Kentucky's high-energy point guard DE'AARON FOX might have the biggest upside in his draft class. (Think John Wall.) He also might be its biggest risk
Twenty things learned while shadowing De'Aaron Fox for a day.
De'Aaron Fox had my attention as soon as I found out that Kevin Garnett was his favorite player growing up. I'd never heard a young player name KG—certainly not a guard. "I've heard some stories," Fox explains the morning we meet. "Everyone talks about how intense he is. Even when he was done playing, he's still that same intense person. I don't know what I'd say, but I want to meet him."
June 26, 2017
I came to Thousand Oaks, Calif., because Fox is probably the most interesting player in the NBA draft. His ceiling is as high as anyone's in the lottery. But his floor is also lower than most of his peers'. It's a gamble.
Think of it as the difference between John Wall and Elfrid Payton. If he's Wall, his jump shot will improve just enough to make him completely unstoppable. That version of Fox can go a long way toward reinventing the identity of a team that's currently hopeless enough to be picking in the top five. Or, if he's Payton, his jump shot will never quite get there, and a team could lose five years waiting to see if he can turn the corner.
Fox isn't worried about draft-night reactions. "You'll have some people that's hot," he says, "but then you'll have a lot of people that's like, 'Ohhhh, that's a great pick.'"
"You gotta remember the Knicks. Remember they was booing for Porzingis? Now they're his biggest fans.... I've never seen a Knicks fan that doesn't like Porzingis. They're going to burn down Madison Square Garden if Porzingis gets traded."
Fox was born in New Orleans but raised in Houston. If you're looking to explain how Fox became the best athlete in this June's draft, start with his parents. He is the second son of Aaron Fox, a former college football player at Fort Hays State, and Lorraine Harris-Fox, a former college basketball player at Arkansas--Little Rock.
In high school De'Aaron was an undersized lefty playing above his age group in the summers. If you're looking to explain how Fox has the best hair in the draft, start with his AAU teammates: Justise Winslow and Kelly Oubre Jr.
Instead of going home to Houston after finishing the academic year at Kentucky, Fox came to Thousand Oaks to train at the Sports Academy, where he's been putting in three-a-days for the better part of two months. He wakes up every day around 7 a.m. "But I'm not moving until eight," he says. Then there are general on-court drills at 9:30 and a break afterward. Then a workout in the weight room, and lunch in the afternoon, and another break. Late in the day he'll return for shooting. Only shooting.
At Kentucky, Fox shot 24.6% from three. He knows that when it comes to his NBA future, there's really only one question to answer. "I tell teams I'm always in the gym," he says. "Kentucky was just a bad year shooting for me. I don't really know why—I've never been a bad shooter, but I did have a bad year. I'm going to work on it. I'm already used to the NBA three, been shooting it well during workouts. Only time can tell. I'm gonna have to prove it in games."
When you watch Fox up close, the first thing you wonder about has nothing to do with his jumper. It's his frame. He's got the kind of legs that make you worried for his safety—and baffled that he's actually a professional athlete.
"When I recruited him," John Calipari says, "I'm like, 'Look at this dude's legs. He can't be this skinny.' And then all of the sudden, he went out there, and those skinny legs ran real fast. And he's tough. He'll go in and get banged, and he's fine."
It's one thing to be fast, but the key with Fox is that he's fearless. On defense he will hold his ground against almost anyone. On offense he can get into the lane at will, and he'll get to the line, too.
As for his speed, Fox is modest. "Guys like John [Wall], Russ [Westbrook] ... John is like track fast, and track fast is different," he says.
"Running with the ball in my hand, I'm actually faster. Because if we're just running, and you tell me to go run, I'm like, 'Bro, don't tell me what to do.'
"I have to feel like I'm running with a purpose," he says. "Say someone's chasing me. Or a dog, or ... not a dog, I'm not scared of dogs. But like a tiger's chasing me. I'm not getting away, because it's a tiger. But I would definitely run faster."
It always comes back to Wall. "People will say I'm biased because [I also went to] Kentucky, but I think De'Aaron Fox might end up being the best point guard out of that class," the Wizards' guard told Comcast SportsNet in May. "He reminds me a lot of myself."
"The reality of it is," Calipari says, "unless [NBA teams] are trying to win in a minute, I mean, that [jumper] should be the least of their worries. What you have is a long guard that can pick up 94 feet, that'll be as fast as anybody in the league. When you have that, and he's really good at pick-and-roll, he's on the scouting report. 'How do we play this? How are we gonna guard this? What are we doing in transition?' He gets the ball in his hands, you gotta get back in the lane. Because he's coming."
Fox's biggest game as a Wildcat was in March against UCLA. The Sweet 16 matchup was probably the most anticipated NBA scouting opportunity of the season. Magic Johnson skipped Shaq's statue unveiling—for the Lakers, statue unveilings are like family reunions crossed with religious holidays—and got on a plane to Memphis, where he joined scores of representatives from around the NBA. Calipari chuckles about the game now.
"At halftime," he remembers, "I walk in, and I look at the team and go, 'Are you all watching this game?'"
He pointed to Fox, who had 15 points as the Wildcats led 36--33. "How 'bout we just play through him?"
The players all looked around, and guard Malik Monk laughed. "Put it in his hands," Monk said. "We'll play off him."
Fox dominated the entire night. He finished with 39 points on 13-of-20 shooting, besting his UCLA counterpart, Lonzo Ball. He got to the rim at will, and he also went to the line 15 times as UK won 86--75. Months later, he says that the only people who recognize him in California are UCLA fans. "Aww, come on," they say. "You didn't have to do us like that."
Fox was so dominant that the immediate response from NBA experts was to preach caution. The prevailing sentiment was that one night shouldn't change evaluations that had taken shape over the course of five months. "Biggest game of the year" became "just one game."
"Kill mode all the time" is how Fox described his mind-set before the UCLA game. "Shut LaVar Ball up" is how he explains it a few months later.
He's still cool with Lonzo and his brothers. The elder Ball was just a puzzling wrinkle that added some motivation along the way. "In the last year he became relevant for some reason," Fox says. "When I knew Lonzo in high school, I'd never seen his dad before. [LaVar] went crazy this year. I guess when your son is a lottery pick, that gives you a lot of confidence."
That tournament game was the first time Fox became a fixture in conversations surrounding the top five prospects in the draft. He's been there ever since. But when it comes to any debate between Ball and Fox specifically, the tournament game can only tell you so much.
Fox was taking advantage of a Bruins defense that had been horrific for the entire season, and most of the time he wasn't beating Lonzo. On the other end, he bothered Ball more than anyone all year—he did the same thing in UCLA's win over the Wildcats in December—but even that detail is only so useful. Fox's athleticism is similar to what Ball will see every night in the NBA. If a team believes in Ball, they have to imagine that eventually he'll adjust. Writing him off because of one matchup would be insanity.
The UCLA game works much better as a window into the player Fox can be if his offense evolves. When his floaters in the lane are falling, when he's leading the break, when he's hitting from outside, setting the tone defensively, he can take over the entire game. He's like a force of nature. Like Wall, like Westbrook. When his shots are dropping or he's getting to the rim, there are no answers. With the entire NBA scouting community watching a game with as many as seven potential lottery picks on the court, Fox looked like he was in a different category from all of them.
Fox plays video games up to six hours per day. He owns an E-Sports gaming chair that he uses regularly. He is not a beach person and hasn't spent time in Malibu, but he says he'd consider it if he could hook up his PlayStation.
On social media he's as active as anyone else, but he stays detached from trolls: "People are like, 'How do you not let that stuff get to you?' I'm about to make a million dollars. I enjoy what I do. I'm about to play basketball for a living. Why should I care what anybody's saying?"
The best summary of Fox off the court: He keeps a low profile. He's funny. He's kind of a huge nerd, but he's completely at ease with himself. Those are always the coolest people.
At lunch we discuss potential NBA landing spots. Fox is intrigued by Phoenix, which has four Kentucky guards. He's obviously thinking of the Lakers as well. "I've heard they're trying to move D'Angelo [Russell] to the two," he says. "Even if he does play point, I feel like we could play together. A lot of teams play two point guards anyway."
Of course, he knows Lonzo is still the most likely answer in L.A. "That's the safe pick."
There are also the Kings. "Yeah, we can do Sacramento," his father says. "Laid-back, relaxed."
Meanwhile, Fox is scrolling through his mentions. Earlier in the day he took the "How well do you know De'Aaron Fox?" quiz the Kings put together and scored 100%. He tweeted his results. It unleashed a flood of fans begging him to come to Sactown. "They got some crazy fans," he says with a smirk.
Driving back from lunch, Fox talks about the predraft interviews. One team asked him whether he accelerates or brakes at a yellow light. "I'm like, sometimes I would hit the gas, sometimes I'll brake," he says. The same team asked whether he'd send back food at a restaurant if he was given the wrong order. "If it was something that was close," Fox said, "I wouldn't. If it's not close, then yeah, I'm going to tell them to bring it back. Like, give me what I ordered. But nicely, though."
As the yellow-light riddles imply, the draft is not an exact science. Especially as the lottery has come to be dominated by freshmen, general managers are making franchise-altering decisions with little more than 4½ months of college basketball to analyze. Everyone is basically guessing at who will develop, and how.
That might be the best argument for Fox as a potential franchise player. Compared with players such as Ball and Markelle Fultz, yes, there are holes in his game that would seem to limit his ceiling. But the progression of NBA stars is rarely linear. For every Durant or LeBron who arrive with greatness preordained, there is a Steph Curry or Kawhi Leonard. Fox already has a mentality that will set him apart from most of his peers. And while some of his competition in this class looks more refined, there's also a chance that Fox is just scratching the surface.
The outside shooting issues were real at Kentucky, but he was better in high school. Chris Gaston, the trainer who's worked with him since the eighth grade, thinks that the problem may have been confidence. He got out of rhythm on the perimeter and never got it back.
More important, focusing on the season's shooting numbers might be missing the real takeaway from the 4½ months at Kentucky. Fox struggled to get acclimated early on, and he battled nagging injuries through the first few months. Then he took over through the second half of the season. The UCLA performance may have been the headliner, but he averaged 21.3 points on 53.2% shooting during eight games in March.
The case against Fox is easy. He couldn't shoot from the outside at Kentucky, which means he probably won't be able to shoot from the outside in the NBA, which means there's a ceiling on what he can do in today's league. Almost every time an NBA team plays the "if he develops a jump shot" game, it ends with disappointment.
But again, it's the draft. Conventional wisdom is never more useless than when the whole basketball world is talking about teenagers.
"You gotta be a dog," Fox says about life in the NBA. "Don't back down from anyone. You gotta be one of those guys that people don't want to play against—and those are the guys that people want to play with.
"Teams ask me what I can bring to the table: good guy, leadership, playmaking offensively and defensively. Then they ask, 'What are you gonna do if we put the ball in your hands?' I'm going to take over the game. It doesn't necessarily have to be scoring. Just always attacking. Always. People don't wanna guard somebody that's gonna attack them on literally every possession. They want to take plays off on defense. They don't want someone guarding them that actually wants to guard. If you have somebody coming at you, every single possession, you can't get that break."
This is a good answer—and it makes it easy to understand why Kevin Garnett is De'Aaron Fox's favorite player.
Fox is like a force of nature. Like Wall, like Westbrook. When his shots are falling or he's getting to the rim, THERE ARE NO ANSWERS.