The talk started before the 2016-17 NBA season ended. While the Kings were gearing up for another early summer, they were already out scouting players and one name continued to come up.
Sacramento was in rebuild mode and they tabbed Kentucky point guard De’Aaron Fox as their centerpiece long before they jumped to the third pick in the draft and slid back to five due to an earlier trade that didn’t work out as planned.
When Fox fell to the Kings at No. 5, general manager Vlade Divac couldn’t get his selection to commissioner Adam Silver quickly enough.
In Year 1, Fox looked out of sorts. Long and athletic with elite speed, the 6-foot-3 New Orleans native needed to bulk up and find his confidence at the NBA level.
When he returned to the court before his sophomore season, Fox turned heads in camp. He added 12 to 15 pounds of muscle, but he came into camp with a swagger that wasn’t there just a few months earlier.
The added muscle and moxie helped earn him a top-three finish in the NBA’s Most Improved Player award and gave the Kings a glimmer of hope that they had found a star to build around.
In Year 3, Fox has taken another step forward. He’s averaging a team-high 20.4 points and 6.8 assists. An early-season ankle injury cost him 17 games and also slowed his progress, but since Jan. 1, Fox has been on a tear.
If and when the NBA season returns amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Kings' chances of snapping their 13-year postseason drought likely begin and end with their 22-year-old leader.
How good can De’Aaron Fox be as a player?
This is the $150 million question for the Kings, with all likelihood, the team will offer him a five-year, max contract extension later this summer. Fox likely will sign on the dotted line.
And then the real work begins.
The good news for Kings fans is that Fox might be ahead of the curve. In a recent conversation on the Purple Talk podcast, NBA lifer Jerry Reynolds had some thoughts on where Fox’s career path is heading.
“He’s better in almost every phase of the game, but he knows he’s the leader,” Reynolds said. “He clearly didn’t his first year.”
The Kings brought in veteran George Hill to help tutor Fox in his first season and that didn’t exactly work. Hill struggled with splitting time and the Kings were lucky to get out from underneath his contract midway through the season.
Last summer, Divac and his group brought in Cory Joseph, a high quality player, but a career reserve, to support Fox. The pair work well together and it has been a much better fit.
“This year, there is no doubt that De’Aaron knows it’s his team, he’s the point guard, he’s supposed to make things happen and he seems to be releshing that role,” Reynolds said. “Having said that, I think he can get better. I would like to see him be even more of a leader -- get on guys a little bit, be a little harder edge to him like a [John] Stockton, like a Chris Paul.”
Fox is developing this aspect of the game. You can see that he has the talent to be one of the best the league has to offer at his position. The question is, can he translate all of that into not only points and rebounds, but wins for his team.
Developing as an NBA point guard takes time. Very few walk right into the league and instantly dominate in every aspect of the game
Fox is ahead of where players like Mike Conley and Kyle Lowry were at the same point in their careers and right on par with All-Star players like Damian Lillard, Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook. He’s even well beyond where Hall of Famers like Stockton, Gary Payton and Steve Nash were through three seasons.
But that doesn’t always point to future success.
“What does that mean?" Reynolds asked when comparing Fox to players like Curry or Nash. “Well, it doesn’t mean anything actually. It means he’s on the right track and you don’t know where it’s going to go.”
For every player like Lillard, Stockton, Nash and Curry, there are other players who peaked after their third season and for one reason or another never continued to improve, or ever regressed.
Injuries robbed Derrick Rose of his star potential early in his career. Players like Tyreke Evans and Steve Francis fell apart after success coming into league. Predicting future success or a player’s arc is extremely difficult.
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“There is no assurance that anyone is always going to keep getting better,” Reynolds said. “That’s what you’re hoping for though.”
Fox has all the talent in the world. That is why the Kings selected him with the No. 5 overall pick and he would probably go even higher than that if the league were to redraft the 2017 NBA Draft.
With the Kings, he will be given every opportunity to grow into his role. Be it Dave Joerger or Luke Walton, the coaching staff has had a strong grasp that this team will go as far as Fox can take them.
“The potential is almost unlimited,” Reynolds added. “Here again, that doesn’t mean it will be reached. I’m hopeful, but also, I’ve been to the county fair and realistic that it isn’t always the case.”
There will come a moment when you know what Fox will bring to the table every night as an NBA player. We haven’t really come close to that moment. What year will we see it? Is the player we see now as good as it gets? Only time will tell.
If there is a saving grace for the Kings, they have the opportunity to get it right with Fox. They can bring him along in a way that he can grow into the player they hope he can become.