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De’Aaron Fox has transformed from rookie prospect to sophomore star

The second year guard is nearly unrecognizable in comparison to last season. 

When the Sacramento Kings invested the fifth overall pick in De’Aaron Fox two years ago, the 19-year old exhibited all of the personality traits a rebuilding organization could hope to gain with such a prized asset: an undeniable work ethic, charisma, floor leadership, and a quiet confidence in his abilities on the hardwood. Fox’s intangibles were beyond reproach, but questions remained regarding his on-court skill set, namely his inability to stretch the floor and an unremarkable passing game. If the teenager could conquer his most egregious flaws, stardom was nearly inevitable. If not, Vlade Divac may very well have drafted the newest version of Elfrid Payton or Michael Carter-Williams.

Many of those collegiate concerns permeated De’Aaron’s rookie year. The former Wildcat struggled with his shot selection and couldn’t consistently knock down three-pointers, while his court vision remained uninspiring. The season wasn’t a complete failure by any means, as Fox regularly showcased otherworldly speed and clutch bucket-getting, but the cornerstone of Sacramento’s organizational overhaul was often outshined by his draft night counterparts. De’Aaron needed a strong showing in the 2019 campaign to silence the doubts beginning to rise around him.

Sophomore seasons are often used as a barometer of sorts. Rookie struggles are expected and accepted; however, consecutive years of non-contribution can cast a deep shadow on long-term outlook. If no discernible growth can be detected from year to year, the verbiage surrounding that player may slide from prospect to project, from linchpin to long-term, or even from brilliant to bust.

To the delight of Kings fans, the front office, ownership, and anyone who enjoys quality basketball, De’Aaron Fox catapulted himself into the conversation of the top-10 or top-15 point guards this season, a far cry from his rookie year in which he failed to clearly outperform fellow lottery point guards Lonzo Ball and Dennis Smith Jr.

It should come as no surprise that Fox’s ascent has coincided with his ability to convert his most glaring weaknesses into dynamic weapons. De’Aaron’s breakthrough season has been defined by a much smarter shot distribution, the addition of a reliable three-point threat, an evolved passing game, and a maturing defensive presence. He spent the summer of 2018 leveraging his off-court strengths to boost his on-court contributions.

Shot Selection and Accuracy

Fox’s first season was rife with inefficiency, both in decision-making and in execution. Among guards, his field goal percentage (41.2%) fell in the 20th percentile, his three-point percentage (30.7%) was even worse, placing in the 11th percentile, and his true shooting percentage (54.2%) was lower than a Maloof credit score, ranking in just the 4th percentile. The fifth overall pick often took ill-advised shots, and rarely converted even when he was open, while the 2018-2019 campaign has revealed a completely revamped shooter:

Two things jump out after studying the comparisons of frequency and accuracy. First, is the size of the red sphere representing midrange jumpers. De’Aaron didn’t get much better from 15-feet between his rookie (35.7%) and sophomore (37.5%) seasons; rather, he’s refrained from taking such a high number of his least efficient shot types. Thirty percent of Fox’s field goals came from the midrange during his first season, far too high of a frequency for a player with a shaky jump shot, and he’s managed to pare that down by a third, to just twenty percent in 2019. Eliminating those ill-advised jumpers has taken Fox’s scoring game to an entirely new height.

The other critical development for De’Aaron has come in the form of his three-point shooting. During his lone season at Kentucky, the then-teenager sunk just twenty-five percent of his shots from deep, an alarming percentage for a player entering a league hyper dependent on outside shooting. Even the most optimistic of scouts cast Fox as possibly working his way up to league average by the time he entered his prime, and his first year reflected those projections.

Over the last 25 NBA seasons, 19 rookie point guards have launched at least 100 three-pointers in their premiere season while sinking less than thirty-two percent of their attempts. De’Aaron Fox’s increase of 6.2% from his first to second season ranks sixth within that group and he’s one of only three players, Jameer Nelson and Marcus Williams being the others, to jump from well below league average to above league average in a short twelve month period:

Comparing the long-term results of these two groups reveals a fascinating pattern. Four of the six players whose accuracy increased from their rookie to their sophomore seasons and who played at least five years in the league, posted a career average of at least thirty-five percent from three-point range: Jason Kidd, Kemba Walker, Chris Paul, and Jameer Nelson. Of the group that saw their percentage drop between their first two years in the NBA, not a single one has reached that marker, with Eric Bledsoe getting the closest at 33.5%.

Some of the players on the list above completely revamped their shooting form over the years, but De’Aaron Fox hasn’t needed such a dramatic adjustment. Watching every single one of his botched three-point attempts from last season revealed an unsurprising trend: about seventy percent of his long-balls fell short, rather than going long or missing to the left or to the right. Fox demonstrated a reliable form and the proper aim; he was just lacking the strength to consistently launch the ball from distance. De’Aaron’s focus in the weight room during the offseason aided the accuracy of his three-point jumper and was the biggest factor in his metamorphosis from shot-taker to shot-maker.

Effective Passing

Sacramento’s Front Office signed George Hill to a 3-year, $57 million deal to play the role of mentor to De’Aaron Fox during his rookie season, and that decision placed the fifth overall pick in a similar situation to that of Marvin Bagley this year. Fox was brought off of the bench for the first quarter of the season, and even after he joined the starting lineup, he was still frequently paired with George Hill. Forty percent of his minutes were spent alongside another point guard prior to the trade deadline deal that sent the veteran guard to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

De’Aaron’s game as the lead ball-handler opened up a bit after the Kings punted on the idea of Hill, but his court vision remained mostly mediocre. Neither the per-game, nor the advanced numbers were kind to Fox, as he averaged just 4.4 assists per game, easily the lowest number of any point guard selected in the 2017 lottery, while his assist percentage of 24% bespoke of a score-first, score-second, and pass-third point guard. Fox’s passes were often of the simplest nature, and his ineffectiveness in half-court sets, particularly in the pick-and-roll, dragged Sacramento’s offense to a grinding halt. He recorded an assist to turnover ratio of just 1.85 and turned the ball over a staggering twenty percent of the time when running the screen-and-roll. If the rookie guard wasn’t flying down the court at full speed, he was unable to impact the game in a meaningful way.

A wildly different distributor seems to have possessed De’Aaron’s body over the last six months. He’s elevated his per-game assist numbers by forty percent, despite an increase in minutes of just eight percent, and Fox’s assist percentage has enjoyed a similar bump, rising to 32% in his sophomore year, the 16th highest mark in the NBA. His turnovers, while still a bit high, are also more closely aligned with those of a quality starting point guard. Fox’s assist to turnover ratio has increased to 2.57, and he’s coughing up the ball only 15.3% of the time in the pick-and roll. These massive improvements have not stemmed from simply making more passes, either. De’Aaron actually shared the ball slightly more frequently in his first season, 1.83 times per minute to 1.79 times per minute in 2019. The uptick in production can be attributed to the quality, rather than the frequency of his passes.

Last year, Fox created 10.5 points per game when dishing the ball to his teammates, a lower number than 50 other players who saw at least 20 minutes of court time per game, and only 9.8% of his passes actually resulted in a bucket for the Kings. His inexperience and frequent placement next to George Hill often slotted him as just another cog in the offensive machine, rather than as the centerpiece contributor running the team. Dave Joerger changed the former lottery pick’s role during the 2019 campaign, featuring him exclusively as the lead guard, and that transition has completely revolutionized Fox’s effectiveness as a distributor. He’s now creating 17.7 points per game when sharing the ball, an increase of over forty percent year over year, while 14.2% of his passes end in a made basket for one of his teammates.

Defensive Impact

Outside of the most elite of elite defensive prospects, the vast majority of first year players have a negative influence on the defensive end of the floor, and De’Aaron was no exception to that rule in 2018. The Kings were unquestionably better when Fox headed to the bench, as the team’s defensive rating dropped from 111.1 points when he was in the game, to 106.3 when he was subbed out. That differential of 4.8 points per-100 possessions was the second-worst mark on the team, better only than legendary matador Zach Randolph.

De’Aaron’s defensive presence in his second year has completely diverged from his debut season and perhaps no statistic better emphasizes that change than his growing ability to swipe the ball from opposing teams. Steals don’t always accurately depict a player’s defensive acumen, as contributors around the league have been known to foolishly jump passing lanes to rack up their personal numbers, but Fox is rarely guilty of that sin. Most of his interceptions come within the context of Dave Joerger’s game plan or in the open court during transition opportunities. Our very own Tony Xypteras did the ground work earlier this season and put together 90 seconds of Fox’s most impressive steals:

De’Aaron’s quick feet and even quicker mind have resulted in 133 stolen balls throughout the year, the fifth-highest mark in the NBA, and his 1.7 steals per game place him in the top-10. He’s also managed to rank second among point guards in total blocks at 44 and is 4th in blocks per game at 0.6. Once again, Tony’s hard work displays Fox’s unique blend of speed and athleticism:

Individual metrics such as blocks and steals don’t always translate to quality defense; however, the Kings also perform much better defensively when De’Aaron is on the court than when he dons warm-ups. Sacramento’s defensive rating sits at 108.1 when Fox is playing and raises to 109.5 when he leaves, a differential of -1.4. Overall, his on/off court defensive rating differential has improved by a full 6.2 points from his rookie year to his sophomore campaign, an important development in a league full of offensively inclined point guards.

Every other relevant statistic reflects similar levels of growth in De’Aaron Fox’s defensive production. If a person were to write down every known reliable defensive metric on a sheet of paper, tear them off into strips, toss them in a hat, and pick one out, they would discover that Fox had improved in that area:

Defensive Metrics

Season Defensive Rating Defensive Win Shares DBPM DFG% 3P DFG% DRPM
Season Defensive Rating Defensive Win Shares DBPM DFG% 3P DFG% DRPM
2017-2018 111.1 1.1 -1.5 0.8% 2.4% -2.71
2018-2019 108.1 2.5 0 -1.3% -3.2% 0.68

No single number can prove a player’s performance one way or the other, especially when it comes to player versus team defense, but an uptick in every single known data point represents an overwhelming truth; De’Aaron Fox has matured into a legitimate, if inconsistent defensive threat. Both the advanced statistics and the eyes test agree on the matter.

Lingering Faults

As should be obvious to anyone enjoying the development of Sacramento’s young core, progress does not equal perfection and growth is not always linear. De’Aaron Fox has made an incredible leap from his rookie to his sophomore season, but several unpolished areas remain in his game. The mantle of franchise cornerstone still hasn’t settled comfortably on De’Aaron’s shoulders, as he still disappears at inopportune times, especially when the half-court offense has fallen apart and the Kings are in desperate need of a bucket. Fox must recognize his place as the on-court leader and become a decisive commander when his team stalls, even if that’s accomplished through sheer force of will.

Along those same lines rests another area of opportunity for De’Aaron: consistent aggression. He’s attacking the rim at a much higher rate this season, having doubled his free throw count from 2.7 to 5.3 attempts per game, but the Kings need Fox to unselfishly take his selfishness up to another level. He’s attempting virtually the same number of field goals per-100 possessions from year-to-year, and his usage rate has only jumped from 22.6% to 23.7% despite a massive increase in overall efficiency. Fox’s ball dominance is lagging far behind other star point guards across the league:

Star PG Usage

Player Usage
Player Usage
Walker 30.5
Westbrook 30.3
Curry 29.1
Irving 28.5
Wall 28.5
Lillard 28.2
Young 27.4
Conley 26.1
Fox 23.7

In a recent episode of their podcast Dunc’d On, Danny Leroux and Nate Duncan ranked the best point guards in the NBA. Their list certainly isn’t definitive or scientific, but they placed De’Aaron Fox in 11th place, behind Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Jrue Holiday, Chris Paul, Mike Conley, Russell Westbrook, Kemba Walker, Eric Bledsoe, and Kyle Lowry. Taking umbrage of where exactly Fox lands among that group of stars might cause an extraordinary fact to be missed. The youngest player in their top-10 is 27-year old Kyrie Irving. De’Aaron Fox has been able to legally drink for four months. His development has accelerated at an almost unprecedented pace.

De’Aaron Fox’s growth over the last 12 months has cast almost an unrecognizable figure when compared to his shadow of a season just one year ago. His maturation as a shot-maker, as a distributor, and as a defender has played the most critical role in Sacramento’s leap from basement dweller to playoff chaser. As it’s often said, the Kings will only go as far as De’Aaron Fox takes them, and his transformation from humdrum prospect to upper echelon point guard has created nearly infinite possibilities for his team.