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Finding Faith in Fox

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We believe our point guard is primed for a breakout year.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Sacramento Kings Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

As a top-5 pick just one year ago, 20-year-old point guard De’Aaron Fox undoubtedly has immense potential. The problem with potential, however, is that it’s never guaranteed and can often appear to slip away quickly. A single below-average season can put a serious ding in the perceived ceiling of even the greatest prospect.

When expectations are so high, it’s easy to feel let down when a player like Fox doesn’t immediately take the league by storm. Fans can fall into the trap of moving on to the next new and shiny object of their desire. Some folks are still all in on De’Aaron, but many others now see him as more of a project.

While both perspectives are valid, almost all of us thought he was going to make a bigger impact last season. Even I have to admit that my sky-high hopes shrunk slightly over the last year. So I went looking into the numbers, and have found reason to believe that my expectations for the young point guard should actually be as high as ever.

Fox’s Biggest Weakness is Likely to Improve

We all know what the positives are for Fox. His athleticism, youth, and clutch performance are impossible to miss and easy to confirm. It’s his short comings that I wanted to examine – the most obvious of which is his outside shooting. In a league where guards are expected to be a threat from distance, panic can set in when a rookie fails to pull off a convincing Steph Curry imitation. But struggling from the arc is actually quite common for players like Fox.

I looked back at all the point guards drafted in the top-10 since 2007 in order to see exactly how common it has been. According to Basketball Reference’s position estimate, 27 players have been picked in that range who have played primarily at the point. More than half (14 of the 27) shot worse than 32% from deep in their rookie year – including all 6 of the qualified players from this past season (Fox, Fultz, Ball, Fox, Ntilikina, Smith, and Simmons).

In order to look for what improvement can be expected, I removed those six players who only have one year of numbers on the books, as well as the players who showed 3-point proficiency right from the start. What follows is a list of top-10 picks who struggled with outside shooting as rookies, and how they have fared since.

High Pick Point Guards Who Struggled From Three

Name Rookie 3PM Rookie 3PA Rookie 3P% 3PM Since 3PA Since 3P% Since
Name Rookie 3PM Rookie 3PA Rookie 3P% 3PM Since 3PA Since 3P% Since
Kris Dunn 21 73 28.80% 43 134 32.10%
Jamal Murray 115 344 33.40% 165 436 37.80%
Emmanuel Mudiay 74 232 31.90% 103 326 31.60%
Dante Exum 83 264 31.40% 49 167 29.30%
Elfrid Payton 11 42 26.20% 100 330 30.30%
Trey Burke 111 336 33.00% 281 821 34.20%
Kemba Walker 69 226 30.50% 954 2632 36.20%
John Wall 34 115 29.60% 454 1379 32.90%
Derrick Rose 16 72 22.20% 354 1176 30.10%
Russell Westbrook 35 129 27.10% 768 2455 31.30%
Mike Conley 30 91 33.00% 901 2377 37.90%
Total 599 1924 31.10% 4172 12233 34.10%

What’s on show here is a group of highly touted point guard prospects that improved their 3-point from about 31% to 34% as a group since their rookie years. A few even turned out to be elite shooters despite their early struggles. It seems that improvement in this area is common across the league, and we have reason to be optimistic that Fox could also take his percentage up significantly over the course of his career.

Perhaps a more important takeaway from these numbers is the fact that 4 of the 7 All-Star point guards to be drafted in the top-10 since 2007 have emerged from the sub-32% group as rookies. Ben Simmons seems destined to add his name to that list in short order as well. What’s clear is that three-point percentage as a rookie is not a strong predictor of future success (or failure) for players like Fox.

A Lack of Consistency Slowed Fox’s Development

Before we look too far forward, it’s worth noting that Fox displayed significant improvement in his rookie year alone. While young players can take big steps forward through their summer training, most progress is on display across each 82-game season. Fox was no exception, as shown below in his 2017 to 2018 splits.

A Strong Second Half

Year GS GP FG% 3P% FT% PPG AST STL BLK
Year GS GP FG% 3P% FT% PPG AST STL BLK
2017 17 29 0.402 0.289 0.667 9.4 3.7 0.9 0.2
2018 44 44 0.417 0.313 0.748 13.0 4.8 1.0 0.3

That’s a big difference in production from early to late season, and it makes sense considering the context. George Hill was the Sacramento Kings starting point guard for the first month of the 2018-19 season. As soon as Fox got his NBA legs under him, he had to switch roles and start building chemistry with a different unit.

And although Fox started all 58 of the games he appeared in after November 16th, rotations were far from set in stone. After his promotion to the starting five, Head Coach Dave Joerger continually tweaked the group that Fox played with. While some changes are to be expected, Fox simply didn’t experience the same level of consistency that his peers did.

Frequent Lineups for Rookie Starters

Player Most Frequent 5-Man Lineup Minutes Played
Player Most Frequent 5-Man Lineup Minutes Played
Ben Simmons Simmons, Redick, Covington, Saric, Embiid 600
Dennis Smith Jr. Smith, Matthews, Barnes, Nowitzki, Kleber 271
Lonzo Ball Ball, Caldwell-Pope, Ingram, Kuzma, Lopez 225
De'Aaron Fox Fox, Bogdanovic, Jackson, Randolph, Cauley-Stein 174

As shown above, the other rookie starters in his class had more continuity in their starting units. While that may not seem like the biggest factor to success, it’s important to understand that adjusting to the league is difficult. And it’s not made easier by having to adjust to constantly changing lineups on top of that.

It makes sense that Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers had a clear vision entering the season. Simmons was a 1st overall pick and the Sixers had the singular goal of a playoff appearance in mind from the start of the year. But it’s telling that both Dennis Smith Jr. and Lonzo Ball were given a better chance to develop chemistry with their fellow starters than Fox was, despite their teams having up-and-down seasons that were marred by multiple injuries.

Pace of Progress from the Point Position

A major factor for the improvement of so many point guards – and a major reason to still believe in Fox’s ceiling – is that the position takes a while to learn at the NBA level. Reaching peak performance at the point usually requires more time and system stability as compared to other positions.

Fortunately, both time and stability are things Fox is likely to see more of in the coming season. Joerger has been clear in his intentions to let Fox lead the team this year, and do what he can to cater to his strengths. The Kings General Manager, Vlade Divac, also seems secure with the Kings young core moving forward. He didn’t spend big this summer on older vets that are likely to take playing time from players like Fox, as he has done in previous offseasons.

Whatever your opinions on Fox’s rookie year, it’s fair to say that he wasn’t playing under the easiest set of circumstances. It’s also fair to say that his circumstances will be greatly improved in this upcoming season. There’s no denying that Fox has room for improvement, but he will be given plenty of room to work with starting on opening night this October.