De’Aaron Fox is a blur and, as he is discovering, so is the NBA schedule.
The games and the challenges just keep coming. One night the No. 5 overall draft pick contends with Kyrie Irving, another night he introduces himself to Damian Lillard or Stephen Curry, or his personal favorite, the 100-mile-per-hour man himself, Russell Westbrook.
But out of the mouth of babes, as they say, or in this case a teenager who wears No. 5 and starts at point guard for the Kings, comes this blunt self-critique: “I think I was better earlier in the season, but I think I’ll be fine. I can definitely play better.”
Fox’s assessment is spot on, though perhaps a little harsh. He was speaking shortly after arguably his worst performance of his young career, a seven-turnover, two-assist effort Sunday against the Toronto Raptors and their two-headed monster backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
In his first seven games, also known as the October stretch when opponents got their first glimpse of the former Kentucky standout, the 6-foot-3, 175-pound speedster averaged 13.4 points, 5.0 assists and 4.3 rebounds while shooting 33.3 percent from 3-point range and 41.7 percent overall. Through 26 games, his averages have dipped to 10.1 points, 4.0 assists, 3.0 rebounds, 27.8 percent from beyond the arc and 40.2 percent overall.
Yet think about the circumstances for a moment. Fox is 19 years old. Still growing into his slender frame. Still working on his cranky mid-range jump shot with the eventual goal of consistently knocking shots down beyond the arc. Still trying to keep his head on straight while the global game keeps on spinning.
Historically, he has plenty of company. Because point guard is the most difficult position to master, many of the league’s all-time greats didn’t emerge as legitimate starters or impact players until the second or third years of their career. For every Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Jason Kidd or Chris Paul, precocious pros who flourished as rookie starters, there is a Curry, John Stockton, Gary Payton, Kevin Johnson, Mark Price, Mike Conley.
“The first reaction your opponents have is, ‘Who is this guy?’ ” Kings coach Dave Joerger said after Monday’s practice. “You’ve seen him on TV, but when you see him (in person), and how quick he is, what he can do and can’t do so well at this point, that’s when he gets scouted. And you can get brain-locked. He’s trying to run a team, do what I’m asking him to do. You start to quarterback the game, and I’m not saying you lose your athleticism, but you don’t turn to it as much. He’s a smart kid, though. He’s learning.”
When Fox attacks like he did in the final minutes of Sunday’s loss, exploding to the rim, penetrating and kicking out to teammates, busting past slower defenders, Joerger temporarily forgets about the erratic mid-range jumper and nonexistent 3-point shot, and asks himself, “Why don’t you do that all the time?”
Then he answers his own question: Youth. Inexperience. The nightly grind.
There is one facet of Fox’s considerable skill set – his ability to pressure opposing ballhandlers with his quick hands and long arms – that has been somewhat of a disappointment; he isn’t picking pockets and stealing lunch money as often as expected.
The dynamic young player who was nicknamed “Swipa the Fox” during his middle school years because of his on-court thievery, seldom pressures ballhandlers or utilizes his reach and instincts to create turnovers and much-needed transition opportunities. He is averaging less than one steal per game, a stat that has remained consistent throughout the season.
“Whenever De’Aaron is in the game, he should be a menace because he is so quick and can get up on the ball,” Kings guard Garrett Temple said. “I saw his potential from the beginning. I think it was the Dallas game. He was guarding, wasn’t getting scored on. We just have to bring that out of him every game because when he gets after it like that, it opens things up for everybody.”
If this all sounds like the Kings are expecting a lot, well, they are, and they should be. Fox was projected as a future All-Star before he even stepped onto an NBA court. And amid the inconsistency have been flashes of brilliance. He hit the game-winning jumper against Philadelphia, has tossed baseball passes for dunks, exploded and stutter-stepped around taller, bigger opponents before finishing on a variety of shots, with either hand.
“I’m just trying to figure out when to use my speed, make better decisions, when to pass the ball, KYP (know your personnel),” Fox said. “It shouldn’t matter who is out there with me.”
Kings assistant Elston Turner, who was an exceptional defender during his NBA career, agrees with Temple. He believes Fox can be a disruptive force, a point guard who dictates with both defense and playmaking.
“He has to learn the angles,” Turner said, “and know what a team likes to do, what your guy likes to do. I’m sure guys are hitting him harder (on screens), and sometimes you’re peeking over, wondering ‘where’s that screener?’ You keep waiting to get cracked. But you have to develop trust in your teammates, and know that you are quick as a cat, with long arms. As quick as he is on offense, there is no reason he doesn’t use his lateral quickness when guarding someone with the ball.”
The organization mantra regarding Fox goes something like this: Be who you are. Use your speed and quickness. Attack, attack, attack.
“We need him to push the ball,” Turner added. “He has to play at that pace. It does us no good to have him and play slow.”
And Swipa? Mere days from his 20th birthday? What does he see in the forecast?
“I try not to think too much,” he said, with a soft smile. “The way I played at the end of the game (Sunday) is the way I need to play. I’m not trying to hold back. If I’m not scoring, try to do something else, get my hands on some balls. Turn the guard and try to take some time off the clock. At the end of the day, I have to be more aggressive. I have to produce on the court.”