SACRAMENTO -- When the chips are down, some players crumble under the stress. Others find something special.
In his third NBA season, Kings point guard De’Aaron Fox is doing the latter.
Fox looks like a completely different player in 2020, especially late in games. He’s fighting through nagging injuries and quietly becoming then player the Kings hoped he would be when they selected him with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.
The Kings fell apart in Tuesday's 133-126 win over the Washington Wizards, blowing a huge 28-point lead. Coach Luke Walton was so upset with his starters in the third quarter that he pulled the group out of the game with 7:44 left, but even that didn’t stem the tide.
A little over a minute later, Walton hit the showers early after picking a pair of technicals for yelling at an official. The Kings lost their composure and their momentum, and veteran assistant Igor Kokoskov was left to pick up the pieces.
Trying to spark his team, Kokoskov turned back to Fox with 4:28 remaining in the third quarter. The 22-year-old instantly attacked the rim and started to get his team going.
“He’s the head of the snake over here, he’s driving the bus,” teammate Cory Joseph said. “We want him to take control in those situations, and he’s great at doing it. You've been able to see it the last couple of weeks, he’s been assertive.”
Fox finished with 12 of the Kings’ third-quarter points as they were outscored 46-19. In the fourth quarter, he got it cooking again, scoring eight of his team-high 31 points in the fourth and making 5-of-6 from the free-throw line as he attacked the rim.
“We need him as a leader and he knows that,” Kings guard Bogdan Bogdanovic said. “He’s doing an unbelievable job, not just the last couple of games, but I would say all of February, especially after the All-Star break.”
Bogdanovic is slightly off on the timing. Fox began his hot play in an Jan. 2 win over the Memphis Grizzlies, scoring 27 points. Including that night, the speedster is averaging 22.3 points and 6.7 assists in his last 26 games.
Fox taking over for the Kings, especially late in games. While he has struggled from the free-throw line and turned the ball over at times, the former Kentucky star's growth is incredible.
"We all forget how old Fox is, and nobody was born with experience,” Kokoskov said, filling in for Walton after the game. “He's got unbelievable talent -- he's one of the most gifted and talented point guards in the world. He's the face of the franchise and we put a lot on this kid's shoulders."
More often than not, Fox is delivering. The Kings have won 12 of their last 17 with him leading the way, and Sacramento has climbed to ninth in the Western Conference standings.
Kokoskov knows a few things about point guards. He was an assistant with the Phoenix Suns during the tail end of the Steve Nash era, and he watched one of the greats perform at the highest level.
“I coached Steve Nash for six years and we were unbelievable, but he was 33 years old.” Kokoskov said. “I can just imagine if he keeps playing and working on his game the way he’s working right now, where he is going to be in five years.”
“It’s just that we are patient and he is willing to put in that extra work to lead his group and the sky's the limit for him,” Kokoskov added. “And we are just happy to have the opportunity to coach him.”
Fox isn’t Nash quite yet, but it should be noted that it wasn’t until Nash’s fifth season that he really started excelling. Nash was 26 during that season.
The Kings need Fox to expedite his growth process, especially with Sacramento challenging for a playoff spot.
“I’m just trying to win games,” Fox said. “At the end of the day, a lot of times the ball is in my hands, really to be a decision-maker. And I think lately, I’ve been able to put the ball in the basket a little bit more in the fourth quarter.”
The Kings (27-34) are just three games behind the Grizzlies (30-31) for the eighth seed with 21 games remaining in the season. They are playing meaningful games in March, exciting fans and providing Fox incredible on-the-job training in the process.
If the Kings are going to pull off the improbable and snap their 13-season postseason drought, they will need Fox to continue to improve and push them over the finish line. It’s a lot of weight to put on his shoulders, but it appears he’s up for the challenge.