Most of the NBA’s best point guards did not have a significant spike in production from their rookie season to their second year in the league.
Go down the list — Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, etc. — and you’ll notice the typical progression involves a slight uptick in the major bulk stats of points and assists, and maybe a significant jump in shooting percentages. That could be attributed to the game slowing down for a second-year player who isn’t pressing as much as a rookie.
In that sense, what De’Aaron Fox is doing for the Sacramento Kings in the very early stages of the 2018-19 season is an exception to the rule — presuming that he is in fact on the road to becoming one of the NBA’s top players at his position.
As a rookie last season, Fox — the No. 5 pick in the draft out of Kentucky — averaged 11.6 points, 4.4 assists and 1.0 steals per game, shooting 41.2 percent from the field.
Six games into Year 2, Fox is putting up 17.7 points, 7.0 assists and 1.3 steals while hitting 47.4 percent of his shots from the field.
If Fox keeps this up, the leap he will make between his first and second pro seasons would mimic that of Kemba Walker, the Charlotte Hornets’ two-time All-Star point guard. Walker averaged 12.1 points and 4.4 assists on 36 percent shooting as a rookie for a Charlotte team that posted a historically awful 7-59 record during a 66-game lockout-shortened season. In his second year, Walker upped his numbers to 17.7 points and 5.7 assists while shooting 42 percent. Charlotte was a little bit better than before, finishing 21-61.
The seemingly overnight improvement for Fox could be chalked up primarily to confidence. Not from Fox, who is utterly confident in his abilities, but rather from Kings coach Dave Joerger.
Going into his rookie year, Fox was described by Joerger as possibly having the highest basketball IQ on the team. However, Joerger tends to take it slow with his rookies. Fox began the season coming off the bench behind veteran point guard George Hill.
Fox eventually earned the full-time starting job (and Hill was eventually traded), but the Kings were a team that appeared unsure of its identity — only half-committed to its youth movement while still leaning on veterans like Zach Randolph and Vince Carter who are near the end of their respective careers.
This season, the Kings are all-in on the kids: Fox (20 years old), rookie forward Marvin Bagley III (19), shooting guard Buddy Hield (24), center Willie Cauley-Stein (25), forward Harry Giles (20), wing Justin Jackson (23), center Skal Labissiere (22) and guard Frank Mason III (24).
Carter was allowed to walk in free agency over the summer, and Randolph — the team’s leading scorer last season — has not played a single minute through the Kings’ first six games.
Fox has benefited from being handed the keys to the Kings from Day 1 of training camp as the starting point guard. He’s playing over 32 minutes per game in October, compared to last December when he played just 22 minutes per game.
Joerger gave Fox another ringing endorsement recently at the Kings’ Media Day:
“The best thing you can do for him is play fast and give him as much room as possible,” Joerger said Monday at the Kings practice facility during media day. “To play small and try to do that is best for De’Aaron. He’s our franchise guy. I think he is and I think everybody kind of agrees on that.”
On Friday, Fox and the Kings faced the Washington Wizards, meaning Fox went head-to-head with All-Star point guard John Wall.
Because they both played college ball at Kentucky, and because they’re two of the fastest men in the sport, Fox has often been compared to Wall. Which makes their 1-on-1 meetings something of a litmus test for Fox’s progress.
Fox faced Wall and the Wizards twice last season, and two times he was badly outplayed while the Kings lost convincingly.
On Friday, Fox led the Sacramento to a 116-112 victory while putting up 18 points and nine assists, shooting 7-for-14 (50 percent) from the field. Wall had 26 points, eight assists and three steals while making 9-for-20 (45 percent) from the field.
The good version of Fox and the still-learning version of Fox were both on display. The good was the baseline crossover and dunk he threw down in the first half, and when he scored or assisted on 15 straight points for the Kings in the fourth quarter. The bad was later in the fourth quarter when he took two ill-advised, rushed shots in the same possession that he missed badly when Sacramento was trying to protect a three-point lead.
Fox’s leadership also factored into the win over the Wizards. He was the one encouraging Kings forward Nemanja Bjelica to keep shooting even after he missed his first few attempts. Bjelica wound up being huge for the Kings with 24 points and six threes.
Between his individual stats, some standout performances against other good point guards, and the fact that the Kings are doing better than expected at 3-3 heading into a four-game Eastern Conference road trip that starts Monday in Miami, it’s worth asking …
Where does Fox rank among the NBA’s starting point guards right now?
I have him in the top 15:
- Stephen Curry
- Russell Westbrook
- Chris Paul
- Kyrie Irving
- Kemba Walker
- Damian Lillard
- Ben Simmons
- John Wall
- Kyle Lowry
- Rajon Rondo
- Jrue Holiday
- De’Aaron Fox
- Mike Conley
- Reggie Jackson
- Goran Dragic
When the Kings beat Westbrook and the Thunder, Fox put up 22 points and 10 assists while shooting 58 percent from the field. Westbrook finished with 32 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists, shooting 56 percent.
In Sacramento’s win over Memphis, Fox posted 21 points, eight rebounds and six assists on 43 percent shooting, while Conley went for 27 points, six rebounds and five assists on 45 percent shooting.
In the Kings’ loss to the Pelicans, Fox put up 18 points, seven rebounds and six assists on 50 percent shooting against Holiday, who had 15 points, 6 rebounds and 10 assists on 45 percent shooting.
Numbers aren’t everything, of course.
Perhaps the most impressive thing Fox has done this season is take the reigns of a very young team and help make them competitive. The Kings still need a lot of work defensively, but offensively they’ve been good enough to hang in there with or beat some more talented, experienced teams.
More specifically, Fox has improved in his ability to run the Kings’ offense and play under control.
He has always been fast and a great athlete, but sometimes Fox plays too fast for his own good. Now he’s learning how to play point guard in the NBA. Ideally, what you’d want Fox to do is blend that Allen Iverson speed with an Andre Miller approach to the game.
If he does that, Fox will continue moving up the ranks as one of the league’s best at what he does.