This is part 2 of a two-part series. Part 1, which focuses on De’Aaron Fox’s offense, can be found here.
De’Aaron Fox has shown us why he can be a lead guard on a productive offense, but his defense has been suspect since his very first NBA game.
In this piece, I’ll discuss what I saw from Fox on the defensive end during his rookie season and how he can improve in that area going forward. He has the tools to be a capable defender, here’s how he can put them into proper action.
Fox’s defense, for all intents and purposes, is a major work-in-progress. While he shows a clear ability to run an offense and create shots for not only himself but also his teammates, his defense does not provide nearly as many optimistic qualities.
To start, Fox is small for a guard, even at six-foot-three. He clocks in at 175 pounds, according to NBA.com, which is well below the average weight for a point guard (For comparison, NBA.com has Tyler Ulis weighing in at 160 pounds and standing at five-foot-11).
Fox is a bit scrawny and it deters his ability to attack the rim, but more importantly, it hinders any height advantage he might have on smaller guards because he can easily be pushed around.
When it comes to defending the pick-and-roll, a staple in any offense of the modern NBA, Fox struggles. He was targeted out of the pick-and-roll more than any player among his Sacramento Kings teammates at 4.5 possessions per game (next highest was Garrett Temple with 3.4). Fox finished in the 34th percentile last season when defending the pick-and-roll among all qualified players and allowed his opponents to shoot at an effective field goal percentage clip of 50.9.
A lot of this has to do with lack of size and strength. He struggles to work around pick-and-rolls when the screener is a big man. Sometimes it looks like he’s running straight into a brick wall and he crumbles with little possibility of willing his way back into the play.
When Fox anticipates the screen, he is mobile enough that he can work around it but it usually puts him at a disadvantage as he preferred to go over screens (particularly on shooters, for some reason) and consequentially gave the other team a 4-on-3 situation heading downhill towards the rim.
When Fox did go under on screens – as he does with Ricky Rubio in the clip below, who finished last season a strong shooter but has never been a consistent threat – he simply lacked the awareness to get himself back into the play.
*Note: It should be pointed out that a decent amount of Fox’s defensive blunders cannot be fully blamed on him. His teammates, who are mostly just as inexperienced as him, are not exactly premier defenders with natural instincts on that end. Fox may have been the reason the defense broke down in the first place, but he never had the constant help defense necessary to protect him that other guards like him have the luxury of being able to rely on.*
The blazing speed that encapsulates Fox on offense appears to elude him on defense. He was consistently beaten off the dribble by players such as Rubio, Goran Dragic, and T.J. McConnell. If he doesn’t stick right with his man following a screen, the wheels fall off and he turns into a deer in headlights. If he tries to anticipate the screen, he can lose sight of what is happening around him. When he doesn’t anticipate it, he drops like a fly. Despite whatever decision he makes, it ultimately ends with him chasing around the ball handler like a lost puppy.
Fox’s small stature doesn’t just prevent him from properly defending the pick-and-roll, but plenty of other situations, as well. On defense, Fox was targeted in post-up situations on 4.6 percent of his defensive possessions. In those possessions, Fox allowed 1.00 points per possession, which ranked him in the 20.8 percentile among all players, according to NBA.com.
Against guards that have the size advantage (or even no size advantage at all), Fox is helpless in the post. Dennis Smith Jr. and Wesley Matthews both toss Fox aside like a used piece of tissue (although help defense was nowhere to be found). There is little to no effort in his attempts to contain these post moves.
Fox seems to avoid contact on defense. It surely correlates as to why he’s such a poor rebounder, too. He ranks below average in most rebounding statistics, according to Cleaning the Glass. While Fox likes to run in transition, he’d much rather take a handoff from a big man who grabs the rebound instead of attacking the glass and initiating the break himself, much like Russell Westbrook does at an incredibly successful rate.
Making significant strides in the weight room and building his body is going to be critical to Fox’s development. He simply isn’t going to be able a player that the Kings can allow to keep on the court (especially if they want to eventually make the playoffs down the road, which seems to be a lot to ask from this organization) if he doesn’t make himself a more physically imposing defender.
As long as the person staring across from Fox knows they can attack him by bullying him in the post or by utilizing screens, there will reach a point where it will cost Fox valuable minutes.
The advanced stats don’t do Fox any favors, either.
According to Cleaning the Glass, the Sacramento Kings’ defense was 3.9 points per 100 possessions worse with Fox on the court, which put him in the 21st percentile. Opponents also shot the ball better and turned the ball over less when Fox was in the game.
Of the seven lineups that Fox played with the most, only two of them posted a defensive rating below 110 (and those two lineups only played 316 combined possessions). Fox’s top three most played lineups all had defensive ratings within the 111-114 range, according to Cleaning the Glass.
If we take out George Hill (who was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers halfway through the season), Fox had the second-worst defensive rating of anyone on the Kings at 110.9 (Zach Randolph’s rating was 114.3).
His skinny frame definitely doesn’t do him any favors on defense, but the simplest way he can make himself a more effective defender is by increasing his awareness and paying constant attention to what is happening around him. Not just when defending the ball, but, more specifically, when he’s defending off the ball.
Because the reality is that Fox isn’t half-bad at defending in isolation scenarios – although it definitely isn’t one of his stronger traits. It’s when he has to stick to shooters roaming the perimeter that he tends to lose focus.
This was a major cause for concern in his rookie season, but it’s also something I believe he has a good chance of reconciling. I’ll let you in on a little secret real quick: rookie point guards are almost always bad overall and are typically even worse on defense. Learning to competently play point guard in the NBA takes longer than other positions. Now that he’s had a full offseason to mesh with his teammates, another full year under head coach Dave Joerger, and another year to learn the system, I expect Fox to be a considerably improved off-ball defender. Now he won’t pull a complete 180 and make an All-Defensive team and he won’t break these bad habits completely, but he should improve regardless of how much work he puts in the weight room.
While the deficiencies were more than noticeable, there were positives to take from Fox’s first year playing defense in the NBA.
For starters, his wingspan should not be understated as a defensive tool. He likes to gamble for steals because he knows he has the opportunity to poke it out ahead. Among rookies who played more than 1,000 minutes, Fox finished ninth in total steals with 70. With the same criteria (which includes big men), Fox finished 14th in total blocks. He finished in the 77th percentile among all point guards in block percentage, according to Cleaning the Glass.
He’s quick and long enough that he should be able to stay in front of ball handlers and that’s going to have to be his calling card if he wants to become a plus-defender.
The first clip where he denies Dragic the ball is the type of effort he should be exuding on every possession. His hands are quick enough that he can make life difficult for the opposition when he spreads them across his body. He can act as a moving wall, and when he’s actively engaged, he can be an excellent ball denier.
Unfortunately, Fox only displayed 100 percent effort during the games most pressing times. It’s good to know that he can flip a “switch” of sorts and play solid defense for consecutive possessions, but it’s more frustrating than anything when that effort is absent for the majority of the game.
Overall, Fox desperately needs more than just one strong summer building his frame if he wants to improve on defense. His rookie season left much to be desired on that end, but there were reasons to be optimistic and – as stated earlier – first-year point guards are almost always terrible in regards to actual defensive impact. If last season was as bad as it’s going to get on defense for Fox, then he has nowhere else to go but up. If Marvin Bagley III along with Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissiere can become security blankets for Fox in the paint, that will no doubt help cover up some mistakes. Don’t count out the 20-year old as a bad defender just yet, there is still plenty of time to develop.
Follow me on Twitter: @ZackGeoghegan