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Fox blossoming into two-way star as defensive heroics secure Kings win

Fox blossoming into two-way star as defensive heroics secure Kings win originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

SACRAMENTO -- Kings star point guard De’Aaron Fox is no stranger to big fourth-quarter plays.

The reigning NBA Clutch Player of the Year thrives in the final moments of games and even more so under pressure.

But his latest heroics came on the other side of the floor in the Kings' 127-122 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday at Golden 1 Center, making an unthinkable defensive play with the game potentially on the line and then topping it off with a midrange dagger the other way.

Down by three with less than 50 seconds remaining in the fourth, the Spurs looked to shrink their deficit and shrink it fast. Jeremy Sochan controlled the ball at the top of the key and gave it to the guy who had been dominating all night. Sochan found Devin Vassell, who finished with a game-high 32 points on 72-percent shooting, cutting to the basket after blowing by Fox in what was expected to be an easy throw-down dunk.

But Fox said Swipa no swiping.

Fox came from behind and -- with all his might -- blocked Vassell’s shot to what felt like all the way to the Chipotle across Golden 1 Center but in all actuality landed in the hands of Domantas Sabonis.

About 15 seconds later, Fox drained a 17-foot jump shot to extend Sacramento’s lead to five.

That one defensive play made all the difference for the Kings. What was seconds (and centimeters) away from being a 1-point game became a 5-point game.

Fox shared his point of view on the game-changing play following the win.

“Devin had some tough shots and he was great all night long from the beginning of the game to the end of the game,” Fox explained. “And for me, I was trying to deny, and he’s a good cutter, so he got backdoor and it was just not giving up on the play. It was either you do that or you try to foul him and don’t let him get his arms up.

“But I just went for the ball and was able to get the ball.”

Kevin Huerter was standing under the basket when Fox pulled off the impossible play. He was descriptive with his words when trying to detail what he witnessed his teammate do.

“That was some of the freakish defensive plays I’ve ever seen that up close,” Huerter said after the Kings’ 127-122 win. “For him to be beat like that backdoor, recover to it, jump in the air and finally be able to pound the ball like that -- that was a ridiculous defensive play.

“A handful of guys across the league that can make that. Vessell was tough all night, but Fox made a huge play when we needed it. That was a crazy defensive play.”

The play didn’t come as a surprise to Fox, as he acknowledged after the game that his recovery speed played a big role in the block.

But aside from Fox physically being able to pull off the play, it’s the way he’s mentally bought in that has made all the difference in his defensive growth.

"Buying in" defensively has been a point of emphasis ever since Mike Brown stepped into the Kings' head-coaching role last season. While the team has yet to reach the defensive-minded coach's standards, seeing his star player take a leap and commit defensively has Fox -- and the rest of the team -- headed in the right direction.

"It’s huge because at the end of the day, I’ve never been part of a team that was great in this league where it didn’t come from the players. It has to come from the players and it has to start there and it has to end there," Brown said. "Sooner or later they are going to hate hearing my voice. They got to police one another and hold each other accountable.

"When you get to that point and they really believe in it and it’s really happening, you can have some special things happen for your team."

Second-year forward Keegan Murray is on his way to two-way supremacy in this league. That's been an emphasis for the 23-year-old this season.

While Murray has accepted the challenge and fulfilled it thus far surpassing anyone's expectations, he isn't the only one making strides away from the ball. Fox, too, is up for the challenge.

Together, Fox explained how important it is to have both himself and Murray defending some of the opposing team's best players.

"It’s big. I think Keegan took a really big jump in that department this year and I think obviously everyone here has seen it," Fox said. "But that’s a challenge being able to do that night in and night out. He’s done it well for us this year. Guarding ISOs, getting through picks, getting through pin downs, whatever it is. He’s been amazing at that.

"At times you just want to throw something different. We’re different defenders. He’s longer, more of a shot blocker. He can give you a little more space because he’s bigger. And I’m more getting to the ball, just trying to pressure and get guys to turn their back. So it’s just throwing different personnel, different coverages at you."

Sacramento still has plenty to improve defensively, just ask Coach Brown. But since stepping foot into Golden 1 Center for the first time as head coach in the summer of 2022, the coach is proud of the growth he's seeing from his star.

And he knows it's only the beginning for Fox.

"I think Foxy can be one of the best two-way guys to play in the NBA and I’ve said it many times before," Brown said. "I coached him at a camp when he was in high school and I’ll never forget, I was just amazed at this strength for a smaller guy. He’s wirey thin, but he’s wirey strong, too. So when you’re that athletic, you’re that quick, you’re that long -- you can be a great defender.

"But it takes a lot of will and want to be able to do it. I think he’s starting to figure it out, but he’s just scratching the surface because it takes a lot to defend at the level that he’s going to be capable of at the end of the day. And he’s heading that way."