De’Aaron Fox was sure he was in the middle of an elaborate prank. It was two days before the 2022 NBA trade deadline and he was about ready to wind down. Then, a text came to the Sacramento Kings’ team group chat.
“Y’all, I’ve been traded,” the text read. “I’m going to Indiana.”
Tyrese Haliburton, the team’s prized wing and sender of the text, had built a reputation as a prankster. “Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, you’re lying, you cappin’,’” Fox says. A few minutes later, the jokes were over. “Then Woj tweeted it, and we were like ‘Wow.’”
Haliburton, along with teammates Buddy Hield and Tristan Thompson, were being sent to the Pacers in exchange for a package headlined by Domantas Sabonis, a burly 6-foot-11 All-Star. The Kings were on a quest to end the NBA’s longest playoff drought, and the move would pair Fox with a frontcourt partner who could potentially help reenergize the offense.
But the trade of Haliburton was a surprise. Not only is he one of the best young players in the NBA, he, like Fox, expressed a strong desire to be in Sacramento, to be a part of the solution after years and years of disappointment. “More than anything,” Haliburton told me last spring, “I just want to be able to help the Kings get back to where the organization belongs.”
Fox thought he would help groom the 2020 lottery pick for years to come.
“It’s definitely hard, man,” Fox says. “I’ve seen a lot of guys come in and come out, and obviously building a bond with somebody, it’s definitely hard when a trade happens. But at the end of the day, for me, it’s not like he died or is sick. We can still talk, but it’s just different. It’s different.”
Before his Kings tenure, Fox was used to stability. “Outside of playing in the league,” he says, “I think I’ve had maybe four coaches my whole life.”
In Sacramento, he has already played for three head coaches—and all have been fired before their contracts expired. His current coach, Alvin Gentry, was given only the interim title after taking over from Luke Walton midseason, and has little clarity on his status for next season.
There’s been plenty of first-round picks to come and go, too—Willie Cauley-Stein, Georgios Papagiannis, and Skal Labissiere; Bogdan Bogdanovic, Justin Jackson, and Harry Giles; more recently, Haliburton, Hield, and Marvin Bagley III. Fox, 24, is now the longest-tenured player on the Kings’ roster.
But while the players and coaches around him continue to change, the results have been the same. Despite flashes of chemistry with Sabonis after the trade, the Kings will finish under .500 for the 16th straight season. And while they technically still have an outside shot of making the play-in, they’re also one spot below Indiana in the bottom third of the standings.
So while the trade reemphasized Fox’s status as the face of the franchise, he admits that the constant turnover has been a challenge.
“It’s definitely been difficult,” he says. “I’m very strict with the way I do most stuff, so obviously not having people here that have been here for a long time, or a few years, definitely takes a toll.”
Kenny Payne and the Fox family go back a long way. When Payne, a former assistant coach under John Calipari at Kentucky, started his recruitment of De’Aaron, he placed a call to Fox’s mother, Lorraine. She quickly served up a reminder of how her husband, Aaron, held Payne in check during their high school games in Mississippi. “I think I averaged 35 a game,” Payne says, “and I had six points in a game against him.”
Fox ultimately bought Payne’s pitch and committed to Kentucky. As they grew closer, Payne realized that Fox needed two things to be successful: stability and talent around him. “That kind of environment brings out the best in him, when he knows that he’s playing for something,” Payne told me earlier this month, before he accepted the head coach position at Louisville.
For proof, Payne pointed to Kentucky’s hyped matchup against UCLA and Lonzo Ball during the 2017 NCAA tournament. “He’s going to eat or you’re going to eat,” Payne told his pupil. “It’s two dogs, only one bone—which one of y’all going to eat?” Fox had 39 points, and Kentucky marched on to the Elite Eight.
That sort of competition has been hard to come by in Sacramento, but Fox has still managed to solidify himself as one of the league’s rising young players, and as the Kings’ cornerstone. In fall 2020, Fox signed a five-year max extension. And despite reported interest from the New York Knicks, the Kings showed at the deadline that they’re committed to him.
“The Kings always told us, ‘He’s our guy. He’s our franchise guy. He’s our max player, and we’ll build it around him, man,’” says his agent, Chris Gaston. “That’s what they told everybody else around the NBA is that, ‘Hey, look, you can inquire about De’Aaron all you want, but we’re building around De’Aaron. This is our guy. He’s our main centerpiece.’ And they are true to their word.”
Fox’s best asset is his speed. In a Sport Science segment filmed ahead of the 2017 draft, he was able to dribble from the 3-point line to the basket in just 1.28 seconds. He’s used that quickness to great effect in the NBA, regularly ranking among the league’s best in transition opportunities and drives.
Yet Fox says he actually prefers a more organized style of play.
“I’ve always been used to knowing what you’re going to do,” he says. “And that’s how I’ve always wanted to play. … I’ve always been someone that’s wanted and needed structure.”
But Fox has struggled at times with the nuances of half-court offense—particularly this season. He’s shooting a career-low 29.7 percent from 3, just shy of a career low.
The Kings as a whole jumped out to a 6-11 start, and after a big loss to the Jazz, during which a Kings fan puked on the court, Walton was fired. Even after the change in head coach, a player’s only meeting was needed after a 124-101 loss to Toronto in December, a performance that Gentry called “embarrassing.”
Things have been bumpy for Fox off the court as well. In January, he launched an NFT collection, Swipa the Fox, which sold digital avatars, opportunities to purchase All-Star tickets, and even a full-ride scholarship to the University of Kentucky. The project raised $1.5 million. But a month later, it disappeared, causing investors to accuse Fox of swindling them. In a Twitter thread, Fox vowed to help raise the value of the NFT. When I asked about the controversy, Fox says he was the one who was misled.
“The people that brought it to me had their own NFTs already,” he says. “They were telling us that they was a success, blah, blah, blah. And then our project gets fucked up, which is why we were like, ‘Yo, we got to stop.’ We had the wrong team, it got messed up, and that’s pretty much all it is right now.”
In the tweet thread, Fox vowed to commit his full attention to the Kings for the rest of the season, which raised questions about where his day job fit on his list of commitments. Fox pushes back on the notion.
“I’d say half the league has businesses and things like that outside of basketball,” he says. “Athletes get criticized all the time for not being smarter, not being able to do something outside of their sport. And then when guys start doing it, now it’s like, ‘Oh, why didn’t I focus on the craft?’”
It’s been hard to criticize what Fox has done on the court lately. Since returning from an eight-game absence on February 8, Fox has scored 20 or more points in every game, and even dropped 40 twice in week. He’s missed the past two games with a hand injury, but in that 16-game run, he averaged 28.9 points and 6.8 assists while shooting 50 percent from the floor and 38 percent from 3.
“He goes on these stretches where he’s as good as any guard in the league,” Gentry told me. “I think from a speed standpoint, I don’t know who else is as fast as he is, and I don’t know who else can get it to the paint with the frequency that he does. So I think he’s had renewed life.”
The chemistry with Sabonis—who Fox described as “like an ox” in the post—is building, too, even though the results haven’t followed. Sacramento is 5-12 since the trade, with an offense that still ranks in the league’s bottom third. And even after shaking up their core, general manager Monte McNair has suggested there could be more changes on the horizon.
“Our goal is to improve the team not just now, but into next season and beyond,” McNair told reporters after the trade deadline. “Add players who will help us, but will be with us as we continue to grow this team into the future.”
Fox is optimistic about the Kings’ outlook, too. Despite the many losses, and the many new players and coaches around him, he’s remained committed to building something in Sacramento.
“I think we have players that fit on a winning team, definitely,” he says. “But for me … I’m here for the long haul.”