De’Aaron Fox knew he was going to be an NBA player at an early age. When he was 16, he had figured out that his high-school ranking meant that he could make it to the league in three years just by staying at the same level.
Obviously, Fox didn’t settle. He improved by leaps and bounds during his final two years of high school and then dazzled as a one-and-done at Kentucky. He was always convinced that he belonged in the NBA, and he put in the work to get there. He never thought of himself as an underdog when he got to the league.
But once he started playing, there was a gap between being successful at the amateur level and competing as a pro. That was especially true at the point guard position, which Fox calls the hardest to play, and Fox noted on “The Old Man and The Three” podcast with JJ Redick that even his speed seemed slow compared to NBA speed.
There was one player who really made Fox realize that he had some work to do to succeed at the NBA level, and that was Damian Lillard. Lillard scored 50 points in three quarters on the Kings during Fox’s rookie season, with Fox being his primary defender, and Fox remembers feeling helpless as to what to do to possibly stop Lillard at the time.
Redick: Did you have a welcome to the NBA moment?
Fox: So my rookie year, Dame.
Redick: Dame’s been giving a lot of people welcome to the NBA moments.
Fox: I always say, even even to this day, like Dame is the hardest player I have to guard. He gave us 50 in three quarters.
Redick: And how many of those 50 were on you?
Fox: Ah, not a lot, I’ll say not a lot, but probably like 15-16, but like, he was doing it to everybody. So I guarded him, George was with us, George Hill, Garrett Temple, like we’re throwing everything at him, he’s coming off the pick, we’re blitzing him. Man, he made the game look so easy, I mean you see what he’s doing right now, he’s pulling up from half court. He was already doing that so I’m like yo, there’s nothing I can do, like I don’t know what you want me to do to stop this man. And yeah, that for sure was my welcome to the NBA moment.
Fox’s recollection is pretty good, because according to NBA matchup data, Lillard scored 17 of his points that night on Fox. Fox has also improved his performance against Lillard over the years, and Lillard’s average against the Kings has come down to a more respectable 29.3 points per game over the past three seasons.
The Sacramento point guard has since become the face of the franchise and is on his way to a max contract and All-Star appearances. He clearly belongs in the league, just like he always knew. But even for a dynamic talent like Fox, there are always growing pains, as Lillard reminded him that February night.