SACRAMENTO -- From the first moment De’Aaron Fox stepped on the floor in the weeks building up to training camp, everyone in the building said he looked like a different player.
Confident. Polished. Vocal.
Fox said he lost one pick-up game against his Kings teammates before the start of camp. He showed up ready to take a huge step in his sophomore season, and he’s done more than just get stronger and work on his jumper.
With Garrett Temple exiting stage left during the annual summer purge, someone has to step up and take on a leadership role in Sacramento. There are a few veterans that have a voice, but with the focus shifting to the youth of the team, they need a leader on the floor.
From the very first game of the season, Fox showed massive improvement and a willingness to take the reigns as the team’s floor general.
“This is definitely a great start,” Fox told NBC Sports California. “I’ve just been a lot more vocal. Guys are listening, when I’m talking on the floor, everybody’s looking at me, so it’s just having that respect level. It’s hard to be a leader, especially in this league, especially being young, but it’s something I know I can do. I feel like I’m coming into my own as far as leadership is going.”
The work Fox did on his body is evident. He’s added mass, but more importantly, he’s added strength. His confidence level has never been in question, but it’s clear that he’s maturing both on and off the court.
“I feel like I’m a whole different player,” Fox said. “I feel like I’m a better shooter now. I feel like I make better decisions. I feel like I’m a better defender. I just feel like all around, my game is lot better. The game has slowed down for me. I feel like it’s just a totally different game.”
For the Kings to compete, they need Fox, the fifth overall selection in the 2017 NBA Draft, to take a major step forward in his development. The coaching staff plans to run him out there for plenty of minutes and they hope he’s up to the task.
“He did a good job, he pressured up and got our defense started,” head coach Dave Joerger said after an opening night loss to the Utah Jazz on Wednesday. “He’s going to have to log heavy minutes. I don’t know if he’s going to play 45 every night, but the more the better for him.”
With the Kings pushing the tempo, Fox’s role with the team is paramount. They’ve designed their roster around his speed and quickness, and his teammates are counting on him to run the show.
“It’s vital for him to push the pace, get into the lane and spray it and move the ball around,” Willie Cauley-Stein said. “He’s so gifted with that ball, so we have to have him attacking like that or we’re just standing around waiting. He starts that motion, everybody else plays off it.”
There is no let-up. After he played in 73 games last season, including 60 starts, the team needs more from the 20-year-old guard. Each and every night, Fox has to set the pace and the tempo for the game. It’s his energy level that the team will follow.
“I just always have to be in attack mode, I know it’s tough for 82 games, but I don’t think it’s something I can’t handle,” Fox said.
With Temple gone, Fox has turned to veteran Iman Shumpert as his advisor. The vocal wing is trying to impart as much knowledge as he can on his young understudy.
“With all these guys, I’m just doing the things that the guys that I look up to in the league did for me,” Shumpert said. “They looked out for me and they said these things and those things helped me in my career and I try and give these guys those things. And then those things I felt like could have told me, that they didn’t tell me, the little secrets, I try to give them that too.”
Shumpert wants Fox to find his voice. He’s pushing him to lead on the floor, both in practice and during games.
Following the loss to Utah on Wednesday, Fox said that for the first time, he had literally lost his voice in a game. He felt like his head coach, who lost his voice during the first few days of training last month.
This is all a learning process. Fox has star potential, but to be a star, he has to take ownership of every facet of the game. So far, he is showing a willingness to step forward, which could pay huge dividends for the Sacramento Kings in the future.