It’s fitting that the first memorable image we got of De’Aaron Fox was a picture of him alongside John Wall, to whom he would be compared throughout his career at Kentucky, and probably, beyond. Wall saw Fox’s mixtape in the summer of 2015 on social media and tweeted about it, and from there, a friendship — or rather, a mentorship — was born. The two connected, and Wall came to see Fox play at his high school in Katy when the Wizards played the Rockets in nearby Houston. They stayed in touch, with Wall doling out advice and praise to Fox about his game, and, his future at Kentucky. Inevitably, the two were asked which of them was fastest and while both always play the question off, it’s one that will probably be debated in living rooms, coffee shops, and bars in the Bluegrass for years to come.
Now, with Fox set to become Wall’s peer in the NBA, how will he be remembered in his own right at Kentucky? Like Wall, the first thing that comes to mind is speed, but I don’t think I’ve sat back and said, “Man, that kid’s fast” as many times as I did with Fox this season. Fox’s speed is awesome in the truest sense of the word; he’s a blur in the open court, and while a lot of players with his speed lack finesse, most of the time, when Fox barrels towards the basket, the ball’s going in. We’ve been blessed with a lot of great basketball in the John Calipari era, but I’d argue that Kentucky basketball has rarely been as fun that it was this season with Fox burning teams in transition and Malik Monk dashing their dreams from the outside.
Speed is obviously the biggest component to Fox’s game, but it helps that his mind moves just as fast as his feet. I remember traveling to Katy, Texas to meet Fox over a year ago when he was still a high school senior, and him telling me about how he spends his time off the court.
“At home, I have a setup, two TVs and an iPad. I have a lot of electronics. I call it my man cave. So, I’ll watch the game, be playing my PS4 then have something on my iPad. If I have to do homework, I can’t just sit there and do homework. I literally have to be doing something else while I’m doing my homework, so I’ll probably be playing a game and doing homework at the same time.”
At the time, I didn’t really think much about this, chalking it up to how kids these days multi-task. Yet, I came back to this quote once I read Reid Forgrave’s profile of Fox a few months back, in which he explained that juggling multiple tasks at once actually helps him focus on a singular task at hand.
“Watch this,” Fox says, sitting in the team’s film room. “You’re going to think I’m weird.”
He removes the wireless headphones that had been in his ears. He switches the music to his phone speakers. It’s an R&B song called “Without You,” and it’s loud. It hadn’t even been noticeable that music was playing up to that point.
“Right now, I’ve actually been listening to music this whole interview,” he says. Then he laughs.
Anyone who follows Fox on social media knows his affinity for video games, particularly “Dragon Ball Z,” which is based on a Japanese anime show. Over the past year on Snapchat, he’s posted countless clips from the show, which seems to also be the inspiration for his trademark spiky hairstyle. Because this is the #BBN, Fox’s hair became its own character this season, inspiring parody Twitter accounts and even making headlines. When Fox showed up to the fourth game of the season with his hair “twisted up,” which he has to do occasionally to help maintain its style, and missed three free throws after going perfect from the charity stripe to start the season, everyone — even John Calipari — blamed the hair.
“One game, I had it twisted and everyone was like, ‘Oh my god, he’s changing his hair, he’s changing his hair!,” Fox said on KSR this morning. “I think that was the first game — I was 25-25 from the free throw line and I missed three free throws, right? So Coach Cal said, ‘You have to go back to the other hair. I don’t like it.'”
Later on in the season, Fox’s hair was in the news again when he wore it in a man bun for a handful of games, a move he chalked up to laziness. Was it a coincidence that Fox had his worst run of games while sporting the man bun? Yes. Come on guys, it’s hair.
Sometimes I feel like trying to pinpoint a player’s legacy is impossible, especially in the Calipari era; not only are players here for such a short time, there have been so many talented guys come through the program in the past eight years that it’s simply unfair. I’ve already fallen victim to comparisons at the start of this piece, but I do think it’s important to point out that Fox had the unenviable task of following Tyler Ulis, one of the most beloved players in Kentucky basketball history. Trying to walk in Ulis’ larger than life footsteps would be impossible for 99.9% of players, but Fox forged his own path and in the process, did something Ulis didn’t: record the school’s second triple-double in history. Fox had 14 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists in Kentucky’s dominating win vs. Arizona State in the Bahamas, and even though one of those assists was called into question, there’s no doubt that had Calipari kept Fox in the game, he would have ended up with many more.
It’s no coincidence that Fox’s triple double happened during the same game in which we all realized this team’s potential. The Cats dipped and soared on the roller coaster that is the regular season, but by the time March rolled around, they were once again playing their best basketball. After battling illness and injuries, Fox returned to form in the final month of the season, and when pitted against Lonzo Ball — who many believe is the greatest point guard in the draft — in the Sweet 16, Fox took his game to another level, scoring a career-high 39 points, the most ever by a freshman in an NCAA Tournament game. This morning on KSR, Fox shied away from directly dissing Ball, but did say that he always believes he’s the best player on the court.
“I’m going to say I am the better player if you put me up against anybody,” Fox said.
In fact, ever the competitor, he seemed more bothered that he didn’t end up with 40 in that game, which Malik Monk teased him about.
“After I saw (the scoreboard) I put my head down and thought, ‘Man, I could’ve had 40.’ But then I saw it’s the most a freshman has had in the NCAA tournament game in history so I am fine with it.”
Sadly, the final image I’ll have of Fox is from the locker room after the loss to North Carolina in the Elite Eight. A leader until the very end, Fox held Bam Adebayo and spoke through tears when his brothers could not.
“We went through that stretch and we lost those games and everybody talked about how we didn’t care. This isn’t a locker room that looks like guys don’t care. I love my brothers, man.”
That video went viral, I believe, in part, because it showed not only Kentucky fans how much this team cared about the season, but the rest of college basketball how much one-and-done players can care about a program. Even the biggest haters can’t deny the raw emotion in that locker room.
“It was very emotional,” Fox said. “It was tough, letting that sink in. Sometimes the emotions just spill out. They did.”
Like many of us, Fox said he didn’t watch a single second of the Final Four or National Championship games because he knew it should have been Kentucky there instead; as we close the book on his career here, I’ll take some solace in that because, with him playing at the level he was, it was really starting to feel that way.