De’Aaron Fox is used to covering a lot of ground in a very short period of time. In a sprint, his Kings teammates are advised to run the other way. His afterburners already have left blisters on a few of his NBA contemporaries, including 7-foot rim protectors who know he’s coming, but are too slow to react.
“I’m a quick study,” Fox said before the Rising Stars game Friday night at Staples Center.
Too true. And that’s part of what makes the rookie point guard’s inaugural season so intriguing. Two months into his career, or right about the time he turned 20, Fox picked up the pace, accelerated the learning curve, began to resemble the player the Kings envisioned when they drafted him fifth overall out of Kentucky.
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Instead of thinking so much, he began to attack, using his ridiculous quickness and athleticism to create. He gained an understanding of where his teammates wanted the ball, and then delivered. Defensively he became more of a pest, relying on his instincts and wiry 6-foot-3 frame to deflect and steal passes, living up to his nickname, “Swipa.”
Then there is his jumper. It was never mechanically broken, not like his friend Lonzo Ball’s. But as his shooting percentage failed to crack 40 percent, defenders sagged off, daring him to shoot and crowding the lane. That is notably changing. As Fox’s efficiency has improved, inching toward 41 percent overall and 32 percent from 3-point range through 50 games, the Houston native has exploited the openings to the basket and spread the floor for cleaner looks for his teammates.
“All of my shooting percentages have gone up,” he said Friday afternoon, “and that’s raised my level of play. Watching guys, the way they come off screens and shoot the three ball, that’s something I’ve also been working on. That’s a shot I’ve become more comfortable taking, shooting the three off the dribble.”
Fox, who was added to the U.S. squad late Tuesday when Ball withdrew because of a knee injury – insert snarky comment here if you choose – believes his early season shooting struggles not only precluded him from being named to the original Rising Stars roster, it effectively eliminated him from the Rookie of the Year race with Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum and Kyle Kuzma.
Yet while his erratic jumper has long been cited as his most serious flaw, one that could very well dictate whether he enjoys a solid NBA career or joins the league’s elite, his shooting percentage nonetheless is higher than lottery picks and fellow point guards Frank Ntilikina (35 percent), Dennis Smith Jr. (39.4), Milos Teodosic (39.2) and Ball (35.6). Even Simmons’ numbers are misleading. The Philadelphia 76ers’ marvelous rookie is shooting a blistering 52.7 percent from the field, but has failed to convert any of his 10 3-point attempts.
Fox, who has been pulled aside and offered encouragement by the likes of Damian Lillard and Chris Paul, stubbornly follows their advice: Keep shooting, continue practicing hard, stay confident.
“He looks a lot more comfortable,” Dirk Nowitzki observed after the Dallas Mavericks’ recent appearance at Golden 1 Center. “His shot looks smooth now and he is hitting the jumper in the pocket already, which is a tough shot for a guard to learn. He’s long and athletic, and he will be a good defender. I like him a lot. I think he’s going to have a great future in this league.”
Fox, by the way, has no issues with his after-the-fact Rising Stars selection, other than scrambling for arrangements for his parents, brother, high school coach and his agent.
Since arriving Thursday, he has found plenty of time to trash talk with Kings teammates Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic, both of whom received spots on the World Team, and charm a large media contingent earlier Friday.
Fox, as we are learning, is a multitalented performer. He loves the stage. In a playful 30-minute session with reporters from various countries, he imitated a comedian, jokingly cautioned Hield and Bogdanovic against trapping him in the game later that night, reiterated his desire to make several All-Star teams, matter-of-factly referenced his photographic memory, and endorsed the Kings’ youth movement and the philosophy of building in the draft.
Other Foxisms: Kyrie Irving has the best handle, the Kings rookies jump when Zach Randolph speaks, he has a romantic crush on a celebrity who is attending the festivities, but refuses to disclose her identity.
But with Fox, who is averaging 11.3 points and 4.3 assists in 27.2 minutes per game, it begins and ends with speed.
Asked his best move, he laughed. “Run by people.”