A year ago I would’ve had to pay you to watch the Kings or the Mavericks, let alone the two against each other on a Sunday night. It would’ve been part of a focus group put on by the people of Sacramento who, after an underwhelming rookie season for De’Aaron Fox, were in Season 12 of wondering if the pain would ever be worth it. (And, for what it’s worth, the focus group would’ve overwhelmingly responded negatively.) Yet on Sunday, in Kings-Mavs, with fewer than three minutes left in the half, we watched the future of the NBA duel on the perimeter.
Fox was on Luka Doncic like a mirror, a step with the left for every Doncic step with the right, slowly suffocating the rookie to the point when Doncic was forced to turn around so as not to lose the ball. Trapped and totally alone, Doncic called for the screen. Teammate DeAndre Jordan set it but barely made contact on Fox, who was able to stick with Doncic and swat his shot.
Luka Doncic asks for a screen and De'Aaron Fox still blocks him at the rim. pic.twitter.com/dCNShQxe7p— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) December 17, 2018
The game, during which Fox took over the Doncic assignment in the second half, and during which he finished with 28 points, five assists, three rebounds, and three steals, sparked a mini Fox-vs.-Doncic debate. They’ve both had massive impacts on their young teams, but it’s not the debate worth having right now: The two were drafted in different years and are different in nearly every aspect of their game—where Fox flies, Doncic strides, and where Doncic shoots, Fox opts to drive. The argument worth having is among Fox’s closer peers, and it’s becoming unavoidable. With every stepback, dime, and sprint in transition, Fox is forcing a 2017 redraft.
Except for Markelle Fultz, each rookie taken above Fox (Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum, and Josh Jackson) had a better debut season than the Kings point guard. And even with Fultz, there was some optimistic mystery as to what he could be. Fox was an inefficient scorer (his .478 true shooting percentage was 14th on the team), an ineffective defender, and averaged just 4.4 assists, a very sad team high. The Kings were worse when Fox was on the court last season, as the rookie netted negative-0.6 win shares. It was obvious Fox was quick—unusually, exceptionally quick—but speed doesn’t matter much when the team is playing at the slowest pace in the NBA. Fox’s season was broken more than it was breakout. It was more exciting to think about Year 1 of 2018 draft pick Marvin Bagley III than it was Year 2 of Fox.
But the Kings made it their mission to reorient the team around their sophomore point guard. Coach Dave Joerger called Fox “our franchise guy” in October, before the season began. “The best thing you can do for him,” Joerger said, “is play fast and give him as much room as possible, to play small and try to do that is best for De’Aaron. He’s our franchise guy. I think he is and I think everybody kind of agrees on that.” It set a tone that nobody was expecting to be set, and the Kings now play at the second-fastest pace in the league. Fox is the leader of the new-look offense, giving Sacramento a hierarchy it desperately needed: The team no longer has Zach Randolph leading in shot attempts and no longer starts George Hill.
Of the top five 2017 draftees, Fox is the only one acting as a leader for his franchise. Sacramento (yes, Sacramento) is 16-13 and tied for sixth in the Western Conference. While I’m not ready (and likely never will be ready) to call Fox more talented than Jayson Tatum, he’s looking like the best player in a stacked draft. Even Donovan Mitchell, who was a revelation last year, is experiencing the notorious sophomore slump while Fox has advanced. Out of everyone in the class, Mitchell understands the most why his draft mate is excelling: Fox has learned to control the game at blinding speed.
There’s more mass in the 6-foot-3 guard ramming his way to the rim this season than last. Fox spent the summer beefing up, to the point that player development coach Larry Lewis said in July that Fox was “more physical than I have seen him. [...] He’s not going to sit back and take punches, he’d rather give them.” The drives to the rim where Fox might’ve only drawn contact before have turned into drives where he’s now finishing and drawing contact. He averages three more trips (5.7) to the line per game than he did last season and is connecting on almost half the shots he takes off drives. As a result, opponents now have to focus on Fox, giving shooters like Buddy Hield and Nemanja Bjelica the capacity to work freely.
Fox’s sudden improvement goes beyond giving his teammates better opportunities at the perimeter. After a summer of studying tape of Chris Paul, he’s looked like a new ball handler in the pick-and-roll, more aptly taking on whatever mismatch may come from it. There’s a new confidence with his range—as a defender and as a shooter—that takes the limits off what kind of point guard Fox can be. His 3-point shots are more frequent and far more likely to sink (39.6 percent this season compared with 30.7 last), though it’s still one of the streakier aspects of his game. Fox has introduced floaters in the face of taller defenders, stepbacks in the face of fierce ones, and passes around all of them; he is averaging 7.5 assists per game, tied with Nikola Jokic for ninth-most in the league.
Consistent defense remains a weakness for Fox, though he’s shown the ability to make a stop and immediately cash it in for points in transition. (As a unit, Sacramento’s defense is in the bottom 10.) After his first career triple-double against the Hawks in November, Fox said one of his goals was making an All-Defense team this season. The block and second-half performance against the larger Doncic will help his case—though he’s realistically a few seasons off from sniffing an All-Defense team.
By building around Fox, the Kings have created an environment that’s allowing him to thrive more than any players in his class taken above him. He’s pushed Sacramento to its 16-13 record, which puts the team tied for sixth in the Western Conference. For once, the team will still be worth watching come March. If Fox keeps this up, we might even be watching the Kings a couple of weeks after the regular season’s finished.