LAS VEGAS – The four words that no lottery pick wanted to hear before his name on NBA draft night were once, “The Sacramento Kings select … ” The mere utterance meant that a possibly promising career would be dissolved into the dysfunction of an organization that had no apparent plan and no support structure to stimulate success. In the end, those doomed to that destination had to hope that they played well enough that some other team still wanted to sign them whenever they were given the chance to flee.
De’Aaron Fox is confident that the head-scratching run of incompetence will end with him. This summer, the Kings have worked hard to fumigate the franchise’s futile past with a stream of sensible decisions that hint that there finally is a coherent plan in place. They drafted players from college basketball’s most storied programs, including North Carolina’s Justin Jackson and Kansas’ Frank Mason, and lured veteran free agents capable of contributing on the court and educating the team’s roster of impressionable youth on the professionalism required to maximize their careers.
The success of the Kings’ latest course will hinge on what becomes of Fox, a telephone-wire-thin point guard with the speed of a WiFi router whose moxie and charisma make him the ideal fit for the challenge ahead. Fox is eager to lead the turnaround for a team that hasn’t seen the playoffs since he was in second grade (2006) and only had one of its previous 10 lottery picks blossom into an All-Star (the since-jettisoned DeMarcus Cousins).
“That’s definitely what I want to do, change the culture of the city,” Fox told The Vertical. “Help this team get wins, get to the playoffs. Try to get back to the conference finals, try to win championships here.”
Fox has provided a considerable amount of excitement for fans of a franchise still scarred by the failed Cousins era, which further plummeted it away from the glory days of the Chris Webber era. The Kings were able to nab a player with the fifth pick who was at the top of at least one other lottery team’s draft board. A fiery competitor who is relentless on defense and lists MVP Russell Westbrook as his favorite player, Fox has supported the enthusiasm for his arrival during summer league, where he has thrown a behind-the-back flip pass to Buddy Hield for a 3-pointer and taken chants of “Overrated!” as an immediate cue for him to silence the crowd by attacking the rim for a difficult layup in traffic. Fox is adamant that he is the best among the impressive crop of floor generals taken in the top 10, which also includes Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr.
“I’m not going to say anybody but myself,” Fox told The Vertical. “Everybody is going to say they’re the best player, best person at their position. That’s how I am. I’m extremely confident in myself, and I just go at everybody.”
The Kings signed veteran point guard George Hill to assist Fox as he learns how to navigate through the league. Hill’s career began while learning under Tony Parker in San Antonio, and he is eager to pass along the wisdom accrued through stops in Indiana and Utah. The Kings also expect the pair to share the floor, given that both have the ability to be effective playing off the ball.
John Wall, a four-time All-Star with the Washington Wizards, said before the draft that Fox has the potential to have the best career of this heralded point guard class – and not because both served a one-and-done apprenticeship under John Calipari at Kentucky. “I saw of lot of myself in him. I know he want to be his own De’Aaron Fox, not a John Wall, but I see a lot of attributes that I had at a young age – athletic, fast, dunked with his left hand a lot, knows how to run a team. That was something I was excited about,” Wall told The Vertical. “You’ve got a chance to be one of the great guards. You’ve got a chance to learn and develop, and I know every night is going to be a tough contest. He just likes to hoop. He likes those big matchups. He’ll figure it out.”
Wall has served as a mentor for Fox, offering advice on what it will take to succeed at the next level. While Fox was at Kentucky, he always heard about his similarities to the other track star in high tops who was able to impact the game until he developed a more consistent jumper. Calipari would always tell Fox how Wall weaponized his speed to keep opponents on edge. Wall said Fox is learning how to intimidate while leaving tire tracks on the court but is already more advanced by comparison in terms of switching gears and playing with pace. And he had a simple tip for what Fox would need to do to address concerns over his frail frame. “Got to lift some weights,” Wall told The Vertical with a grin.
Fox certainly isn’t intimidated by the challenge of holding his own at a position that has never been more stocked with talent and depth. And who would doubt the dedication of a classical music fan who – to combat an extreme bout with boredom – used YouTube videos and an electronic keyboard to teach himself how to play the piano?
This week provided another example of how Fox’s personality is conducive to handling the pressure of his current situation in Sacramento. On Monday night, Ball, the No. 2 pick of the Los Angeles Lakers with whom he sparred twice last season – including a decided knockout of UCLA in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, sat out an expected matchup with Fox because of a groin injury. Fox responded by posting the face-palm emoji on Twitter, setting social media ablaze. After deleting the tweet, Fox had the perfect response when pressed later about the incident. “I got hacked,” Fox said with a deadpan before cracking a smile. “Nah, I like to play with y’all. Y’all ran with it faster than I would run a 40. So I did it.”
Fox’s passion for the game was most evident after Kentucky’s crushing loss to North Carolina in the Elite Eight. After the game, Fox sobbed in the locker room while wrapping his arms around teammate and eventual Miami Heat lottery pick Bam Adebayo. Though he knew that his college career wouldn’t be long, he had different expectations for how it would end. “You saw someone who hates losing. That’s how it was when I was younger. Video games, my brother would beat me and start talking, I would just get mad,” Fox told The Vertical, while adding how the importance of that attitude will help the Kings. “None of us are used to losing. We’re all coming from winning programs. That’s something I feel like we’re going to change here. We’re all going to play harder and try to get wins.”
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