultz was never fully revealed. The script has completely flipped on the four lottery guards, with De’Aaron performing at the highest level in the group, whether that’s measured on a per-game, per-36 minute, or per-100 possession basis:

Sophomore Guards Per-game*

De'Aaron Fox 32.5 6.2 13 0.474 0.5 2.5 0.2 0.494 4.8 7.3 0.659 4.2 7 1.3 0.5 17.7
Dennis Smith 28.8 5.3 14 0.375 1 4.5 0.222 0.411 2.3 3 0.75 3.3 5 1.3 0.3 13.8
Lonzo Ball 27.8 4 8.8 0.453 2.2 5.3 0.406 0.575 0.7 1.2 0.571 5.2 4.7 1.5 0 10.8
Markelle Fultz 25.3 3.8 9.5 0.404 0.5 1 0.5 0.43 0.7 1 0.667 3.5 3.8 1.2 0.2 8.8

Sophomore Guards Per-36 Minutes*

De'Aaron Fox 6.8 14.4 0.474 0.6 2.8 0.2 5.4 8.1 0.659 4.6 7.8 1.5 0.6 19.6
Dennis Smith 6.6 17.5 0.375 1.3 5.6 0.222 2.8 3.8 0.75 4.1 6.3 1.6 0.3 17.2
Lonzo Ball 5.2 11.4 0.453 2.8 6.9 0.406 0.9 1.5 0.571 6.7 6 1.9 0 14
Markelle Fultz 5.4 13.5 0.404 0.7 1.4 0.5 0.9 1.4 0.667 5 5.4 1.7 0.2 12.6

Sophomore Guards Per-100 Possessions*

De'Aaron Fox 8.6 18.2 0.474 0.7 3.5 0.2 6.8 10.3 0.659 5.8 9.8 1.9 0.7 24.7
Dennis Smith 8.6 22.9 0.375 1.6 7.4 0.222 3.7 4.9 0.75 5.3 8.2 2 0.4 22.5
Lonzo Ball 6.5 14.4 0.453 3.5 8.7 0.406 1.1 1.9 0.571 8.4 7.6 2.4 0 17.7
Markelle Fultz 7 17.4 0.404 0.9 1.8 0.5 1.2 1.8 0.667 6.4 7 2.1 0.3 16.2
*per basketball-reference

Areas of Opportunity

A pair of fundamental weaknesses are still negatively effecting De’Aaron on a nightly basis. His defense is wildly inconsistent. When he locks in, Fox can often disrupt the play by darting into a passing lane or bodying up the ball-handler, but those efforts are too few and far between. He’s allowed three-point shooters to increase their accuracy by 7.8% over the first six games of the year, an unacceptable number for a star, two-way player.

His defensive endeavors have been uneven, but Fox’s biggest shortcoming bridging his rookie and sophomore seasons has been his lack of three-point shooting, and the views regarding that deficiency vary dependent on one’s view of the half-glass of his ongoing development. On a positive note, he’s been able to register an impressive amount of damage on the offensive end of the floor, despite his inadequacy from beyond the arc. Six different defenses have faced him armed with the knowledge of his interior reliance, yet five of those groups have failed to stop him even with that realized advantage.

Those with a more conservative outlook point to the poor shooting as a major roadblock to Fox’s growth as a featured scorer in the NBA. It’s certainly not impossible for him to eventually earn an All-Star appearance without a reliable long-ball, but his chance of reaching that level of play likely ebbs and flows at the same rate of his three-point marksmanship. For every John Wall and Russell Westbrook there are a dozen versions of Elfrid Payton and Michael Carter-Williams. And even if Fox were to reach the threshold of a Wall or Westbrook, the potential he could attain with their skills and a league average three-point shot are drool-inducing. His ceiling is superstardom.

De’Aaron Fox is by no means a finished product, but he is a second year, 20-year old point guard equaling or surpassing the play of his more experienced counterparts on most nights, and he has vastly improved in many key areas from his rookie to sophomore seasons. There’s no guarantee that Fox’s numbers will remain at this high of a level for the entirety of the season, but observers can take comfort in the sustainability of his growth. De’Aaron didn’t walk into the season and suddenly catch fire from deep and simply boost his scoring numbers; rather, he’s fortified multiple, fundamental areas of his approach to basketball, whether that be in strategic execution, court vision, or additional offensive weapons. Fox’s evolution isn’t an accident, nor is it complete, and that should greatly delight and excite any fan of the purple and black.