Ailene Voisin

For the Kings to make a leap, they need a leader. Why that has to be De'Aaron Fox

Kings guard De'Aaron Fox calls out a play during a game at Golden 1 Center. Fox says, "Next year I’ll be more efficient and I’ll elevate my game.”
Kings guard De'Aaron Fox calls out a play during a game at Golden 1 Center. Fox says, "Next year I’ll be more efficient and I’ll elevate my game.” hamezcua@sacbee.com

The Kings ended another regular season without a playoff berth, are approaching another offseason clutching a high NBA draft pick and already are pondering ways and means to accelerate their return to relevance.

The 2017-18 record nothwithstanding – and 27 wins exceeded many preseason projections – there are reasons to be encouraged, to think that, perhaps, the Kings might finally be inching along the right path.

Bogdan Bogdanovic is a complete player and exceptional teammate who burns to win. Buddy Hield has been a revelation, morphing from a one-dimensional scorer into a rugged defender and willing/capable passer. Harry Giles has yet to play an NBA minute, but there isn’t a member of the organization who doesn’t believe he has a chance to be a transformational figure. Willie Cauley-Stein has unearthed all the offensive tools he has long maintained he possesses, introducing skilled passing and mid-range shooting.

Any praise for Willie comes with an asterisk, though. With his size (7 feet) and athleticism, the third-year center should average double-doubles in his sleep, and that’s the problem. Willie seemingly snoozes every third game, depriving his teammates of a reliable rebounder and rim runner, leaving a huge hole on the interior.

Assuming for the moment that Cauley-Stein commits to becoming a more consistent performer, the Kings select wisely in the upcoming draft – never a given around here, by any stretch – and general manager Vlade Divac balances his young roster with some combination of veterans Garrett Temple, Kosta Koufos, Zach Randolph, Iman Shumpert and Vince Carter, the overriding question in the ongoing rebuilding process remains this: Who shall lead them?

The answer is De’Aaron Fox. Or should be De’Aaron Fox.

Opinion

The rookie point guard from Kentucky was among the most celebrated college freshmen a year ago, an electric performer at times, and given his substantial abilities and the Kings’ void at his position, was a logical pick at No. 5 overall.

Yet 10 months later, the conversation isn’t who wins the Fox-Lonzo Ball duel, or even why so many teams passed on Donovan Mitchell or Kyle Kuzma, but why Fox trails many of his peers and very likely will be ignored in the Rookie of the Year race.

“It was a long, bumpy road,” Fox conceded Wednesday after the season finale. “Individually I had ups and downs. I would say it was 'OK.' But I feel like I progressed. I felt like this year I was able to get to my spot, get where I wanted. Next year I’ll be more efficient and I’ll elevate my game.”

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Sacramento Kings guard De'Aaron Fox (5) gets up in the air before passing off in the first half. Jose Luis Villegas

Point guard, of course, is the most difficult position to master. Lead guards these days attack the rim, shoot from outside, make plays for others, facilitate the offense and harass opposing ballhandlers. That’s yeoman’s work for experienced, physically mature players, and Fox is neither of the above.

Yet his age (20) and upside alone thrust him into the group of Kings who are expected to form the team’s foundation. His blistering speed, leaping ability and body control on forays to the basket are special gifts. On occasion, he has pressured opponents and swiped passes that create transition opportunities. He has a knack for knocking down clutch shots, ranked fifth among rookies with 4.4 assists per game and in the closing weeks became more selective with his erratic mid-range jumper (35 percent in shots attempts between 8-16 feet).

His shooting woes notwithstanding, including his 30.7 percent from beyond the arc, Fox made significant progress to be sure, most notably after being inserted into the starting lineup.

The other aspects of his development – and these could dictate how swiftly the Kings improve – involve the intangibles. Does he hold his teammates accountable? Does he hold himself accountable? Is he ready to dictate an offense? How badly does he hate to lose? Is he the first player in the gym and the last to leave? How fast does he learn?

When discussing his slender 6-foot-3 point guard, Kings coach Dave Joerger fast-forwards two seasons, when the former Wildcat puts distance between his teen years and young adulthood. Joerger believes Fox will develop organically over that period, both in terms of filling out his slight frame and gaining much needed strength, as well as becoming a solid floor leader and a more versatile, consistent scorer.

“It just takes until a certain age, until your body starts settling into what it is,” Joerger said during Thursday’s end-of-season wrap-up with local media. “And you look at the end of the year, the miles he puts on, going end to end, picking guys up here and there. It can wear you down. For me, it’s long-term conditioning. And he’s never going to be a buff dude, I don’t think. Just be able to take some hits.”

The shock and awe phase of his rookie season having ended, Fox plans to spend his summer working on his weaknesses, as outlined by Divac and Joerger. Be more efficient. Aggressively attack the rim. Push the pace. Late Wednesday, Bogdanovic said he hopes Fox spends much of his time in Sacramento, joining several of the Kings in the practice facility.

“Buddy and I are going to be here a lot this summer,” Bogdanovic said, “and we want De’Aaron in the gym with us. He is our point guard and we need to play together more to get more (cohesive). The rotations were changing much of the time this year, so late in the season, when we had same guys in the lineup, you saw we made progress. We just have to keep working. It takes time. You can’t stop working.”

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