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King in the NorCal

After cycling through countless false cornerstones over the past decade, the Sacramento Kings have put their future in the hands of De’Aaron Fox—a lightning-fast, poor-shooting, ‘Dragon Ball Z’–loving, Lonzo Ball–besting 19-year-old

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Everyone wants to know if De’Aaron Fox can shoot. Media members. Players. Coaches. And especially players and coaches turned media members. That last group is the most curious. Which is how a fairly normal conversation got weird.

Fox went on NBA TV last week, joining a panel of accomplished NBA vets: Chris Webber, Isiah Thomas, Greg Anthony, Kevin McHale, and Steve Smith. Instead of sitting around a crowded desk, the segment took place on the studio’s basketball court.

They asked the rookie point guard the usual questions, like the biggest adjustment from college to the pros (Fox went with “the physicality” and grind of the 82-game schedule). They also had him run through some mock plays, including one in which Fox informed Smith, the faux–Zach Randolph stand-in of this exercise, that he wasn’t positioned on Z-Bo’s preferred block.

The interview went pretty well for the 19-year-old until the surprise ending. Before they threw to commercial, Webber said “we’re gonna make him shoot one here” while Thomas shouted “game winner” over and over, like a human record player that kept skipping. It initially seemed like maybe they were kidding. They were not.

Fox, to his credit, played along. He grabbed the ball, took a few steps inside the arc, hoisted a slow-motion shot near the left side of the foul line, and … clang. Naturally, the old guys fell all over themselves and one of them—it was hard to tell who—yelled, “Trade him. Trade him.”

Fox handled it with a smile and a laugh, but as hazing rituals go, it was pretty cruel. Next, they’ll strap poor Markelle Fultz to a chair on live television, pin his eyelids back, and force him to watch Jayson Tatum highlights on a loop.

The crazy part about the whole simulation was that they either didn’t know or didn’t care that Fox hit an actual last-second game winner—on an NBA floor, not a studio reproduction of one—the week prior against the Sixers.

Of course, even after making that real-world shot, Fox still had to answer questions about his jumper. In the home locker room after beating the Sixers, Fox was merrily retelling how he delivered Sacramento’s third win of the season when a reporter asked how he felt about taking that shot because “shooting is your weakness.” Fox thought about it for a second, then smiled and laughed that one off, too. “Uh … what?” he chuckled before giving an innocuous answer.

A little later, when almost everyone had cleared out, an NBA photographer showed Fox a picture of his big shot. Robert Covington was defending Fox, and his hand was up, but he was clearly out of position. Fox looked at the photo, then at the few reporters still lingering in the locker room, and told the real story: “I said, ‘Fuck it.’ If you’re going to play that far back.”

Endless inquires about his shot aside, Fox, a noted fan of Dragon Ball Z badass Vegeta, was thrilled to take and make that one—though he wasn’t nearly as excited as the Kings’ front office. In the hallway outside their locker room at the Golden 1 Center, Vlade Divac, the team’s general manager, and Peja Stojakovic, the vice president of basketball and team development, high-fived each other and pretty much everyone else in the immediate vicinity. Friends. Fans. Staffers. Security guards. There was much revelry. It was as if the two old teammates had finally figured out a way to upend the Lakers in the playoffs after all these years (and not just the Sixers in an early-regular-season game).

“My brother is a Laker fan,” Fox said when I asked what he knew about the organization before being drafted with the fifth overall pick. “I watched that [rivalry] growing up. Vlade. Peja. Chris Webber. Mike Bibby. Jason Williams. I know that era. That was a fun team to watch. That’s what we’re trying to get back to.”

The Kings have been trying to reclaim the glory of cowbells and corner sets for over a decade, but previous approaches were fraught with mistakes. DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay, Rajon Rondo, Tyreke Evans, Ben McLemore—none of them delivered the Kings to their desired destination. The last time the Kings had a winning record was more than a decade ago, back in the 2005-06 campaign. Basketball in Sacramento has been grim for so long that no one seemed to blink when they built their otherwise wonderful new downtown arena with the south side of the building on, of all places, L Street. The city seems almost numb to these things. While wandering around Old Sacramento one night, I stopped in a sports souvenir store and asked the shopkeeper how much Kings merch he moves. He gave me a frowny face and a thumbs down. He said he sells a lot of Oklahoma City Thunder gear, though.

Now, after force-quitting from the Boogie era last February, the Kings are reprogramming the franchise once again. Willie Cauley-Stein. Skal Labissiere. Buddy Hield. They’re all part of this latest next new thing. But for all the young guys, almost everyone around the organization seems to agree: Fox will determine if this hard reset either works or fails.

So about that shot. Fox is shooting 40.8 percent from the floor, but 88 of his 184 field goal attempts have been from nine feet or closer, according to NBA.com. He’s taken 23 3-pointers and made six, which works out to 26.1 percent. All told, Fox has a 46.1 true shooting percentage, which is 16th among rookies and 255th overall among players averaging at least 15 minutes per game. Those are the kinds of numbers that regularly invite defenders to go under screens and dare Fox to shoot when the Kings run a pick-and-roll.

The Kings knew that Fox would need to improve his shooting before they selected him, and they know it now. So does Fox. “I could be doing much better shooting the ball,” he admitted. He said that “it’s going to take work” to polish his jumper but insisted “I’m going to put that work in. I always put the work in.”

If his shot is the biggest question mark about Fox, his slender frame isn’t far behind. Coming out of high school, John Calipari thought Fox was “so skinny” that he almost didn’t notice him. “It took me a minute,” Calipari, who coached Fox for one season at Kentucky, conceded, “to say, ‘Wow, this kid is really good.’”

Arkansas v Kentucky Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Fox is only slightly bigger now than he was then, though he spent this past summer trying to bulk up. “I got after it in the weight room,” Fox said. He also hired a nutritionist and a chef. Fox said he was never a fast food guy, but he did have to learn how to eat better and “take in a certain amount of carbs, a certain amount of protein.” He’s generously listed at 175 pounds, which isn’t much weight to stretch over his 6-foot-3 frame. Even so, he’s made noticeable progress. While we talked after practice one day, a basketball staffer walked by, grabbed Fox’s right biceps and busted his chops about how he’s getting big. He’s not. He knows that, too.

“I’m still little,” Fox said. “I’m just trying to get the body of an NBA player. I don’t even know how to describe it. I got my chef. I got my nutritionist. It’s becoming a lot easier. I don’t have to worry about my meals. They put a plan together. All I have to do is eat it. I’m working on it.”

It seems he’s always working at something—even when he’d be forgiven for taking it easy. The day that Fox had his pre-draft workout at the Sixers’ practice facility also happened to be the same day news broke about a big trade.

“He came into Philadelphia when it was very hotly rumored, and true, that we were going to trade up and get Markelle Fultz,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said. “Yet he didn’t blink.” According to Brown and others who were there, Fox went full speed and killed the workout, even though he could have just gone back to the hotel and ordered room service. “He was class,” Brown said. “Like, very, very sophisticated and polished for a young kid.”

You hear that kind of thing about Fox a lot. When Calipari went to the Houston area to recruit him, Fox invited a special-needs student and the student’s mother to his house to meet the Kentucky coach because he was such a big Wildcats fan. Calipari and Fox spent most of the time taking pictures with the family. And after signing his rookie contract, Fox’s first big purchase was a house—for his mom and dad. He went house shopping for himself on the afternoon before he hit the game winner against the Sixers, but he wasn’t looking to buy, just rent. “You never know what could happen in this business,” he explained.

The Kings are less concerned about Fox’s future in Sacramento. Top members of the organization told me they’re confident they finally found the piece they needed all along. Of course, we’ve heard similar praise about past Kings players. In addition to Nik Stauskas, Kings majority owner Vivek Ranadivé’s obsession turned meme, Ranadive famously lusted after Hield. After the Kings traded Cousins for a package headlined by the former Sooners star, ESPN quoted a source that claimed Ranadivé felt Hield has “Steph Curry potential.” It’s hard to fault the owner’s unending enthusiasm, but to date Hield has fallen closer to Seth than Steph on the Curry spectrum. Not to mention that, at one point, the Kings really did have the piece they needed all along—it’s just that they never knew it was Isaiah Thomas, and they gave up on him before they figured it out.

A lot has to happen for Fox to become the point guard who was promised and not just the organization’s latest object of affection (and ultimately, rejection). Fox indeed has to refine his game—he was a minus-58 (!) in four games last week, three of which were Kings losses—and build his body, but he will also need some help. As you might have noticed, the Kings aren’t very good. After they surprised Oklahoma City to earn their second of what is now four victories this season, Dave Joerger was asked about the effort. “I thought it was one of our two best wins,” he deadpanned.

The Kings obviously aren’t winning anything this season other than a 12th straight year in the draft lottery. They have first- and second-round picks in 2018. In 2019, though, their first-round selection goes to either the Sixers or Celtics. Losing now to land a top pick in the upcoming lottery makes sense. Of course, stitching together a bunch of young talent isn’t always easy, and it can cause some fraying on the floor.

“It’s a balancing act,” Joerger said. “It never really looks great if you put five young guys out there all together. They just don’t know enough yet and it can get looking pretty ugly. We try to have a mix—older guys, some experienced guys who can help out some guys.”

Still, Joerger knows that playing Fox—who is averaging 26.6 minutes—and some of the other relative newbies is a means to multiple ends. According to someone familiar with the conversation, Joerger recently sat down with Randolph and fellow free-agent signee George Hill and told the two vets that he might siphon off some of their minutes and funnel them to younger players. (When I asked the same person how that went over, the reply was “How do you think it went over?” That’s the PG version of the account.)

But if that was initially the plan, Joerger has adopted a different approach: play his point guards together. Fox and Hill have both started the past three games, two of which resulted in big losses for the Kings. It seems like an odd fit and an imperfect solution, but as Joerger noted, none of his available maneuvers are easy or good at the moment.

In the offseason, Randolph, who is 36, signed with the Kings for two years. Hill, 31, inked a three-year deal. Hill’s contract, worth as much as $57 million, was a bit curious—less for him than for the Kings. Maybe they can eventually flip him to a team in need of a veteran contributor, but the initial decision makes you wonder why they’d willfully impede their teenage point guard of the future. For all their good intentions, it would seem that the franchise is still trying to figure things out. For the moment, the Kings stay the Kings.

To their credit, the Kings seem to understand that this latest rebuild will require serious effort. And time. After the team beat Philadelphia in early November, one high-ranking member of the organization told me it was better than beating the Thunder. That’s how they’re gauging growth these days—by comparing their progress to teams on similar renovation timelines. They’re not measuring themselves against the Warriors and Rockets so much as the Sixers and Suns. And Lakers. Always the Lakers.

As the Kings reconfigure their roster up north, the Lakers are doing the same in sunny Southern California. Both franchises have invested heavily in their rookie point guards, which is why Wednesday’s game between the two teams in Sacramento is so intriguing. There is history between Fox and Lonzo Ball, though probably not of the variety you might think.

Fox had a monster night against Ball in Kentucky’s win over UCLA in last season’s Sweet 16: 39 points (going 13-of-20 from the floor and 13-of-15 from the line), four assists, three rebounds, and two steals. Ball was quieter: 10 points, eight assists, three rebounds, two blocks. It was Fox’s game, and everyone knew it by halftime.

“I walked in and looked at the team,” Calipari recalled. “I said, ‘Are you all watching this game?’ They said, ‘What?’ I said ‘How about we keep giving him the ball and playing off him.’ They all started laughing.”

They all started laughing. Calipari said Malik Monk, now with the Charlotte Hornets, was the first to speak up and encouraged Fox to “Go kill [Ball]. Do what you’re doing.” And he did.

If that sounds like it fits perfectly into a Fox vs. Ball beef, it does. But that’s also where it evidently ended—right there on the college floor. Fox and Monk talk almost every single day—their group text chain from Kentucky is still active—but the Kings’ rookie said he stays in touch with lots of guys from his rookie class, and not just former Wildcats.

“A lot of it is competitive, but a lot of them are friends, guys I’ve known for a long time,” Fox said. “We keep up with each other. Markelle. Zo. Ben. Malik. Jayson. Harry [Giles] is on my team, so I don’t have to really watch him. Donovan Mitchell. A lot of those guys.”

Zo, if you were wondering, is Lonzo Ball. They’re cool with each other.

“The media takes everything out of proportion,” Monk said about the faux Fox-Ball rivalry. “You know how the media is.” (Boy, do I. Don’t get me started on the media.)

The way Fox sees it, it’s not so strange to be competitive on the floor—or, in Monk parlance, go kill a guy—and then be cool off it. As he’s learning, every evening in the NBA presents a new challenge. He mentioned what a thrill it was to play against Russell Westbrook, John Wall, and James Harden to start the season—guys he grew up watching and always wanted to test himself against. Same goes for Ball. “It’s not personal,” he said, “it’s the NBA.”

It was the kind of answer you expect to hear from a pro, not a teenager still learning to be one. But that’s the way Fox tends to carry himself, calm and poised and ready to shoot his shot—in a real game or on an NBA TV set—whether it goes in or not.

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