SACRAMENTO -- It’s time to take the training wheels off.
Kings coach Dave Joerger limited the minutes of a few of his young players throughout the season, but with 20 games remaining on the regular-season schedule, winning is the focus.
Point guard De’Aaron Fox is averaging 31.6 minutes per game this season, but there is a good chance that is about to increase. With a playoff spot on the line — and the Kings (31-31) are three games out of the final berth — Joerger is ready to unleash his speedy guard and allow him the opportunity to play major minutes down the stretch.
“I’ve tried to make sure they’re going to be around for the end and protect them as much as possible while being effective and trying to win as many games as possible,” Joerger told NBC Sports California. “There are times now where De'Aaron's runs are a little longer.”
Fox, who is averaging 17.2 points, 7.3 assists and 1.7 steals per game on the season, is ready to take on more of the load. He picked up two quick fouls against the Clippers on Friday night, which limited his availability, but the minutes will increase.
The second-year pro has taken good care of his body all season long. With just a quarter of the season remaining, he has missed only one contest, and even then, he was healthy enough to play and the team took a cautious approach to his health.
“I feel fine. I know even if I’m out there longer, I have to keep up the pace,” Fox told NBC Sports California. “I think he’s trusting me a lot more, and I just want to be out there and make sure I’m impacting the game, no matter what I’m doing out there.”
Nothing will be dramatically different, except Fox will be on the court a few more minutes here and there. He’ll still be asked to push the tempo and be the head of the snake.
Joerger isn’t planning on running him out there for 40-plus minutes per game. That type of load is reserved for players who have mature bodies. There will be a time in his career when Fox will be that guy, but there is no reason to wear him out and risk injury and/or ineffectiveness.
“It just takes time,” Kings forward Harrison Barnes said. “The biggest thing, I think the staff and coaches try to preach to young guys is just taking care of your body.”
Fox is mentally ready for the challenge, but with the increase in time comes an increase in responsibility. If Joerger needs 36 to 38 minutes from the sophomore guard, those minutes have to be the same quality as if he was playing 32.
“I think he already gives me a lot of freedom,” Fox said. “I’m not expecting anything to change too much, but the back end of the season, we’ve got to win. I’ll come out a lot more aggressive.”
Physically, Fox feels good. By limiting his minutes early, Joerger has kept his star guard fresh for the stretch run. The hope is that with an increase in court time, the quality of play won’t suffer.
Sacramento needs Fox and his high-octane style. It also needs him to make an impact on both ends of the court.
“I’m 21 years old. I’m not sure how much I can play, how much I can’t play,” Fox said. “As long as I’m out there, I’m definitely going to give it my all and trying to affect the team in positive ways.”
Joerger and his staff have done an excellent job of bringing along the team’s young core while competing for a playoff spot. While they might seem overprotective at the time, this is about building a long-term winner in Sacramento.
“We’re playing hard, and we don’t quit,” Joerger said earlier in the week. “What we’re building here, we will reap the rewards of this in many years to come. Not many years from now, but going forward, if this is who we are, and I believe that it is, we’re a tough out.”
Sacramento has solid depth at almost every position, but we’ve reached the point of the season where the rotation begins to shrink. Don’t be surprised if the core group is on the court more and more as the fight for the postseason reaches a boiling point.