There were plenty of positives to the Kings' 2020-21 season, even if the record didn’t show it.
On the top of that list was the play of De’Aaron Fox, who once again took a tremendous leap in production and is becoming an NBA star.
Fox took home two Western Conference Player of the Week awards, and before having his season derailed by the coronavirus, he had his team in the hunt for the NBA play-in tournament.
Becoming a leader and an All-Star-level player usually happens in steps, and Fox’s improvement from one year to the next has been stunning. But like most players that still are developing, there are going to be nights where consistency is an issue.
This is something Fox is aware of and is working towards improving.
“I’ve had really great stretches and then stretches where I wasn’t even close to the level of play where I was at,” Fox said during his season exit interview. “Just trying to get to that level of consistency, where night in and night out you’re playing really good and if you’re not playing great, you’re still playing really good basketball and I don’t think I was there just yet.”
Fox can be his own toughest critic. The maturation of a player takes time, but he’s well on a path to stardom. Now comes the hard part, putting all of the pieces together for an 82 game schedule.
20-21 Stats: 25.2 points, 7.2 assists, 3.5 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 47.7 percent FG, 32.2 percent 3-point 19-20 Stats:21.1 points, 6.8 assists, 3.2 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 48.0 percent FG, 29.2 percent 3-point
It’s hard not to love what we are seeing from Fox on the offensive end. He’s getting stronger, developing additional parts to his game and becoming one of the best closers in the game. He’s becoming the “head of the snake” that every coach has asked him to become and there still is room for major improvements.
His shot chart still looks more like a shotgun spray than tight grouping. He’s elite at getting to the basket, shooting 76.1 percent at the rim this season. When he attacks the paint, more often than not, he either scores or gets to the line. That is his bread and butter.
The rest of his scoring is a mixed bag. From three to10 feet, Fox shoots 42.6 percent, which means he needs to continue to develop his floater. From 10 to16 feet, he knocked down an impressive 48.2 percent. This is Fox’s stop and pop area, which helps set up his finish inside the key.
Where Fox struggles is from 16 feet and out. From 16 feet to the 3-point line, he shot just 36.2 percent on 105 attempts. If he can completely eliminate this area from his game, he’ll become a much more efficient scorer.
From behind the arc, he still is a work in progress, but like his stop-and-pop shot, this is an important area to set up the rest of his game. He took strides this season, but he still needs to find consistency from deep.
The development of Tyrese Haliburton may be able to help in this area. Fox shot 39.3 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, compared to just 30 percent from distance on pull-ups. In Year 2, Haliburton should shoulder more of the load as a primary ball-handler and distributor, which will equate to more opportunities for Fox to play off the ball and get open looks with his feet set.
Fox’s free throw progression is exactly what you hope to see from a budding star. He’s increased his volume of attempts at the line every season, including this year, where he averaged 7.2 shots from the stripe per game. That number tied him for seventh overall in the NBA with Damian Lillard and DeMar DeRozan, two seasoned All-Star veterans.
On the downside, Fox shot just 71.9 percent from the free throw line, which is an improvement over his previous season, but not in the realm of where it needs to be. If Fox had shot 10 percent better from the stripe, he would have leapfrogged Trae Young and Devin Booker in points per game. He has a solid free throw stroke, but when he misses, it’s usually because he rushes. This is an easy point of emphasis during the offseason.
Fox’s usage went up slightly this season, from 29.8 to 31 percent, while his assist percentage dropped from 35.3 to 32.7. This was partially due to Fox’s increase in scoring but also speaks to some of the pieces around him. As Fox becomes more comfortable as an elite scorer and the league adjusts accordingly, the assist numbers should increase. It should be noted that while Fox’s minutes and usage increased, his turnover percent dropped substantially.
There was hope that Fox would take a significant leap forward as a two-way player, but that has yet to materialize. There are moments when he is locked in on defense and plays an aggressive, in-your-face style. But he’s not consistent enough.
He’s gotten stronger overall and can both hold his ground and fight through screens. On the perimeter, Fox allows slightly above league average percentages, both from 3-point range and from 15-feet out.
Where Fox, as well as most of the Kings' defenders, struggled this season, was in pick-and-roll and keeping their opponent out of the paint. The Kings as a whole were the worst defensive squad in the NBA, allowing a defensive rating of 117.2 and their 117.4 points per game allowed ranked 28th in the league. The group lacked overall cohesion as a defensive unit and routinely gave up 120 points per game.
Fox spoke on becoming a better defender during his exit interview with the media and seems committed to improving. He also spoke on the potential he and Haliburton have as a backcourt and the need for improvement.
“It starts with me and Ty on the ball, we both have to be better defensively on that end next year,” Fox said. “If we’re good as a tandem, as a backcourt defensively, I think it will uplift our team.”
While the overall defensive performance wasn’t acceptable, Fox still averaged 1.5 steals per game. He shows flashes of being a lockdown defender, especially in big games.
Another area where Fox can improve is as a rebounder, especially on the defensive end, where the Kings ranked 28th in the league as a whole. Fox posted his worst defensive and overall rebounding rates of his career. If he can hit the defensive glass, even for a few possessions per game, it would likely speed up the Kings’ transition offense and lead to easier buckets.
Free throws are an issue. 3-point shooting needs to get better. Defensive improvements are a must. But this is a star in the making.
Despite a roster that lacked overall depth, Fox made the most out of what he was given. The Kings need to surround him with more floor spacers, including shooters and rim rollers/runners, to maximize his performance moving forward.
Watching the progression of the 23-year-old is a case study in development. Fox has taken massive strides every season, but you can see his internal struggle to balance his game.
Everything is slowing down for Fox and the next step is to tighten the shot chart, hit his free throws, make adjustments on the defensive end and then bring his teammates along for the ride.
He's on the cusp of being an All-Star, but the pressure only increases next season when his five-year, $163 million extension kicks in.