In late January, a six-game road trip brought the Sacramento Kings to Miami. The Kings had lost eight contests before winning in Orlando the previous night, but unlike the tanking Magic, the Miami Heat were currently the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference. Sacramento also had a history of losing in Miami, with no road wins against the Heat since De’Aaron Fox was three years old.
Fox ended that Miami losing streak, and he did so while throwing out a play that defines his rookie season.
No, not that play. This one.
After checking in with the Kings down 81 to 71, Fox attempted a dump off a high screen to Willie Cauley-Stein, who bobbled the pass. As Miami pushed the ball, Fox moved to stop Josh Richardson at the point of attack, but the Heat had an advantage in numbers and Richardson made the easy read to Justise Winslow.
Fox had jumped with Richardson when he passed the ball, and by all accounts, the play should have ended there. But Fox, without a second of hesitation, leapt to try and contest Winslow. It was a mistake by Fox, as it turned a dunk into a potential three-point play. But Fox tossing himself to try and stop a clear dunk, while most would have let it go as a lost cause, provided a visual of a defining characteristic of Fox’s game; his always burning motor.
Even more so than the Kings other youngsters—most of whom are high-effort gym rats—Fox is an on-court worker. He battles up against much stronger opponents, he rushes in to box out the free throw shooter, he throws back the throttle on his lightning-blessed athleticism without hesitation. Fox clearly loves the game of basketball, and it’s shown in his progression over the past 18 months. His development hasn’t come with the insane growth curve or the national attention as some of the other rookies, but it’s clear when you look back at his early Kentucky days. Fans should have solid optimism going forward for Sacramento’s best prospect.
Winslow missed the free throw, in case you were wondering. The Kings went on an 18 to 5 run to close the game, and Fox had 4 points, 2 assists, a steal, and excellent defense against All-Star Goran Dragic. And, of course, he gave us his more mainstream highlight of the season.
After a single season at Kentucky and a run to the Elite Eight last March, Fox finished 7th on my Big Board. Looking back over the last 18 months, the obvious developments to watch from Fox were his shooting efficiency, his floor general skills, and his physical transition into the NBA. So, how’d Sacramento’s prized rookie do in his first NBA season?
At Kentucky, Fox’s jumpshot was always on the first line in his scouting report. It was endlessly debated here and across the internet as one of the bigger draft quandaries of the class of 2017; his touch was broken, or really not as bad as everyone says it was, or borderline acceptable for a starter in the league, or just the product of a year-long slump.
The Kings made their feelings clear on Fox’s ceiling (and thus, his eventual outcome as a shooter) when they took him 5th overall. But NBA defenders offered up the opinion of the rest of the league all season long; they gave Fox a cushion, dared him to shoot, and tried and protect against him bolting past them. To his credit, Fox has certainly has made teams pay on memorable occasions. Watch Fox’s first game winner of his NBA career—just 11 games into the season against the 76ers—and check out how Robert Covington chooses to defend him.
Fox should be applauded for taking advantage of the underplay defensively. He was right to take that shot, especially when his other options were to passes to what would have been more contested looks. These are shots that Fox needs to take and make if he’s to become a true focal point of the franchise.
But for how awesome he was in crunch time, it’s important to note that the inefficiencies he showed in college were still prevalent at the NBA level...just, not as bad. The table below outlines his shooting stats, both the standard metrics and advanced shot-type percentages. Advanced shot stats (from Synergy Sports) are shown by (1) field goal percentage, (2) percentile for success, (3) points per possession, and (4) total shot attempts on the season.
De’Aaron Fox Shooting Stats
|FG% (Attempts Per 100 Possessions)||47.9% (22.6)||41.2% (19.9)|
|3P% (Attempts Per 100 Possessions)||24.6% (3.5)||30.7% (3.8)|
|FT % (Attempts Per 100 Possessions)||73.6% (10.7)||72.3% (4.9)|
|All Jumpshots in the Half Court||27.4%, 14th, 0.63, 135||34.2%, 24th, .799, 386|
|All Spot-Up Shots||39%, 36th, .823, 100||33.1%, 21st, .796, 147|
|Catch-and-Shoot, Half Court||20%, 8th,.578, 45||29.5%, 20th, .846, 78|
|Dribble Jumper, Half Court||29.9%, 27th, .636, 77||34.1%, 33rd, .744, 258|
There’s a lot to unpack here, so quick synopsis
- Fox’s FG% and TS% have tanked primarily due to his lowered success at the rim. In the half-court while playing for Kentucky, he was 59.7% at the basket; in Sacramento, that dropped to 51.9% (35th percentile). That was to be expected against taller, more athletic NBA defenders, so the drop in those numbers shouldn’t be considered a total fault of his jumper.
- Fox has improved from deep (24.6% to 30.7%) while increasing his three point attempt rate from 15.4% in college to 19.2% with the Kings. As Tim argued in his Fox’s season grade piece, Fox needs to increase that three point volume even more, and sacrifice some of those mid-range shots. Check out his Kings shot-chart from cleaningtheglass.com.
Now compare that to his shot chart from Kentucky; he’s still very much reliant on that left side high-elbow shot. Per Synergy, Fox shot 36% on mid-range jumpers, which accounted for .72 PPP—from three, his 30.7% nets .93 PPP. Less elbow jumpers and more threes would greatly improve his efficiency, even if his three point percentage hovers in the mid-low 30%s.
- The most useful skills for a dynamic change-of-pace mover like Fox is the ability to hit off the dribble, and he made a solid improvement—from 29.9% in college to 34.1% with the Kings. This increase is my biggest reason (beyond his motor and clutch gene) for optimism in Fox’s growth—while 34.1% isn’t great, it’s a strong step in the right direction. If Fox can even get to league average, he’s going to force defenders to change how they guard him, and if they edge closer while worrying about a pull-up, he’ll have more chances to blow by guys. Some interesting comparisons; Westbrook shoots 35%, Lonzo Ball shoots 32%, and Donovan Mitchell shoots 37.5% on these off-the-dribble shots in the half court.
- The most concerning of those may be his catch-and-shoot numbers; while the Kings offense should never aim to use him as an off-ball shooting threat, he shot just 32% on unguarded catch-and-shoot shots in the half court. He had 78 of these attempts, and defense gave him 50 attempts unguarded to just 28 attempts that were guarded. That’s a negative gravity impact on the offense.
So Fox isn’t shooting with the efficiency a top offensive option needs, but he’s trending in the right direction—albeit with some major peaks and valleys along the way. Fox has shown himself to be a streaky shooter, as evident by his per-month shooting splits.
De’Aaron Fox Shooting Stats By Month
Fox’s numbers took a major jump in January, immediately after the Miami game. In the eight games following that game winner in Miami, Fox averaged 15.9 points on 42% shooting from the field, 38% from three, and 77% (on 4.3 attempts per game) from the free throw line. Coincidentally, this was right after Fox was initially left off the Rising Stars Challenge, but he told the SacBee he “was not worried about that game.”
Nothing optimized Fox’s streaky shooting more than his contest in San Antonio in late January, a game after the winning dunk against Miami.
Fox went nova from deep, sinking all 6 of his three point attempts on a variety of motions—a hesitation spot-up, a nice catch shot, three off-the-dribble beauties, and a step back. It was a true outlier performance, but watching Dejounte Murray and then Danny Green edge just a little closer to him as he caught fire gives us a glimpse of what defensive gravity even an average-shooting Fox could achieve.
When Fox’s confidence gets moving and his shot starts sinking, his engine can get running red hot—Tim pointed out that when he shot more than three 3s in a game, he shot 50% from deep, as opposed to 29% the rest of the time. When that streaky shot hits the other end of the spectrum... well, just recheck those March stats.
Check out DraftExpress’s weakness video on Fox last year, where Mike Schmitz points out flaws in his mechanics.
Now compare to this compilation of his shooting mechanics from his time with the Kings.
I won’t claim to be a shooting doctor, but by my untrained eyes I see a lot of the weaknesses Schmitz identified are still often (though not always) there—Fox fades without needing too, he lacks consistency in his footwork on set shots (his bow-legged stance on pull-ups isn’t pretty), and that shooting arm still comes past the 90 degree angle (although not quite as far as last year). But for all that, the one big weakness I worried about—that with his less than ideal strength, he would struggle to adjust to the extra few feet of the NBA three point line—didn’t materialize. He’s just not consistent any anything... yet.
The year-to-year stats show that Fox’s growth curve as a shooter is heading in the right direction. It’s not clear how high Fox’s ceiling is, but you can’t doubt that he’ll put the time and effort given his work ethic. And even if he never becomes a 38% from-deep shooter, he doesn’t need to be to become a really strong weapon in the NBA—he just needs to be able to keep defenses honest enough to where he can snag a little bit extra space on the blow-by.
I’ll give the last word on Fox’s shooting ability to the Kings’ true GOAT.
Point Guard Polish
At Kentucky, Fox was a capable, willing point guard who led one of the best offenses in college to an Elite Eight spot, but his passing ability was oversold as an immediate strength. In college, he averaged 4.6 assists per game—6.2 per 40—with a 28.7% assist rate with a 27.6% usage rate. Those aren’t the gawdy numbers, but he did share the ball with Malik Monk and Isaiah Briscoe, which gave him a chance to get used to playing with secondary handlers (useful for his Sacto transition with Bogdan Bogdanovic and George Hill). Still, his 2/1 assist-to-turnover ratio was only ok, even while accepting that rim-runner passers need to be afforded more leeway on turnovers.
Fast forward a year later, and I’d still use the same phrase to describe his floor general skills as I used last year: “solid with oodles of potential”.
De’Aaron Fox Assist Statistics
The numbers don’t show a grand growth over the season, but beyond a dismal, injury-shortened December, he was fairly consistent in his output. George Hill’s departure at the All Star Break didn’t change Fox’s numbers at all, and I was slightly surprised to see his usage rate didn’t jump at the end of the season.
The best skill Fox has as a playmaker is his gravity on offense. Even while teams didn’t respect his shot, Fox has the ability to collapse the most stalwart of defenses when he gets a line to the basket. He showed a regular eye for teammates flashing into suddenly open space and a creative ability to get the ball in their hands.
Of course, Fox made plenty of rookie mistakes on these drives. The downside of his keep-the-defense-on-their-heals game is his 1.83 assist-to-turnover ratio, which needs to improve if the Kings are ever going to NOT be in the bottom 10 in offensive efficiency.
The statistics offer one other point about Fox’s playmaking skill, which may seem obvious; the Kings veterans did Fox little favors for his assist stat, and his numbers went up with youngsters on the court.
De’Aaron Fox’s Assist Numbers per On/Off Court Teammates
|Player||Fox Assists When On Court||Fox Assists When Off Court|
|Player||Fox Assists When On Court||Fox Assists When Off Court|
Fox’s assist numbers were down with any of the veterans on the court, while they went up when Bogdan, Jackson, or Cauley-Stein were on the court. The Cauley-Stein split is surprisingly large, but that makes some sense given that Willie is the only big who can really keep up with Fox when he’s going full throttle in the open court.
Tim mentioned Fox’s high volume/low success in the pick-and-roll, but there’s one more important note—the success of the roll man in those plays. But unlike his on-off splits, these stats don’t really favor anyone. If the Kings are going to continue to run Fox in a heavy pick-and-roll offense, they absolutely need to give him a big man who can do better than 42nd percentile.
Kings Bigs Pick-and-Roll Numbers
Overall, Fox showed plenty of potential, but didn’t have a grand rookie season as a distributor—and I’m not sure how much you can blame that on Fox given the team construct around him. Sacramento needs to give him more time as the primary ball handler next season, and that hopefully starts by giving him more speedy weapons who can keep up with him in the open court, and by eliminating Fox/ZBo and Fox/Koufos pick-and-rolls.
Fox came into the league a skinny 170 pounds, which is undersized to the extreme, even for a rookie. It was fair to wonder how a player that skinny—even one with Fox’s athletic gifts—would immediately translate to the NBA.
Fast forward a year, and it’s clear that even after watching much of his freshman year at Kentucky, I underrated Fox’s tools. He is an outlier athlete, and he’s not afraid to use his speed and hops at all times... which can be scary to watch as our fragile looking young point guard rockets around the court.
One of the best and worst things about Fox and his understanding of just how damn athletic he is—he’ll confidently attack ANYONE, regardless of their standing in the NBA. This confidence needs to translate to other parts of his game, but it’s a confidence that many youngsters never have. Fox knows what his speed can do, and he’s not afraid to use it.
But the downside to Fox’s physical tools has been painfully obvious this season; while he stayed mostly engaged on defense, opponents went at Fox and had tremendous success due to his lack of strength, defensive instincts, and STRENGTH. Fox continued his bad defensive habits from college; plenty of lost assignments, overplays, and one-on-one ISO match-ups that he just can’t compete with yet. The Kings had a -10.6 net rating with Fox on the floor, mainly due to his 110.9 defensive rating. Per Synergy, opponents shot 43% against Fox, 22nd percentile for the league... and in ISO situations, these numbers jump to 44.1% and 20th percentile. Opponents could deal with Fox’s quickness by just knocking him out of the way, as highlighted best by the way the Thunder handled Fox in March.
Included in that montage is a shot of Paul George using a switch onto Fox to shrink the defense, which works because Garrett Temple is so wary of the mismatch that he completely loses his cover. Fox can’t be at this level of a strength disadvantage and hope to become a solid defender, nor can the Kings hope to become a good defensive team when opponents use Fox’s weakness to widen the offensive gravity.
Fox’s defensive ceiling might be capped by his naturally lean frame, so his development in the weight room will be key to see over the next years. But Fox also has to learn to do a much better job of knowing where his assignment is, and not getting stuck in no-mans-land without a clue of who he should rush to cover. A successful sophomore season for Fox starts with fewer plays like these.
That all said, so few rookies, especially 20 year old ones, are immediately capable of defending modern NBA offenses. And it isn’t as if Fox’s tools never translated to success on defense (peek that help-defensive block on Curry).
Fox shouldn’t have been expected to set the NBA on fire immediately after donning his first Kings jersey, as there were too many factors to overcome and weaknesses in his game to address. But immediate impact isn’t why he was selected by the Kings, nor why the fandom was (or should have been) excited about him in the first place. Fox’s combination of physical tools and high end motor, his gym rat attitude, and the budding leadership role he’s taking with this team give optimism that he’ll mend his shooting efficiencies, continue to develop as a playmaker, and improve his on- and off-ball defense.
But while confidence in Fox’s work ethic may be the underlying reason for optimism in his game, it’s certainly not the most visceral reason; that’s his clutch gene, his dynamic ability in late game situations when his aggressiveness broke through his deference to his veterans and we saw the sheer confidence the young King has in himself.
Fox had some clutch moments in college, but no one could have expected him to be one of the more CLUTCH players in the NBA, especially on a young team that seemingly only won games this season in the clutch. As a Kings reddit user pointed out, Fox led the league in field goal percentage in the closing minute of a game that was within three points (9 of 14 FG) for players with 10 or more attempts. That’s absolutely a cherry picked stat, but it’s backed up by the volume AND variance in Fox’s late-game heroics. He beat the 76ers, the Heat (twice), the Lakers, the Nets, hit clutch shots after an ice-cold game against the Champs in Oakland, and probably would have repeated his Miami heroics if Bogdan hadn’t beaten him to it against Memphis (watch Fox collapse from the perimeter).
Fox didn’t have the breakout season that some of the rookies did. His scoring efficiency didn’t match Jayson Tatum’s, his assist numbers didn’t rival Lonzo Ball’s, and he didn’t become a two-way megathreat like Donovan Mitchell did. But the Kings didn’t draft De’Aaron Fox because he was an NBA ready prospect.
De’Aaron is on the right developmental path—he gave us nearly-nightly reminders why he was a top 5 pick in a really good class, and improved from his year at Kentucky. If you had high hopes that De’Aaron Fox would become a star capable of helping lead Sacramento out of this 13 year trip down basketball hell, I think this rookie season gave you plenty of support for that optimism.