Fox’s flaws, potential and fit in Sacramento

De’Aaron Fox spent the majority of his freshman season at Kentucky wavering on most draft boards. Lacking the serviceable jumper and overall polish needed to compete with guards like Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball, it wasn’t until recently that Fox sparked a revitalization of sorts — both with his game and his draft stock.

The NCAA Tournament provided the catalyst for Fox’s rise. He seemed to find his groove, knocking down mid-range pull-ups with consistency while playing with a general sense of ease that wasn’t there for the majority of his yearlong stint with Kentucky. He looked to be adding the one thing capping his stock — a jumper. And that, in and of itself, led many to move him up their draft boards.

The culminating point, though, came in the Sweet 16. In what was, at the time, the tournament’s marquee matchup, Kentucky’s freshman-laden squad faced the country’s most prolific offensive juggernaut in UCLA—a team led by Ball, whose stock was unequivocally cemented in the top two in most draft circles.

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It was a test for Fox just as much as it was for Ball. While many detailed their concerns with Ball facing an NBA level athlete, some also drew into question Fox’s readiness.

He had been inconsistent for most of the season, while Malik Monk was in the midst of a slight dip in production himself. It became a question of whether or not Fox could lead an offense powerful enough to keep pace with UCLA’s.

Kentucky won.

Fox not only sparked the team as a facilitator, but put together his most reputable display of scoring to date. He put up 39 points while hitting on 13 of his 20 shots from the field.

His combination of elite quickness and shifty ball handling was on full display, as he created separation and found his spots on the floor in virtually uncontested fashion.

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Collegiate defenders couldn’t keep up with Fox when his shots were falling. Now, it’s a matter of getting those shots to fall on a nightly basis in the NBA.

That sudden outburst set the trend for Fox’s draft stock. After a strong combine performance and countless praises in regards to both his personality and well-spoken manner in team interviews, he has seemingly entrenched himself in the top five come June 22.

On some draft boards, he’s ranked even higher than that.

The one team tied to Fox the most in recent weeks has been Sacramento. Some reports have detailed the Kings’ desire to move up in the draft, potentially dealing their 5th and 10th selections to Philadelphia for their 3rd overall pick — essentially un-swapping the pick swap.

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And with the Kings willing to invest so heavily in Fox’s stock, it’s important to detail not only what makes Fox tick, but how his weaknesses can be masked in the right system. Sacramento may be that right system.

I’ll be the first to state my disconcerting feelings towards Fox’s game. His jumper lacked proper timing for the better part of his freshman campaign, as his elevation and release point didn’t always coincide like they should. That’s a scary trend once pitted against NBA-level athletes who are, at the very least, capable of staying with Fox in some capacity off the bounce.

That combined with his lack of strength on defense and the limited polish on his offensive arsenal, gives me some pause when lauding his talents. He’s still a top 10 player, but dubbing him a top 5 player with outright certainty seems ill-advised.

It’s a deep draft, and there are players in Fox’s vicinity with skill sets that are not only more versatile, but in many ways, more ready when it comes to producing in a professional arena.

There is, though, a unique sense of upside with Fox. His quick first step and blinding end-to-end speed is near-unheralded, much less typical. He has the ability to slice his way to the basket and burn defenses in transition like few others we’ve seen entering the league — not only this year, but in the past several drafts.

He has the raw physical gifts needed to develop into a legitimate star down the line. A team needs to afford him the opportunity to grow, though. Once again, Sacramento could play favorably into that situation.

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When looking at the teams around Sacramento in the lottery, few of them can give Fox the same clear-cut role from day one. While Sacramento is a blank slate of sorts, lacking a long term point guard salutation and retaining plenty of flexibility when placing pieces around Fox, others teams — like the 76ers and Suns — don’t quite meet those standards.

The 76ers already have a primary ball handler in Ben Simmons, meaning Fox — who shot just 24.6 percent from 3-point range last season — would be forced into more of an off-ball role.

He’s a dynamic ball handler whose potential stems from leveraging his athletic gifts against more limited defenders. Putting him in spot-up scenarios and utilizing him as more of a slasher is simply a misuse of his talents.

If you opt to put Simmons off the ball instead, you’re then looking at a similar situation in reverse — you’re misusing Simmons’ skill set.

Phoenix has a different situation and a far better fit, but may need to clear some hurdles that Sacramento doesn’t have to in order to make room for Fox in the rotation.

Eric Bledsoe, while he may not fit their long term plans, is still a 27-year-old who has played at an All-Star level when healthy. They’d also need to clear up the Tyler Ulis-Brandon Knight conundrum in the reserve unit, which furthers their potential issues.

The Kings give Fox the best opportunity to take the reigns from day one, something a player with his flaws may need. Sacramento won’t be competitive in the Western Conference by any stretch, meaning they can focus the bulk of their season towards developing Fox while cultivating his rapport with Buddy Hield in the backcourt.

By allowing Fox to work through the ebbs and flows of his rookie season and allotting him a sizable margin for error, the Kings could give Fox the ability to work himself into a comfortable rhythm with his shot. That in and of itself could be the biggest hurdle in unlocking the upper echelons of his ceiling as a prospect.

[Will De’Aaron Fox become an ELITE point guard in the NBA?]

His lacking of timing was in large part due to his lack of comfort when shooting the ball last season. He made significant strides in that department during the NCAA tournament, and giving him the playing time needed to continue that development at the next level could prove important.

The Kings could also give Fox what he needs most to be successful — the ball. While that may seem oversimplified and a bit cliché, it’s a general sentiment that reigns wholly true when looking at what makes Fox successful.

Rather than limiting the scope of his production like the Sixers or Suns would, the Kings can give Fox the keys to the offense right away.

That means he’ll be given the opportunity to work in isolation, using his speed to create space, probe the interior and locate passing lanes. Fox’s limiting shooting in turn limits his prowess when working in secondary roles on the offensive end. His best production comes off of dribble penetration, which most often occurs when he’s spearheading a team’s offensive sets.

Regardless of that offensive fit and overarching freedom, though, it’s not Fox’s talent that makes him such an appealing option for Sacramento. It’s his attitude, both on an off the court.

Out of all the top prospects in this year’s class, few work as hard as Fox does on a possession-by-possession basis. He lacks some considerable strength on the defensive end (weighing just 170 pounds), but he has a frame he can grow into and an inordinate amount of hustle to back it up. He’s a pest for opposing ball handlers, and his speed allows him to blow up passes and sneak in for steals that other point guards may not get to.

He’s also an overwhelmingly positive influence on the players around him, something he was praised for consistently during his short tenure under John Calipari.

The video of him and Bam Adebayo crying in the locker room after the squad’s Elite 8 loss to North Carolina is a testament to how much Fox cares about not only winning, but his teammates.

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It’s an iconic image of sorts that truly speaks to how much passion Fox plays with. If anything, this Kings squad would gladly add another player like Fox to help lift their locker room out of the controversy-filled purgatory it sat in with DeMarcus Cousins for seven years. The Kings’ front office and the general operations of the organization were shrouded in constant turmoil during that time.

Somebody who grinds like Fox — whose very presence could help boost team moral — is the type of player that Vlade Divac and company needs to think about adding.

No, he’s not worth the third pick — or even the fifth pick — when analyzing his skill set in a vacuum. But when you look at his fit in Sacramento, both culturally and on the floor, it’s difficult to overlook just how well he’d mesh with an organization in need of players like him.

Divac said that the purpose behind trading Cousins was to improve the Kings’ culture and to create a winning environment. Fox could be their first step towards doing so.

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Christopher Kline on Twitter
Christopher Kline
Special Contributor to Cowbell Kingdom. You can follow the rest of his work on The Sixer Sense and 16 Wins A Ring.

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