The road ahead could have more pressure-packed moments in which victory and defeat are decided by a single shot or a defensive stop against an All-Star opponent.
Kings point guard De’Aaron Fox looked like a young man who will be ready when more of those moments arise as he left the floor – arms raised in triumph – following a 116-112 victory over the Washington Wizards on Friday night at Golden 1 Center.
“I think right now, everybody kind of looks at me,” Fox said. “(In crunch time), coach wants the ball in my hands, even if I’m not shooting the ball, just create for somebody else. I’ve embraced it and guys have embraced it for me to be a playmaker. They trust me, so I’ve got to go out there and trust myself.”
Fox was still a skinny high school kid when people started comparing him to John Wall, a five-time All-Star with the Wizards. Both starred at Kentucky under coach John Calipari. Both burst onto the NBA scene as top draft picks with crazy quickness and elite end-to-end speed.
“I’m sure John is probably a big brother to him,” Kings coach Dave Joerger said. “ ... (Wall is) a heck of a player and a really good guy. I like John a lot and that would be great for De’Aaron to learn as much as he can from a guy like that.”
Wall proved to be well ahead of Fox when they faced off twice during Fox’s rookie season. Wall averaged 20 points and nine assists in those two contests, making 15 of 22 field-goal attempts and 9 of 10 from 3-point range to lead the Wizards to two resounding victories.
Fox averaged six points and five assists, making 4 of 18 from the field and 1 of 5 from beyond the arc. In the first game – his first career start – he finished with two points after missing seven of eight shots.
“I feel like I’m an entirely different player now,” he said.
Fox showed how much ground he has gained when the two players met again Friday, scoring 18 points on 7-of-14 shooting with nine assists. Wall had 26 points and eight assists, but he made just 9 of 20 field-goal attempts and 1 of 6 from 3-point range.
The game started with Wall blocking a shot by Fox. It ended with Fox making a critical stop on Wall.
The Kings were clinging to a two-point lead when Fox found himself guarding Wall near the top of the arc. Wall faked left, faked right and then tried to drive to his left, but Fox wouldn’t budge. He shuffled back and forth, staying in front of Wall at every turn, just as he did against Mike Conley in Wednesday’s victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.
“Mike Conley is tough to guard and John Wall is tough to guard,” Joerger said. “Down the stretch, I thought (Fox) kept his chest in front of guys.”
Fox forced Wall to give up the ball. Wall passed to Markieff Morris in the corner. Morris was called for traveling with 9.9 seconds remaining. For pumped his fist while Wall walked away in disgust.
“Sometimes it just comes down to a stop,” Fox said. “When you’re guarding a guy like John, you know they’re only down two, so they’re probably going to try to get to the basket. I feel like I’m quick enough to move my feet with anybody.”
Wizards coach Scott Brooks praised the Kings for their new uptempo style of play.
“Give (Sacramento) credit,” he said. “This team plays fast, they play hard and they’re young and athletic. They deserved to win down the stretch.”
There could be more moments like this on the road ahead for the Kings, who have a surprising 3-3 record as they embark on a four-game trip after winning three of their last four games and two in a row. They will travel to Miami (2-2), Orlando (2-3), Atlanta (2-2) and Milwaukee (5-0) before returning to Sacramento to begin a four-game home stand against Toronto (6-0).
The Kings will hit the road with total faith and confidence in their second-year point guard.
“De’Aaron is our leader,” Kings forward Nemanja Bjelica said. “The rest of the guys, we just follow him.”
Fox will face some of the top point guards in the Eastern Conference, including Miami’s Goran Dragic, Milwaukee’s Eric Bledsoe and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, as well as a promising rookie in Atlanta’s Trae Young, who, like Fox, was a No. 5 overall pick.
Dragic, an All-Star last season, is averaging 16.8 points, 5.5 assists and 4.8 rebounds for Miami, which could easily be undefeated. The Heat, who will play host to the Kings on Monday, lost by one point to Charlotte and three points to Orlando.
Bledsoe is averaging 13.8 points, 7.2 assists and 5.6 rebounds for Milwaukee, which remained unbeaten with a 125-95 victory over Minnesota on Friday.
Lowry, a four-time All-Star, averages 19.8 points and 10.8 assists for Toronto, which is coming off a 116-107 victory over Dallas. The Raptors have already beaten Boston in what might have been a preview of the Eastern Conference finals.
Young is emerging as a top Rookie of the Year candidate for the Hawks, who won two in a row going into Saturday’s game against Chicago. Young averaged 21.5 points and 7.5 assists while shooting 37.5 percent from 3-point range over the first four games.
“As a point guard, you’re playing somebody good every game,” Fox said. “There are no nights off playing this position. You’ve got to be on your ‘A’ game playing point guard in this league. If you’re not, you’re going to get torched every single game. It’s a mentality you’ve got to come with. You have to perform every night.”