De’Aaron Fox’s rookie season with the Sacramento Kings was filled to the brim with optimism.
He showed brilliance as a crafty passer, a creatively unique finisher, and has already established himself as one of the quickest players in the league.
But with the well-deserved praise, there were also plenty of areas of concern, ones that he’ll need to clean up in his second NBA season and beyond.
In this piece, I’ll be breaking down the film I’ve watched on Fox from last season and do my best to explain what he was good at, what he can improve on, and how he can do so in order to expand his game into the 2018-19 season. There’s All-Star potential in Fox’s future, here’s how he can take the steps to unlock it.
This is going to be a two-piece article separating his offense and defense. To start, we’re going to take a look at the offensive end of the court.
In 73 games for the Sacramento Kings (including 60 starts), Fox’s per game stat line was as follows:
If you were watching De’Aaron Fox play basketball for the very first time, you would immediately be able to recognize that he’s one of the fastest end-to-end players on the court. His speed with the ball in his hands and a head of steam chugging down the court rivals All-Stars such as Russell Westbrook and John Wall. He has a calm sense of urgency when he grabs the ball on a change of possession and his eyes veer to the other basket as he shoots himself out of a cannon.
He’s always a threat to push the tempo and make defenses work on getting back. Surrounded by young and willing teammates, Fox was able to consistently take off on fastbreaks with a bevy of eager shooters by his side, giving him plenty of options to work with.
In 73 games, Fox averaged 4.4 assists per game, fifth highest amongst rookies. He was relentless when it came to moving the ball ahead whenever possible. If he saw an opportunity for an easy bucket or a mismatch, he was going to take it. The problem was, he’s a bit of a gambler (2.4 turnovers per game to complement those assists).
Transition plays made up 22.8 percent of Fox’s offense his rookie year, tied for the most amongst his teammates with Buddy Hield. With blazing speed and young players surrounding him, it makes sense that Fox is infatuated with getting up the court as quick as possible, however, he was hardly efficient. He ranked in the 26th percentile in transition offense, averaging only 0.98 points per possession (similar numbers to Wall’s 2017-18 season). He can often get too out of control when attacking. Sometimes he would put his head down, already predetermined to get to the rim at all costs and it causes him to miss open teammates or lose the ball. He improved on recognizing when a situation wasn’t going to create itself as the year went on, but still made mistakes.
Fox generally prefers to pass over score, but that tendency doesn’t lean too far in one direction. As with most rookie point guards, Fox struggled to be a reliable game manager. It’s clear he can one day successfully run an NBA offense and he showed more than enough signs of that last season, but with plenty of hiccups along the way.
With a usage rate of 25.7 percent – second-highest on his team, according to Cleaning the Glass – Fox often requires the ball to be effective, which is why low his assist percentage of 24.1 percent (27th percentile among all point guards) and high turnover percentage of 15 percent (39th percentile among all point guards) are hard to ignore.
Whether it be unnecessarily lofting passes to the corner which stalled ball movement, penetrating with no clear plan of what move he was going to make next, playing too loose with the ball (something he desperately needs to clean up next season), or telegraphing simple passes, there are areas of his game that made him somewhat frustrating to watch.
His miscues weren’t limited to transition, either. Learning halfcourt sets and being an effective pick-and-roll ball handler are areas that need improvement.
As a pick-and-roll ball handler, Fox was often predictable. Especially when he was being guarded by a veteran such as Ricky Rubio, Fox would stare down his target and do everything but personally hand the ball over to the other team. He appeared to have two trains of thought in these types of sets; either he’s going to pass shortly after the screen or make a line drive run for the rim. There wasn’t much of an in between.
The third sequence in the clip above against the Philadelphia 76ers shows how Fox doesn’t always make the right decision. He plays the pick-and-roll well, taking the screen from Willie Cauley-Stein, but instead of making the easy lob pass over Amir Johnson’s head for the alley-oop, he almost hesitates and elects for an off-balance runner instead.
Being the pick-and-roll ball handler made up 42.7 percent of Fox’s offense, according to NBA.com. Easily the highest number on the Kings, but his 0.70 points per possession left a ton to be desired. His effective field goal percentage as the ball handler was only 40.2 percent, well below where it should be if he is going to demand that high of a workload. Being a pick-and-roll savant is what can make Fox a deadly offensive weapon, he just has to understand how to properly analyze the situation. If I had a nickel for everytime Fox shot a mid-range pull-up jumper immediately coming around a screen, I’d be able to pay his rookie salary.
But with the bad, there were also signs of promise. Fox truly is a skilled and cunning passer and was adept at making the pocket pass out of the pick-and-roll last season. With his ability to get to the rim, he’s going to draw double teams after he takes the screen and being confident in slipping that pass through is a great quality to have in his arsenal.
Going back to his jump shot, Fox is enamored with the mid-range jumper. Classified as the least efficient shot in basketball (well, by myself, at least), taking shots from the middle area of the court just isn’t an efficient way to create offense in the modern game. Fox takes more of them than just about anyone.
Last season, 51 percent of Fox’s shots came from the mid-range area, which ranked in the 87th percentile among all point guards. However, he connected on only 35 percent of those shots, which ranked in the 29th percentile among point guards. There can be value in taking long two-pointers, but you have to be able to make them at a LaMarcus Aldridge/DeMar DeRozan-esque rate (Aldridge shot 44 percent from mid-range last season while DeRozan shot 43 percent).
In the chart above, we can see that Fox ranked below the league average in most areas of the court. Interestingly enough, for how bad his overall mid-range shooting numbers are, he actually finished above the league average when shooting from around the left elbow. His 72 attempts from that area are by far the most among his shots in the middle of the court and hitting on 44.4 percent of them is a great number to strive for. One of his favorite shots last season was pulling up from that green area after going to his strong hand coming around a screen. If he can expand upon that to the right side of the court (which would be a much more awkward shot for him), it gives him another option coming out of the pick-and-roll.
If he can begin to constantly knock down that shot, then it’s something he should keep in his bag of tricks instead of abandoning altogether. His three-point shot is still a major work in progress (he was a 30.7 percent shooter from deep his rookie season and shot only 31.2 percent on threes considered “wide open”, or where the defender was at least six-feet away), so having that threat off the bounce to pull up uncontested can be valuable. He gets excellent elevation on these shots and can quickly rise up and fire before the defender can even get a hand up. He would sometimes fade away from the basket on these shots or take them while unbalanced, which definitely hurt his composure and his shooting numbers, but that can be fixed with repetition.
What Fox brings to the offense is his ability to get to the rim. He has an endless stream of creative ideas when it comes to getting a shot off at the rim. He can contort his arms in the air and uses his six-foot-six wingspan to get off shots that he has no business tossing up. While not always the most efficient, he has an uncanny ability to work his way into the paint. He has a reliable runner/floater that he can get off with both hands (although he definitely prefers to finish with his left).
He finished first on the Kings in drives per game with 8.4. On those drives, he finished with a points percentage of 45.6 percent (percentage of points scored when driving) and an assist to turnover ratio of 1.0 to 0.6. All respectable numbers, but ones that need to be improved upon.
His isolation numbers made up a small chunk of his offense – only 5.4 percent – but he ranked in the 67th percentile, averaging 0.93 points per possession, a respectable number for a rookie. When put in situations where he had to go get a bucket, he could do so. There aren’t many guards who can contain him from a strictly speed-based point of view and he knows that. He has a euro step move that he likes to use when slicing near the hoop and it has proved to be effective.
He is currently listed at about 170 pounds, which is way too small for someone who is six-foot-three, so he struggles to finish with force. His superior ability to get a shot off doesn’t do him any favors when he’s easily being bumped into a shot fading away from the basket or overthinking a layup when he feels pressure on his hip. When he doubles as a contortionist, he can pull off some unbelievable shots. If he coupled that with a bigger frame, he can take the take the hit and convert even more often. Fox’s and-one percentage last season was 25.5 percent (percentage of shooting fouls drawn that the player also made), ranking in the 60th percentile among point guards.
Fox actually did rather well at getting to the rim, being fouled 11.2 percent of the time he attempted a shot, which ranked in the 74th percentile among point guards. For his size, he actually does quite well as a finisher. Yes, he’s good at drawing fouls, but he also shot 60 percent at the rim, good enough to rank in the 67th percentile among point guards. If he can work on creating the contact instead of avoiding it – something that will come with building his frame – these numbers should see a jump next season. His free-throw percentage of 72.3 isn’t terrible, but it wouldn’t hurt if he got that number into the mid-70s, especially if he’s going to continue to go to the rim as often as he did last season.
Fox plays well beyond his years as a cutter. With quick feet and the ability to stop on a dime, Fox is an elusive cutter who always keeps his head up when playing off-ball. When he doesn’t command the offense, he can still make an impact on that end of the court despite not being able to spread the floor. Constantly working in and out of the paint opens up oppurtunities for himself to take advantage of lazy defenses. He has great instincts as a cutter and knows how to find open space.
One of the biggest knocks on Fox is the glaring negative in terms of his impact on his team’s advanced stats. When Fox is in the game, Sacramento is a statistically worse team with him on the floor. Of the seven different lineups that featured Fox and accumulated at least 100 possessions, only three of them registered an average of more than 100 points per 100 possessions. To add a bit more context to that, of the 3,958 possessions that Fox played in, the Kings registered an average of 102.7 points per 100 possessions, which ranked him in the 13th percentile among point guards, according to Cleaning the Glass. Not good numbers by any means.
The Kings’ offensive rating was 103.3 with Fox on the floor spread across 2,027 minutes. The team’s offensive rating jumped to 104.9 with him off the court in a total of 1,924 minutes. The easiest way to clarify why the team does worse with him off the court is that he’s a high usage, low-efficiency player who struggles to shoot from the outside. He’s not a deep threat so he struggles to help space the floor and he was often paired with big men who weren’t knock down threats from deep (WCS, Skal Labissiere, Zach Randolph – although Randolph did have his career-best shooting season from deep in 2017-18). Hopefully, with Marvin Bagley III coming into the fold, he can aid in spacing the floor for Fox and open up more driving lanes (Bagley shot 16-33 from NBA range in his one year at Duke, according to The Stepien).
The numbers don’t favor Fox, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be playing.
The most underrated aspect of Fox’s game is his willingness to win. He’s got the clutch gene flowing throughout his entire body and time and time again last season, he showed that he thrives on being put in pressure situations. It’s hard to find players who want to be in the position to win the game for their team and do so without worrying about making or missing the shot is a dominant character trait in a basketball player. When the clock is being squeezed for time, Fox makes sure he gets everything out of it.
In the last two minutes of a game where teams were within five points of each other, Fox was a force for the Kings. With those parameters, he registered the highest usage rate on the team (30.2 percent) and posted an offensive rating of 122.9 (compared to his overall regular season offensive rating of 100.2). His effective field goal percentage was only 48.4 percent, but he’s not the type of player to get psyched out after missing a shot on the previous possession, at least not with the game on the line.
To sum it all up, there is plenty to love about Fox’s first season on offense, but plenty of reason to raise concern. He’s going to continue to develop and log all the minutes he desires, so there should be a great sense of optimism that he can wall up some of the holes in his game going into year two. He’s only 20 years old and surrounded by the fountain of youth. He’s not going to be able to rely on his teammates to constantly bail him out. If he wants to transform into an All-Star on offense, it’s going to be all on him to get there.
(Statistics via NBA.com, Cleaning the Glass, and The Stepien)
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