How Kentucky PG De'Aaron Fox Is Teaching Himself to Think Hoops at an NBA Level

Reid ForgraveSpecial to Bleacher ReportFebruary 28, 2017

LEXINGTON, KY - JANUARY 21:  De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats dribbles up the court against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Rupp Arena on January 21, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The first setting for the De'Aaron Fox origin story is where countless other basketball path-to-glory narratives began: the high school gym. Early in the morning. Long, lonely hours spent from a young age, with the ball bouncing and the sneakers squeaking.     

Fox would show up at 6 a.m. His high school coach, Emmanuel Olatunbosun, would open the doors for him while the cross-country team stretched for its morning run.

Some mornings, Fox would practice the ball-handling now prominently displayed in flashy drives into the lane during Kentucky games. Some mornings, he'd run and lift, building his nearly unparalleled open-court speed and the strength and stamina to play 94 feet of smothering perimeter defense. Some mornings, he'd hoist up shot after shot, working to improve the jumper that one NBA front-office executive says is the only thing holding Fox back from the conversation for No. 1 overall pick.

That gym, at Cypress Lakes High outside of Houston, is where Fox created the athleticism and skills that have him starring in what some believe could be the best backcourt head coach John Calipari has ever had. It's the skill set the same exec says makes the 6'3", 19-year-old his "man crush" of the 2017 draft.

"He's really raw, but he's already figured out how to impact the game in multiple ways," the exec says. "Of anybody who is off the beaten path right now, he could end up as the best player in this draft. He's the one who has the most potential to do it."

The second setting for the De'Aaron Fox origin story is not as familiar from the stories that have preceded his.

It's very much his own and very much of his generation.

Walk into the Fox family home in suburban Houston. Go up the stairs and turn to the right. On the balcony, there's a 52-inch flat-screen television in the corner, then a second television on the ground. A computer sits on a desk. Against the wall is a couch.

This is where Fox developed his ability to read a basketball court and react, the court vision that talent evaluators believe could be elite even at the NBA level.

Beginning in fourth grade, Fox slept on that couch almost every night. He'd put his video game on pause—usually from the NBA 2K series—and lay down his head. And if he woke up in the middle of the night, he might pick the game right back up. It was here, in his family's game room, that he honed a crucial part of the skill set that will soon make him millions.

There's a stereotype out there of gamers that paints them as nerdy and out of touch, with their Doritos-crusted fingers and two-liters of Mountain Dew in their parents' basement. This image is dated.

We live in an age not of 8-bit Nintendo but of Call of Duty-like war simulators that are realistic enough to be used for military training. We live in an age where professional gaming is considered a legit sport that uses many of the same skills—hand-eye coordination, sure, but also stamina, concentration and multilevel thinking—as so-called "real" sports.

Just ask Fox's father. He swears his son's gaming habit has helped make him one of the top NBA prospects in the nation.

"He was one of those kids you didn't really have to teach much on the basketball court—show him something and he could learn," Aaron Fox says. "A lot of people don't believe me, but I tell everyone that that PlayStation helped him get where he is today.

"He'd play that PlayStation, and he could master it in no time. He learned pick-and-rolls. He learned how to roll off a ball screen. I tell kids if they want to learn something about basketball, go put it on pro mode on 2K and let them play."

His son is the proof. If Fox isn't on a basketball court, chances are he's connected to a video game console, which his older brother introduced him to at age three.

He's awesome at Madden. He slays at the UFC game, claiming a record of "300-something to 17" over his best high school friend. He's virtually unbeatable in NBA2K, despite the fact that he doesn't choose the Cavaliers or the Warriors—he picks the Thunder, because Russell Westbrook is his favorite player. (The only person who has beaten him in 2K at Kentucky is former basketball player E.J. Floreal, but Fox is quick to point out that it was only once, and that Floreal got lucky.)

He destroys at Grand Theft Auto, and from his dorm room at Wildcat Coal Lodge, he still goes online and wrecks his high school teammates at Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.

For the game he claims to be unbeatable at—Dragon Ball Z, a fighting game based on the Japanese anime show—he recently threw out challenges on Twitter. Kentucky fans came at him, wanting bragging rights for beating their team's star point guard. Fox vanquished all comers in less than 60 seconds apiece.

You may ask, How many hours a day does he play? Four? More. Five? Close. Six? Probably about that.

Spending that much time in front of a TV screen might seem like a problem for an elite athlete who will soon have the fortunes of an NBA franchise resting on his shoulders. Not for Fox. What shines most about his game, along with his speed and his athleticism, is the way he sees plays unfold before him.

"He's one that runs fast, but his mind moves slow, and we're trying to teach that in everything we do," Calipari says. "We fly. But your mind can't move as fast as your feet or you're going to turn it over. So you gotta run fast and be able to process slower to see what's happening, because if you process slower, you can kind of see what's going to [happen].

"At the end of the day, [I don't know] if there's a better point guard in the country."

That's at the college level. Will he still be able to see the game that way when the difficulty is set to "pro mode" in the NBA? One NBA Eastern Conference exec says that's the big question. "The trick for that kid is when he learns how to slow down. It's such a counterintuitive thing. We talk push, push, push. But once it slows down for him, watch out.

"It slowed down for John Wall, and now he's a four-time All-Star."

The Wall comparison is one you'll hear a lot for Fox, whose college stats almost perfectly mirror what Wall did in his sole season at Kentucky in 2009-10. In 37 college games, Wall averaged 16.6 points, 6.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.8 steals. So far this season, Fox—who missed Saturday's game with a knee contusion but was back at practice Monday—is averaging 15.5 points, 5.3 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 1.5 steals.

Scouts see his style as similar, too: a hyper-speedy point guard who can slice to the rim and be a lockdown perimeter defender but struggles with his jump shot.

"He's just so unbelievably quick with the ball and just so quick on defense," a Western Conference scout says. "And I love how he sees the game."

There may be havoc on the court, but there's never havoc in Fox's multitasking mind. And as much as those hours in the gym, it's these hours in the gaming room that help his brain process like this.

Ask Fox how video games have made him a better basketball player, and he speaks about how he learned moves from playing NBA 2K that he incorporated into his game: the Allen Iverson crossover, the between-the-legs crossover size-up.

But video games are more than just a textbook to him. They're training for his mind.

Fox identifies an of-his-generation skill, which older folks mock as the paralyzingly short attention span of the ADHD generation, that video games develop: an ability to concentrate on several things at the same time and do them all well.

"You know how people say how scientists have proven that multitasking is impossible?" Fox asks. "I fight that. I don't think multitasking is impossible. With me at home, I had the TV on, then I had the TV on the floor—I'd watch TV and play the game.

"If an NBA or college game is on, watch that, or SpongeBob. And I'll be playing Call of Duty, 2K, Grand Theft Auto. Then I'll have a laptop or an iPad in my lap, and I'd be watching something on YouTube. And then I'd have my phone in my hand texting someone. And sometimes, I can be doing homework while I'm doing all of this."

Sound absurd? Maybe it is. But maybe there's something else going on. Maybe Fox really has, through all these hours juggling all these electronic devices, created a faster processor inside his head than yours or mine. That's the feeling you get when you watch him play basketball—when you watch him see the game unfold a couple of plays before everyone else catches up.

"Watch this," Fox says, sitting in the team's film room. "You're going to think I'm weird."

He removes the wireless headphones that had been in his ears. He switches the music to his phone speakers. It's an R&B song called "Without You," and it's loud. It hadn't even been noticeable that music was playing up to that point.

"Right now, I've actually been listening to music this whole interview," he says. Then he laughs.

"I don't think I've ever been doing one thing at a time. The only time I'm doing one thing at a time is when I'm playing basketball."

Fox's mother recalls a day shortly before his second birthday, when they went to his grandmother's house for Thanksgiving. His older brother by five years, Quentin, had already started playing basketball. De'Aaron saw one of those plastic pumpkin buckets left over from storing Halloween candy. To him, the orange sphere with black markings looked familiar. He carried the pumpkin around all day long, shooting it as if it were his older brother's basketball.

"It was just hilarious," Lorraine Fox says. "It was like, 'OK, son, that's not a basketball.'"

His parents met when they were at East Mississippi Junior College in Scooba, Mississippi. Aaron went on to play football at Fort Hays State University in Kansas, while Lorraine played basketball at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Her own college days foreshadowed her son's basketball obsession. When she wasn't studying or at practice, she'd sit in her dorm room, watching college hoops or NBA games with her roommate. Fox's dad loved the game too, playing in every park-and-rec league he could as Fox was growing up.

It was clear from a young age that Fox was a natural.

As a quarterback for his youth football team, he knew to direct his teammates into position at the line of scrimmage: a pint-sized Peyton Manning. At age seven, his dad put him in a church basketball league, and at halftime of Fox's first game, he already had 30 points. His dad told him he wasn't allowed to shoot anymore in the second half. After the game, the league's organizer moved Fox up a level to play with nine- and 10-year-olds.

"When he was the best player on that team too, I knew we were on our way," Aaron says.

There are plenty more eye-popping milestones from there: When Fox first dunked in a game in eighth grade. When he averaged 25 points in summer league as an eighth-grader playing against high school kids. When he scored 50 points in his fifth varsity game—as a freshman. When he was named the Texas High School Player of the Year. And a McDonald's All-American. And the MVP of the Jordan Brand Classic.

But since the beginning, what's always stood out to coaches and recruiters was that powerful processor that seemed plucked straight from a video game console—the mind that seemed to understand basketball like a 10-year NBA veteran instead of a kid still in the early stages of learning the game.

"What immediately jumped out to me as a coach was his willingness as a teammate to give of himself," says Tim Schumacher, Fox's AAU coach at Houston Hoops, an acclaimed Nike-affiliated youth basketball program. "As a young man, he understood the team he was playing on and that his role might have to change depending on the team. He accepted that and embraced that. And it showed a lot as a person."

Friends and family say Fox's basketball style reflects his personality off the court. It's unique and flashy but all predicated on helping the four teammates around him. He embraces the carefreeness of being a kid, not the ego-inflation of being a basketball phenom. Fitting in, following trends, falling in line—that's not Fox. He's his own man.

Go back to Fox's favorite NBA player: Westbrook. Picking LeBron or Steph or Michael would have been too easy, too cliche.

Or take his iPhone. It's filled with obscure hip-hop music: Henderson, Logic, Skizzy Mars, A Boogie wit da Hoodie. His favorite Kanye West album isn't Late Registration or Yeezus but instead the divisive, critically acclaimed 808s & Heartbreak.

Or his hair. It's one of the most unique hairstyles in college hoops. Some people call it a nappy fro, but Fox says it's more twisted than it is nappy. It's like his former Houston Hoops teammate Justise Winslow's hair, except Fox's is more spiky, almost like a video game character. He hasn't cut the top since his junior year of high school.

Feb 4, 2017; Gainesville, FL, USA; Kentucky Wildcats guard De'Aaron Fox (0) works out prior to the game against the Florida Gators at Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Or just his lifestyle. While other big-time college athletes party, Fox says he's content to stay in his dorm room, playing video games online with his high school friends.

"I just go to the beat of my own drum," he says.

The talk about being different leads Fox back to video games. His favorite video game. It's not NBA 2K; sometimes he needs a break from basketball. It's not Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty, not Madden or UFC.

Instead, it's that fighting game based on the Japanese anime series, Dragon Ball Z.

De'Aaron Fox @swipathefox

Bro how are you a guy & have never watched Dragon Ball Z in your life? Like that's an automatic 2 strikes!

Fox's Twitter bio is filled with references from the game. When he talks about it, his eyes light up. It's a story about Goku, who was sent from Planet Vegeta to destroy Earth. Goku is from a warrior race. Like Fox, Goku has an analytical mind. Like Fox, Goku studies others and quickly learns their weaknesses.

"As a fighter, he picks up on things so fast," Fox says. "Say you're doing a move. He'll be able to learn your move and counter it. And you're basically watching him grow up throughout the show and the game."

That's where Fox is in life right now: He's Goku, a talented and ambitious boy in the process of becoming a man.

But Fox wants to hang onto that youthful innocence, despite being on the cusp of fame and fortune.

In a way, that's what his obsession with video games represents: a way that Fox can remain grounded in who he is and not lose himself in whatever comes next.

There was a moment less than a year ago that Fox looks to when he thinks about staying true to himself—a moment when Fox was confronted with all the big questions: about mortality and kindness, doing what's right and searching for meaning in his life.

Fox and his parents were coming back from Portland. He had just played in the Nike Hoop Summit game, where the best high school players in the country had one final hurrah before heading off to college. A couple of weeks before, Kentucky, where he'd soon be heading for a presumed one-and-done season, had lost before the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2013.

Fox knew it would soon be on his shoulders to lead the Wildcats back to where fans believe they belong. For this high school kid, the stakes would soon be getting bigger with each passing year. In Portland, Fox had a pretty good game, scoring nine points and registering two steals while leading both teams with five assists.

He got off the plane at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston when his dad's phone started ringing.

It was Fox's high school coach. Coach O's voice indicated something serious: Seth Barnett was in the hospital. Even though he was exhausted from the travel, Fox—whose parents used to bring him to homeless shelters when he was younger to teach him about the less fortunate—knew the right thing to do was go visit Seth.

The story of Seth Barnett and De'Aaron Fox goes like this: Seth went to Fox's high school. He had cerebral palsy. He went around the school in his wheelchair, accompanied by an aide. He used a DynaVox, a speech-generating machine, to speak.

As Fox was fielding scholarship offers from blueblood programs all over the country, he began to notice Seth. Seth was always wearing his student ID on a Kentucky Wildcats lanyard. Nearly every day, he was wearing a shirt from Big Blue Nation.

Fox spoke with Seth's aide, and she told him Seth's family was from Kentucky and were huge Wildcats fans. Fox went out of his way to say hi to Seth in school. They struck up as much of a friendship as you can have between two people who could hardly be in different life situations.

Last fall, when Calipari was coming to town to encourage Fox to play for him, Fox had an idea: He would invite Seth to his home when Calipari came by.

"It was Seth's dream come true," says Seth's mother, Carol Barnett. "He laughed a lot. He couldn't really talk, but he was laughing and smiling. And I just love De'Aaron for that. Most boys his age wouldn't have even considered doing that for Seth."

Calipari later stopped by Seth's classroom: "You keep working on De'Aaron for me," he joked.

Just months after Fox made this boy's wish come true, Coach O was on the phone with his father with bad news: Seth had pneumonia. He was in the hospital, on life support. He wasn't going to make it.

They drove straight to the hospital. Seth's family was in the room, crying. Fox had never been this close to the experience of death, but he felt called to be there. He doesn't remember exactly what was said, but Fox and his family stayed there for much of the day. Just being there, with Seth's family in their moment of grief, felt like the right thing to do.

Seth died a couple of days later. His body was taken back to Kentucky, where the family was from. He was buried in a UK tie, in a blue UK jacket, in a UK coffin.

It's hard for Seth's mother not to get emotional when she watches Kentucky play this year.

"I hope that De'Aaron remains compassionate throughout his career," she says. "My family and I will always be cheering him on."

On June 22, De'Aaron Fox will, in the eyes of many, become a man.

He will walk up to the podium and shake NBA Commissioner Adam Silver's hand, a newly minted 19-year-old millionaire with a professional basketball career ahead of him.

ATLANTA, GA - MAY 1: DeAaron Fox #31 poses for a portrait during Adidas Nations Atlanta on May 1, 2015 at the JW Marriott in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kelly Kline/Getty Images)
Kelly Kline/Getty Images

And yet Fox does not want to leave who he is behind him as he moves on to the life of fame and riches. He will still play video games with his high school friends. He'll still be watching SpongeBob SquarePants while he plays NBA 2K while he texts his friends while he fiddles with his iPad. He will still be the young man who his father proudly states "didn't grow up too fast."

And, he says, he will honor Seth's mother's wishes. He still remembers the lessons that he learned from Seth, a boy who came into his life and made Fox realize that the power of being a famous athlete can be used for good.

"It's always bigger than basketball," Fox says. "This game can change a life. You see the smile on the kid's face—it literally can change that kid's whole life around. And it's kind of contagious. You see someone smiling like that, and you kind of want to be as happy as they are. That's what I got out of that experience with Seth."

Maybe that sounds like a lot of perspective on life for a 19-year-old. Or for someone who plays video games six hours a day. Or for a gym rat who hits the courts at 6 a.m. But this is the balance Fox manages: the kid, the gamer, the player, the person. He's a multitrack person with a multitrack mind.

"I've never let basketball change who I am off the court," he says. "I can have a bad game and be smiling two hours later. Basketball is basketball. I let life be separate. I want to make a living out of it, but at the end of the day, it's still just a game. Off the court, I'm still a kid."

With that, Fox pops his headphones back onto his ears and slinks into the locker room. It's a day off for Kentucky basketball, and there will certainly be plenty of video games later on in the evening, but before that he has work to put in on the court.

A kid can still be a kid, even as he's on the precipice of being a man.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.