SACRAMENTO KINGS

This is the De’Aaron Fox that Sacramento Kings fans have been waiting for

Nov 14, 2022, 12:54 PM | Updated: 9:55 pm
SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 13: De'Aaron Fox #5 of the Sacramento Kings shoots the ball over ...
(Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
(Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

For the first time during his five-year career, De’Aaron Fox was hearing a smattering of boos from Sacramento Kings fans at Golden 1 Center.

Entering his fifth year of NBA service after being selected by the Kings with the fifth-overall pick in the 2017 draft, Fox had struggled out of the gate to begin the 2021-22 season. It was an uncharacteristic start for the guard after three straight years of progression, and Fox’s most-glaring issue as a professional–his struggles in shooting the basketball–took center stage.

Through the first ten games of the 2021-22 season, Fox couldn’t find his stroke as he shot 39 percent from the field, 18 percent from beyond the three-point line, and just 69 percent from the foul stripe. After breaking out to average 25.2 points and 7.2 assists per game in 2020-21, Fox posted averages of 18.1 points and 6.3 assists per game during Sacramento’s 5-5 start to the season.

During a game on November 7, 2021, boos were heard from the stands at Golden 1 Center as Fox went seven-for-19 from the field and scored 17 points during a 94-91 loss to the Indiana Pacers as the loss would act as a preview of what was to come–for both teams, that is.

Sacramento’s season unraveled quicker than if you were to pull on a loose thread as the Kings’ loss to Indiana jumpstarted a 25-game stretch in which they could only muster seven winning efforts from early November until mid-December.

That 8-17 stretch of play sent the Kings spiraling toward the bottom of the Western Conference standings and all but guaranteed that a roster shakeup was coming in Sacramento.

At the time, Fox’s name was floated in various trade rumors from around the league as it became clear that one of the Kings’ two young guards would be on the move come February’s trade deadline. Tyrese Haliburton’s emergence as a true floor general created uncertainty regarding Fox’s future as the consensus around the league was that Sacramento would be better off dealing away Fox and building around the pass-first, three-point threat in Haliburton.

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 18: Tyrese Haliburton #0 and De'Aaron Fox #5 of the Sacramento Kings look on in the second half against the Miami Heat at Golden 1 Center on February 18, 2021 in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

(Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

Fox and Haliburton displayed flashes of potential while in the backcourt together, but both players needed the ball in their hands to be at their highest level of efficiency. Fox’s shooting struggles were evident, meaning that he couldn’t act as a spot-up threat. Haliburton’s greatest skill is his playmaking, therefore taking the ball out of his hands diminished the true value of his minutes.

The rumors that Fox was on the outs grew as he suffered an ankle injury on January 19th, one that kept him sidelined for nearly three weeks. As it would turn out, Fox wouldn’t be the player on the move as he returned to action on February 8th with a very different roster donning the Sacramento purple and black.

In the days leading into February 10th’s trade deadline, Kings general manager Monte McNair pulled the trigger on a shocking deal that sent Haliburton and sharpshooting guard Buddy Hield to the Pacers in return for two-time All-Star center Domantas Sabonis.

The deal, in retrospect, was one that McNair and the front office hoped would cause a ripple effect that would unlock Fox, who had been sharing floor general duties with the fellow ball-dominant threat in Haliburton and looked somewhat out of sorts and out of place in an off-ball role.

If McNair was hoping to unlock Fox, that’s exactly what has happened following the deal.

Fox looked like a completely different player upon his return as the chemistry between him and Sabonis was clear from the start during the duo’s debut on February 9th as Fox scored 27 points on 50 percent shooting from the field while handing out eight assists. Sabonis brought tons of energy and put his playmaking on display as he finished a 132-119 Kings win with 22 points, 14 rebounds, and five assists.

It was arguably Sacramento’s best game of the 2021-22 season, which isn’t saying much considering where they finished in the standings, but seeing Fox and Sabonis embrace after the final horn sounded injected some hope into the Kings fanbase.

“Could this be the duo, the duo that we have been waiting for?”

(Rocky Widner/Getty Images)

Fox has never looked back following the Sabonis trade.

During his final 16 games of the 2021-22 season, Fox looked like an All-Star as he averaged 28.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, 6.8 assists, and 1.0 steals per game. Shooting the basketball was Fox’s most notable improvement following the deal as he upped his field goal percentage to 50 percent from the field and his three-point shooting to 38 percent during those 16 games, as it became clear that this version of Fox was one that Kings fans had not yet seen.

Could the strong finish from 2021-22 carry over into 2022-23? That was the big question entering this season. Fox and Sabonis looked like a dynamic duo during a brief 15-game sample size last season, but Sacramento needs this twosome to work–and work quickly at that–as the clock continues to tick on the Kings’ historic 16-year postseason drought.

Following an offseason in which Fox resorted back to his earlier ways of leaning out and not entering camp as bulky as he did in 2021-22, the guard looked impressive during a 4-0 preseason. It was evident that Fox had been working on his shot all summer long, something that his wife, Recee Caldwell, embraced as the newlyweds invited new Kings assistant coach Luke Loucks and conditioning coach Zac Howe along to the couples’ honeymoon in Italy.

The work never stopped for Fox over the summer, and that work is paying off over the first 12 games of this season.

Fox has carried his finish to last season over into this year as the 24-year-old is averaging 25.5 points, 5.1 rebounds (career-high), 6.0 assists, and 1.3 steals per game while shooting an incredible 54 percent from the field and 37 percent from beyond the arc during Sacramento’s 6-6 start.

Through 12 games, Fox is one of two players in the league to average 25+ points, 5+ rebounds, 5+ assists, and 1+ steals per game while shooting ≥50% from the field and ≥36% from the three-point line.

That other player is two-time MVP and four-time champion, Steph Curry.

Another impressive development for Fox this season has been his free-throw shooting. In 2020-21, Fox was a top-10 player when it came to drawing fouls and getting to the line. He finished the season 10th in free-throw attempts but was 15th in made free throws as he shot just 75 percent during those 400 attempts. One season later, Fox shot a career-best 75 percent from the line, although he wasn’t getting as many opportunities to get to the stripe.

So far this season, Fox has turned the corner when it comes to converting free throws, something that has had a hand in unlocking his All-Star potential.

After a three-of-six performance from the line during a two-point loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on October 22nd, Fox holds an 88 percent average on his free-throw attempts. The shot looks good however you slice it, and it’s even more impressive when you look at Fox’s shot performance by zone:

At the rim: 32/36 (88%)

3-to-10 feet: 28/51 (55%)

10-to-16 feet: 19/31 (61%)

Fox is getting it done in every way, with his late-game heroics acting as the cherry on top of his incredible start to the season.

Step-backs with the game clock winding down, taking over games late, drilling pull-up game-winners as time expires, he’s done it all over the first 12 games of this season. One game removed from putting the finishing touches on the Los Angeles Lakers, Fox went on a 7-0 run by himself during Sunday’s win over the Golden State Warriors.

The shots that Fox has hit late in these games were no gimmes, mind you. He’s converting tough mid-range field goal attempts, often with one or multiple defenders in his grill. Still, it hasn’t mattered for Fox so far. He’s getting the job done.

According to StatMuse, Fox is the NBA’s leader in ‘Clutch Points’ as he is currently shooting 64 percent from the field and 57 percent from three-point range during late-game situations.

Fox is emphatically making his mark as he ranks among the league leaders in scoring, and if things continue to trend positively for the Kings, they very well could have their first All-Star representative since DeMarcus Cousins (2016-17 season).

The numbers are there, and the wins have been there as well for Sacramento as of late. After starting the season in an 0-4 hole, the Kings have won six of their past eight games–with both of those losses coming with a side of late-game officiating controversy.

McNair’s moves over the offseason have paid off as new additions Keegan Murray, Kevin Huerter, and Malik Monk have acted as strong support pieces for Fox and Sabonis. Through 12 games, the Kings have shown more promise than many anticipated as they currently hold a positive net rating (0.1) entering Tuesday night’s game against Brooklyn.

Not only has Fox improved his shot, but he continues to be a strong distributor, one that thrives on the break and in transition while fellow distributor Domantas Sabonis operates from the post. Fox, Sabonis, Monk, and Huerter have been the reason that Sacramento currently sits seventh on the NBA’s team assists per game leaderboard (27.3 per game).

Defense, another facet of Fox’s game that needed work, has been another positive development for the guard this season as he has had several big moments on the defensive end. During October 29th’s win against the Miami Heat, Fox took initiative to defend the red-hot Tyler Herro during the closing minutes and was able to hold his fellow Kentucky alumni scoreless during the final three minutes of play.

Even on Sunday night with the Kings trailing by one late in the game, Steph Curry got an open look in the corner as he looked to put Sacramento on the ropes with one of his patented triples. Instead, Fox soared in and sent the ball into the stands to keep the deficit at one before going on a 7-0 run of his own to give his team the win.

Fox is the heartbeat of this team, this team, and this organization. Nobody wants to end the dreaded playoff drought more than De’Aaron Fox, a player that was drafted in 2017 with the hopes that he would be the core piece that sends Sacramento to the promised land.

Six years later, Fox is playing like an All-Star and the Kings have surrounded him with another All-Star talent in Sabonis while also adding in legit talents like Murray, Huerter, Monk, Harrison Barnes, and Davion Mitchell. Six years, but Fox’s desire for a postseason berth haven’t wavered, and this could be the team that breaks through.

Fox is somebody that could be a Kings lifer, a player that begins and ends his career in the purple and black, but it’s going to come down to wins and losses. After five straight years of losing, Fox’s hunger for playoff basketball has only grown.

“It’s electric all of the time in this building,” Fox said to Gary Gerould following Sunday’s win over the Warriors. “I’ve always told people that if you win some games, this city is always going to be there for you. All I want to do is get back to the playoffs for this city. We’re trying. We’re working hard and [the fans] are behind us.”

If this is the type of player that Fox is going to be for the rest of his career, it’s hard to envision a future where he isn’t playing in postseason games come late April and May regularly.

Getting over that hump for the first time won’t be easy, but with Fox performing like a star and the supporting cast doing its job, the sky very well could be the limit for this Kings team, with that sky of course being a Western Conference play-in or playoff spot come April.

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