As much as there was to like about De’Aaron Fox coming out of Kentucky — the size, the speed, the quickness, the handle, the defensive chops, the intensity — there was always the one question: “But can he shoot it?”
He couldn’t in college, making just under a quarter of his 3-point tries from the shorter NCAA line, less than one-third of his pull-up jumpers, and only a fifth of his spot-up tries in the half court, according to Mike Schmitz and Matt Kamalsky of DraftExpress. The story’s remained the same through his first 10 games as a pro, as he entered Thursday’s play with a 29.5 percent mark on looks outside of 10 feet, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
Sometimes, though, you’ve just got to take what the defense is giving you and make a play. That’s exactly what the 19-year-old did on Thursday night, delighting the Sacramento Kings fans in attendance at Golden 1 Center and driving a knife into the heart of the visiting Philadelphia 76ers:
With the 76ers holding a 108-107 lead and 18.8 seconds left on the clock, Sacramento guard Garrett Temple inbounded the ball from underneath the basket to Fox out near half-court. The point guard gathered the ball, stepped to his left and surveyed his options, his teammates fanning out below the foul line to try to give him as much room as possible to operate. The rookie stared down Sixers swingman Robert Covington — 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan and All-Defensive Team-caliber bona fides as a perimeter stopper — and didn’t blink, calmly dribbling into a pull-up jumper from the top of the key that left his hand before Covington could close down the distance and contest. The teenager drained the lefty jumper like a 10-year vet, putting Sacramento on top with 13.4 seconds to go.
The Sixers had a timeout to use, but coach Brett Brown preferred to have his team attack a scrambling and backtracking defense, rather than giving Sacramento’s Dave Joerger a chance to scheme for one last stop. Philly got the ball into the hands of rising star center Joel Embiid, but Kings big man Willie Cauley-Stein stayed with him step for step and move for move, forcing a contested jumper that came up empty …
Trillie defends Embiid on the last shot, Kings win pic.twitter.com/s9XSO0xfCD
— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) November 10, 2017
… sealing a 109-108 win that sent the hometown faithful into hysterics.
It was the second time in the final minute that Cauley-Stein got the better of Embiid on the defensive end. In the first one, he absolutely snuffed “The Process” at the rim on a putback attempt that would have put Philly up by three with 25 seconds to go:
That stop came on the heels of another block of Embiid by the former Kentucky big man, who’s got all the physical tools to be a pick-and-roll-finishing, rim-protecting, glass-clearing menace, but who has at times in his three-year pro career struggled with consistency and focus. That wasn’t a problem on Thursday; the challenge of doing battle with die-hard darling and maxed-out sensation Embiid seemed to energize Cauley-Stein, who finished with 15 points, four rebounds, two blocks and an assist in 24 1/2 minutes.
“He’s a great player and I’ve been wanting to see this matchup for a while,” Cauley-Stein said, according to Michael Wagaman of The Associated Press. “I’m happy I could just play with him. We both had a really good game and made it interesting.”
With Cauley-Stein and Kosta Koufos (eight points, 12 rebounds, three assists, one block, one life-changing bench GIF) protecting the paint, and old man Zach Randolph (20 points, seven rebounds) and rookie wing Justin Jackson (19 points in 29 1/2 minutes off the bench) providing buckets, the Kings managed to stay with a more talented, but still young, inexperienced and pretty sloppy Sixers team.
Philly led by six with 90 seconds to go, but Cauley-Stein erased an Embiid layup at the rim, sending Fox off to the races:
Big plays on both ends! pic.twitter.com/gEA1dz8qAo
— Sacramento Kings (@SacramentoKings) November 10, 2017
He’d miss the and-one free throw, keeping the deficit at four, but Randolph kept the loose ball alive until it went out off the Sixers, retaining possession. The Kings’ next possession got pretty hairy, with a loose ball scramble and a pass that nearly hit a referee. But veteran guard Temple settled things down when it mattered most, catching Fox’s errant pass, side-stepping Covington, and drilling a 3 to cut the deficit to one:
Down four, need a bucket, throw the ball all over the place, nearly hit a ref, kaboom. Just like Dave Joerger drew it up. pic.twitter.com/Swui8Kz26u
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) November 10, 2017
Temple’s big shot and Cauley-Stein’s big block set the table for Fox’s big moment — his first game-winner as a pro, on a pull-up and a stroke more confident than anybody who’d opened the game 2-for-11 has any right to produce.
“My teammates had so much confidence in me,” Fox said during his post-game interview with NBC Sports California’s Kayte Christensen. “You know, I missed a lot of free throws today, and G-Temp kept saying, ‘Next play, next play. Don’t worry about that.’ [Covington] backed off, and that’s a shot that I’m extremely comfortable taking.”
Make a few more of them, rook, and that scouting report just might change before you know it.
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