De'Aaron Fox Is the Leader the Sacramento Kings Have Been Waiting For

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 17, 2018

SACRAMENTO, CA - NOVEMBER 12:  De'Aaron Fox #5 of the Sacramento Kings reacts against the San Antonio Spurs on November 12, 2018 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
Bleacher Report

SACRAMENTO—De'Aaron Fox has grown immensely in his second NBA season, seizing unquestioned, organizationally endorsed control of a leadership role for the Sacramento Kings at age 20.

But it'd be wrong to say he's changed.

We do this all the time when a young player assumes a position of outsized importance early in his career. We fawn over how he's learned to speak up or lead by example ahead of schedule. We marvel at how difficult that metamorphosis must be, how unusual it is for someone so young to take ownership of a team.

For Fox, who's leading a Kings squad with the league's longest active playoff drought to a pleasantly surprising 8-7 start, what's happening now isn't unusual. That portion of his rookie year in 2017-18 when he wasn't the unquestioned alpha? That was the weird part.

"I've always been [the guy]," Fox told Bleacher Report. "Coming off the bench last year was kind of different, but I had other guys, other veterans, guys who'd proven themselves playing in front of me. I wasn't mad about it."

Dues paid, Fox is now playing the only role he's ever known. The one for which his style, skill and demeanor are practically purpose-built.

Notably, Fox is also built for speed.

"It's unbelievable," Kings general manager Vlade Divac, who selected Fox fifth overall in the 2017 draft, said of Fox's end-to-end sprints. "I've been in the league almost 30 years. I've never seen somebody..."

Divac pauses, searching.

"Westbrook is there, but..." he concludes, trailing off in a way that seems to suggest you can decide whether Fox or Russell Westbrook has more zip. The implication is that it's too close to call.

"That's the whole idea, the identity for this team: We've got to push," Divac explained. "We have young legs. And he's a perfect fit for that. If you don't have him, it's hard to execute."

Sacramento plays at the second-fastest pace in the league, up from dead last a year ago.

There are plenty of burners in the league, but playing fast without a plan can lead to disorganization and disaster. And even if Fox didn't have to change temperamentally to take on his new (familiar) role as a leader, he did have to learn the value of slowing down.

"Coming off pick-and-rolls last year, it felt like everything was moving fast," Fox explained. "The roller was moving fast, the guy who was gonna tag the roller was moving fast. And now, once I see someone make one false step somewhere, I feel like I know exactly where to put the ball. As a rookie, that's one of the hard things to see. On offense, all you need is one guy on defense to mess up, and then you can pick things apart."

Point guards this young aren't supposed to invert the hunter-prey paradigm so quickly, but Fox's probing forays into the lane show he's crossed that divide. And speed isn't his only weapon. Watch as he calmly slips into a thicket of defenders, surveys his options and makes the right play—all at a measured pace.

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"He's made a huge jump on making reads during the game," veteran teammate Iman Shumpert said. "Controlling the pace and tempo of the game. He's growing a lot."

Last year, Fox ranked in the 27th percentile of scoring efficiency in pick-and-rolls.

Now, he's climbed into the 52nd, and DeMar DeRozan is the only high-volume pick-and-roll ball-handler who draws a higher percentage of shooting fouls on such plays.

Let's not forget about that raw open-floor burst, though. That's important, too.

On defense:

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And offense:

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Among players who've used at least 40 transition possessions, only Stephen Curry, LeBron James and Fox's teammate Buddy Hield average more points per play. Remarkably, Fox is only turning the ball over on 4.7 percent of these open-floor attacks. Just for reference, Giannis Antetokounmpo coughs it up in transition nearly six times as frequently. Curry loses possession almost three times as often.

It's hard to find a better example of how Fox has married his blinding speed with necessary caution.

Fox's ascent is inseparable from the broader culture reset in Sacramento. All involved seem to agree things are just different this year. Fox is entrenched as his team's key figure, and that has an organizing effect on the entire roster.

Teammate Willie Cauley-Stein, who's thrived with Fox leading the offense, laid out the differences in plain terms.

"I've been here for four years, and this is the first time everybody is on one page, everybody likes playing with each other, everybody really cares if you do well. In the past it was like, 'These two dudes need to get their numbers and we might win. And if we win, it's cool.' Now it's like we're playing for everybody else."

Things don't fall into place just because a team identifies and empowers a star. That star also has to fit the team's vision and embrace his status as a driver of success.

Divac tells a story of the time over the summer when he jokingly suggested to Fox that perhaps the team had put too much on his shoulders.

"If you're not ready, we'll take it off," Divac said at the the time, smirking in the retelling. He did this knowing Fox would bristle at the idea.

"No, no, no!" Fox responded.

"OK," Divac said. "Show us."

So far, Fox is showing more than anyone outside the organization could have imagined. A 30.7 percent shooter from deep last year, Fox is drilling 41.7 percent on higher volume in 2018-19. His averages of 19 points, 7.3 assists and 4.4 rebounds dwarf last year's 11.6 points, 4.4 assists and 2.8 rebounds. His usage rate is up along with his effective field-goal percentage. He's drawing fouls twice as often as he did in 2017-18.

Most importantly, Fox has filled a void that has existed in Sacramento for years. He's become the embraceable, unifying star DeMarcus Cousins never was. He is the foundational piece around which the Kings are building a team and an identity. That Sacramento is also 8-7 almost seems secondary. This is bigger than a hot start—one that'll surely cool as a brutal late-November schedule approaches.

"I feel like it's happened pretty fast for me, you know?" Fox said. "Coming to your second year, trying to make that jump. But I felt like I needed to make that jump and just help my team succeed, help my team win."

No leap of this magnitude is easy, but Fox has made his transition to stardom seem that way. Maybe that's because there's nothing about "fast" that makes him uncomfortable. Or maybe it's because he's now occupying the role he was born to play.

"Last year, we always talked about consistency," Divac said. "This year, he's taking this team to another level. The sky's the limit for him."

       

Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise indicated. Accurate through games played Monday, Nov. 12.

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