Player: De’Aaron Fox
Relevant stats: Fox played 45 games for the Sacramento Kings this season after missing a 17-game stretch in November and December due to an ankle sprain. He averaged 20.4 points and 6.8 assists in 31.7 minutes per game while posting a shooting slash line of 47.5/30.7/70.3.
Contract status: Fox is entering the fourth and final year of his rookie contract before becoming a restricted free agent. He is eligible for an extension this summer and will surely be angling for a five years at the 25 percent max.
Recap: When Damian Lillard had to sit out the All-Star Game with a groin injury, John Hollinger posited that if he had played enough games, De’Aaron Fox would be a worthy replacement. It was a surprising validation of Fox’s season, which didn’t get nearly as much national recognition as his sophomore campaign. But there were meaningful ways in which Fox showed growth in his third year, even if they weren’t what was expected coming into the season.
Fox has always shined when running the floor, something that Dave Joerger emphasized to the nth degree in 2018-19. Luke Walton has focused on halfcourt offense at the expense of pace, so the Kings only spent 14.2% of their possessions in transition this season compared to 20.7% a year ago. That would suggest a natural decline in Fox’s efficiency, but he still managed to improve his effective field-goal percentage, usage, and assist rate, all while keeping his turnovers constant.
If transition wasn’t the key to Fox’s impact this year, it would stand to reason that his effective field-goal percentage was buoyed by progress in his outside shooting. But, Fox took a significant step back in that department; his 37.2% 3-point shooting clip from last season is back down to 31.1% (per Cleaning the Glass), about in line with his rookie year. Where Fox has improved is by taking more of his shots closer to the basket. He took 74% of his shots at the rim or in floater range this year, compared to 65% a year ago. Considering he converts 63% of his baskets at the rim, that’s been a winning value proposition for Fox.
It also means that Fox can leverage the threat of his drive game to kick out to open shooters, like he does with Bogdan Bogdanovic in the clip below. Buddy Hield (41.9% on 124 attempts), Nemanja Bjelica (43.2% on 95 attempts), and Harrison Barnes (50.9% on 55 attempts) each shot above 40% on threes that came off of passes from Fox.
It remains to be seen if Fox will still have enough space to get into the lane if his shooting continues to regress and defenses keep going under on him. He has enough quickness at this stage of his career, but he has to develop a reliable outside shot as a counter. Improved free-throw shooting would be an important start, as Fox’s foul drawing is elite.
The real problem with Fox this season wasn’t his shooting; rather, it was his defense. When Fox was on the floor, the Kings defended about as well as the Hawks and the Cavaliers. When he was off the floor (understanding that his primary backup is defense-first Cory Joseph), Sacramento was 5.8 points per 100 possessions better, worthy of a top-10 defense in the league.
Defense at the guard position is far less important than frontcourt defense, which makes Fox’s struggles here easier to mask than Marvin Bagley’s, for example, but this is still a meaningful flaw in Fox’s game. He has the athleticism to be a disruptive defender at the point of attack, and proved last season that he could be part of an above-average unit. However, those habits were missing this season. He fouls too frequently, and he needs to be better at fighting through screens. Fox doesn’t have to be a stopper, but he needs to be a positive on defense from he and the Kings to reach their full potential.
Future with the Kings: Fox is the future of the Kings. He should be the point guard for years to come, and the Sacramento front office should make decisions about roster construction based on who fits to next to him. Luckily, Fox is a natural point guard who just needs shooting around him. If the Kings do that, Fox will be in a position to succeed for years to come.
Walton’s new system made the game unnecessarily harder for Fox this season, and he still managed to emerge as a more effective offensive player. He gets docked for the defensive regression, with the caveat that his injury might have played a role on that end. Either way, Fox’s season makes him worthy of a max extension this summer.