The Naked Cowboy strums about Times Square. Elmo and Cookie Monster knockoffs hustle tourists for photos. A camera crew talks among itself to ensure that a topless, painted woman remains outside the frame of the shot.
De’Aaron Fox stays somewhat anonymous and completely poised inside this epicenter of chaos. He wears eyeglasses, a black button-down shirt and blue jeans. He offers a smile to those who do not recognize him but ask for photos nonetheless. “That’s Fox, right?” one man in a business suit asks. “Hey, the Knicks need a guard.”
Fox will be more easily recognizable as the NBA’s MVP in a few years. At least, that’s his plan, and why not? Nearly every other goal on his to-do list has been checked off with the same routine efficiency others clear groceries off their shopping lists.
“It probably hasn’t hit me,” says Fox, the latest one-and-done Kentucky point guard bound to be taken early in this week’s NBA draft, in a quieter moment inside Bleacher Report’s midtown offices. “Everything, it seems so normal that we don’t realize how special it really is. Everybody doesn’t get to play in the NBA or go through this process.”
Fox is 19 going on 32, in terms of his maturity. The odds of his being spotted outside a nightclub by TMZ are small. His father, Aaron, hammered home years ago that he would be looked at differently. He couldn’t do things other kids did and expect to remain unscathed. “Coming into this basketball thing, you’ve got to be mature beyond your age,” Fox says. “If you’re acting like a teenager in basically a grown man’s world, it’s tough to survive.”
His first sit-down interview came in middle school. “You start pretty young now,” he says. “Probably like the sixth grade, this thing called Basketball Spotlight. You can probably still pull it up, and it’s probably still up there.”
Aaron Fox recognized the wisdom his youngest son possessed early on. Aaron, who had played college football at Fort Hays State, called one or two plays at quarterback for a seven-year-old De’Aaron. “Daddy, I’ll just call the plays,” the boy said. “I’ve got everything else.”
De’Aaron Fox’s trainer, Chris Gaston, recalls meeting the star guard when he was in the eighth grade. Fox was a skinny kid with glasses, but Gaston had been sold that Fox was somehow good enough to play with his team of high school upperclassmen.
Gaston put him on the wing and soon thought about benching him after watching Fox’s shot get denied again and again. Instead, on the advice of a coach familiar with Fox, Gaston slid him to point guard. Fox did not have lightning speed off the dribble. That would arrive soon. But he immediately told his teammates where to go on the floor, dissected the defense and slithered inside the lane to finish with a finesse floater.
“I’ve never seen anything like that at that age,” Gaston says. “To see him at that age, being able to command a game with juniors and seniors, that’s special.”
Fox spent one season at Kentucky, where the southpaw dazzled in carving up defenses and piloted the Wildcats to a 32-6 record. Their season ended in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament on a wrenching last-second flick of the wrist from North Carolina’s Luke Maye. Cameras afterward caught an emotional Fox, still in uniform and struggling to get his words out through tears, embracing his teammate, Bam Adebayo.
“It's just, after we lost that game, we knew that was our only chance to win a national championship, and just competitiveness spilled over in the locker room,” Fox says.
He had known about midway through the season that he would be declaring for the NBA draft. A week after the tournament loss, coach John Calipari performed his annual summons and advised Fox, Adebayo, Malik Monk and Isaiah Briscoe to be next in the long line of early declaring Wildcats dotted throughout the NBA.
“If Coach Cal feels like you’re ready, then you’ve got to be ready,” Fox says. “He’s been through it so many times.”
Fox finished his semester at Kentucky and began splitting his time training in Southern California. He has not returned home to Houston since Christmas.
So much is about to change. So much is up in the air. So little is known. He met with representatives from Under Armour in late May but didn’t sign a deal. “I’m not really worried about a signature shoe yet,” Fox says. “[I’m] just coming into the league, so I’m not really worried about that.”
As far as nerves, tension or jitters?
“I feel like it’s just the next step in my basketball career, so from middle school to high school, there was really no nerves. High school to college, there were no nerves, so I don’t want it to change just because I’m about to be a professional,” Fox says.
“Some people are so stressed out about where they’re going to get drafted or where they’re going to have to move to. I’m open to live anywhere in the country. As a person, I’m pretty adventurous. I don’t really care where I live, and I’m just hoping that I get drafted to a good fit. That’s really my main concern right now.”
Aaron Fox jokes that he shut down Kenny Payne, Kentucky’s associate head coach, when they played against each other more than two decades ago in a high school basketball game in Mississippi.
“If you give me your son, I’ll say I only had one point,” Payne quipped during De’Aaron’s recruiting process. Payne noticed quickly that other recruits regarded De’Aaron Fox highly.
Bleacher Report @BleacherReport
Lots of emotions for Kentucky after a tough loss (via @joe_mussatto) https://t.co/a5qBBbcuFR2017-3-27 00:05:07
“To me, that was one of the more intriguing things about recruiting the kid,” Payne says. “Other players, even if they didn't come to Kentucky, how they felt about him as a person. To me, looking at it now, that’s value to an NBA organization. Sometimes as adults, we try to manipulate leadership. You can't. The best leaders don’t need to be manipulated. Their peers already know. I think De'Aaron exemplifies that.”
Fox chose Kentucky because of the family’s familiarity with Payne and Calipari’s assembly-line efficiency in passing players onto the NBA. He decided he could fit in and perform at the school.
“I felt like if I was going to do that and Coach Cal was going to teach me what I needed to know before I went into the NBA, whether that took one year, three years or four years,” Fox says.
His leadership quickly blossomed off the court. Fox could always be spotted in the company of two or three players at meals.
Teammates crowded inside his room at Kentucky to play video games. Fox is a noted gamer and may be one of the first players to credit his skills on the sticks for aiding his hand-eye coordination.
“2K8 or 2K9, they actually put the AI crossover on there and they put the Tim Hardaway crossover, the kind of double behind-the-back stuff,” Fox says. “Now it’s more freelance. You can kind of do whatever you want, but then it was set moves and I was like, ‘Man, that move looks like it’ll work.’ So I started doing it, and it was around like sixth grade my handles started getting up. That’s basically right there where I was stealing moves on 2K.”
Fox is eager for an environment where he believes he performs best: when the lights are on, a crowd is whipped into a frenzy and the game begins.
He felt that way before his signature game at Kentucky in the Sweet 16 against UCLA. The Bruins had previously beaten the Wildcats—and at home, no less. Fox, though, outplayed UCLA’s Lonzo Ball in the square-off of one-and-done point guards, racking up 20 points and nine assists to Ball’s 14 points, seven assists and six turnovers.
LaVar Ball, Lonzo’s outspoken father, later told ESPN.com he probably would not take Fox with a top-five pick.
“He can’t mess with ‘Zo,” Ball is quoted as saying. “You can have 40 points and Lonzo can have two points and make the game-winner, and I’m going with him. You had more points, but look at who won the game.”
In the first matchup, at Rupp Arena, Payne thought Fox focused too much on wanting to prove his worth over Lonzo Ball.
“From a Kentucky coaches’ standpoint, who’s coaching the kid, we saw that he was better,” Payne says. “He fought. He got down in a stance, and he turned the guy a couple of times. He got rebounds.
“In the second game, he was more focused. He understood winning a little bit better. Winning is another skill that we teach, that we talk about, [that] translates to the NBA. It’s no different than shooting, no different than rebounding, no different than defending. If you’re a winner, that NBA team needs winners, and I think De’Aaron learned more about that.”
By then, a rumor had leaked into the Kentucky locker room that LaVar Ball had dismissed the Kentucky game as a tune-up for UCLA on the way to the Final Four. He had not, but the belief that he did provided more motivation.
“His dad’s technically not part of the team, but he’s a part of the team,” Fox says. “Saying we’re a tune-up game, it’s like, ‘Yeah, OK. We are going to see.’ It definitely gave us more fuel. And they had already beat us at home. We just didn’t want to lose to the same team again.”
Fox dominated the rematch. He scored Kentucky’s first eight points and hit his first five shots, amassing 39 points in the 86-75 win. Lonzo Ball finished with 10 points, eight assists and four turnovers.
The outcome did little to silence LaVar Ball.
“They came up short, but one game doesn’t define his season,” Ball told ESPN.com. “No one is going to take De’Aaron Fox over him because of one game. It's about your body of work, and people know what he can do.”
Fox’s performance was the product of hard work, like the time he scored around 50 points in a game but missed a handful of free throws. His dad had him practice from the charity stripe right after the game. “Only way he can get better,” the elder Fox says. “He could have had about 60 points if he would have hit those free throws.”
His parents taught him to be humble early on, before Kendrick Lamar made humility a thing.
“You can relax [at home], you can let your hair down here kind of thing,” his mother, Lorraine Fox, says. “But when you’re out and about, don’t embarrass me.”
Lonzo Ball, for his part, is quiet on the court, De’Aaron Fox says. The rest—meaning, of course, LaVar—is just background noise to be tuned out.
“I don’t want anyone talking for me,” Fox says. “I’ll do it myself.”
And yet, Aaron Fox has seen the results of two head-to-head matchups with the UCLA guard. So, in this case, he backs De’Aaron after all, LaVar Ball-style.
“My son already ate his ass up twice,” Aaron Fox says of Lonzo Ball. “[LaVar] can say what he wants to say. I just tell him to go back and watch the film. That’s it. All that yap, yap, yapping, I don’t even got to respond to that. We played them twice. Twice his son got outplayed. I always tell [De’Aaron], let your game speak for it. You ain’t got to talk. You ain’t got to fuss.”
De’Aaron Fox ducks inside a sports and fitness facility, his home away from home, a couple of weeks after his New York visit. The sprawling center rests in Thousand Oaks, a suburb north of Los Angeles, and incubates prospective athletes in sports from beach volleyball to lacrosse. Fox typically works out here three times a day, six days a week, in preparation for the draft.
Fox’s clothing reveals the progress made off the court in recent weeks. He is decked out in an orange and blue Fly Emirates T-shirt and black Nike pants after inking an endorsement deal with the athletic gear conglomerate.
“I played EYBL [Nike Elite Youth Basketball League], so I kind of just already knew the guys,” he says. “I was comfortable around them.”
Fox hopes to establish himself as an NBA player others can relate to.
“I don’t really go out and party or anything like that,” he says. “It’s just being able to connect with fans who most likely, they'll never see you in real life and be able to talk to you. Even liking their tweet can make their day, make their life.
“So, it’s just fun being able to connect with people you’ll never meet in your life. How different people are and how basically basketball or video games, something that's small, can bring a lot of people together.”
Rumors continue to swirl about Fox’s future. The Lakers are likely settling on Ball. The Kings are debating moving up in the draft for a shot at him. Phoenix may opt to add another point guard beyond Eric Bledsoe.
Fox plans to work out for all those teams before the draft.
“I think you just go off of head-to-head,” Fox says of how he ranks against Ball and Markelle Fultz, the presumptive top pick. “Since I never played ‘Kelle, I can’t really say anything about him. I feel like we all bring things to the table. I just feel like all-around game, I feel like I’m the best player in the draft, and at some point, it’ll be proven or somebody has to come out on top.”
Fox has continued climbing mock drafts.
“Honestly, right now, people are taking into account the way I was playing at the end of this season more than they were when it was the end of the season,” Fox says. “It’s kind of weird that I’m shooting up like that, but I’m not going to say that I want it any other way. I’m fine with it.”
There is a place for him, Fox believes, on every NBA roster.
“I studied Tony [Parker],” Fox says. “Tony and Chris [Paul] and actually Kyle Lowry, they're not the most athletic guys, but the way they finish around the rim is crazy. … If I’m that much more athletic than them and they're able to finish around the rim like that, then I feel like if I can study their game and try to take things from them, then I can be able to be even better finishers than they are.”
This year, he watched NBA games not as a fan (although he enjoyed the dynamic triple-double run of Russell Westbrook, his favorite player) but as someone about to enter the league. Fox imagined how he would fit onto different rosters with their pieces already in play.
“I can be a playmaker on both ends,” Fox says. “When I say that, everyone says that my best asset is speed, and I know that it’s up there. But I feel like playmaking [is], because if a play breaks down at the next level, your point guard has to be able to create a shot for someone or themselves, and I feel like I should be able to do that and defensively, try to speed the guards up, try to get steals, play passing lanes, just be able to disrupt.
“That’s what I mean by defensive playmaker. Tony Allen’s a defensive playmaker. Kyrie [Irving], Chris Paul, John [Wall], Russ [Westbrook], those are offensive playmakers. I feel like I want to be able to do that, and I want to be able to do it on both ends.”
Fox changes into a black Nike T-shirt, shorts and white Kobes for a workout. His court is in a corner of the complex with black tarp obstructing the view from outside eyes. Gaston, his trainer, accompanies him. The two have worked intensely on strengthening Fox’s decision-making and pace.
“In high school and college, he’s so much faster and quicker than everybody and you can run by everybody, so you have to find that balance when you get to the NBA, because everybody’s a unique athlete at that level,” Gaston says. “There’s an understanding of your physical gifts, when and how to use them.”
Fox soon stations himself beyond the three-point arc and drains a long jumper.
“I feel like I didn’t show everything that I was capable of [in college],” he says. “It was nobody’s fault but myself. It was just how I was playing, but I feel like I didn’t play my best basketball at Kentucky.”
The counter is that Fox positioned himself to be a top selection in one season of D-I ball. But he often struggled with his shot, converting only 24.6 percent of his three-pointers.
He found that he was bringing the ball farther back on his shot than he did in high school.
“I feel like if I would have shot the ball [better], it would have been a no-brainer for me to be the No. 1 pick, but I didn't shoot the ball well, so it’s something that I’m going to have to prove to people.”
He has no doubt that he will, even if he does not know exactly where yet. Nerves sometimes creep inside Lorraine Fox when she watches her son play. She also played basketball in college, at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and prided herself on sinking her free throws. She occasionally texts De’Aaron with encouraging thoughts, even during games.
“I’m hoping he’s the No. 1 pick,” Lorraine Fox says. “Is that selfish? That’s what I’m hoping. I’m hoping they call his name first so that I don’t have to sit there long and be nervous. So the sooner they call his name, the better off my nerves would be.”
He will not have too long a wait no matter when he is called. The place is still a mystery, but Fox has had his destination in mind for years.
“I don’t know where I’ll be,” Fox says. “But I hope I’m at least a two-time, three-time All-Star [in five years], really solidified myself in the league. Technically, be a veteran then. But I hope I’ll have a safe spot in the league. I hope I’m considered one of the best guards in the league by then.”
Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams.