De’Aaron Fox Seeks to Build on Strong Finish

There’s nothing quite like watching De’Aaron Fox with the basketball in his hands, weaving, spinning and slicing through defenses, accelerating with such a quick burst that his opposition can only guess which way he’ll go.

It’s been long established that few players, if any, can keep pace when No. 5 lowers his head and races the length of the court, and even fewer can stay in front of him when he unleashes an inside-out dribble or hesitation crossover and glides in for a lefty layup or zips a pass to a cutting teammate.

With no shortage of moves in his bag, the 6-foot-3 guard was one of only nine qualified players in the league to rank in the top 20 in both points (23.2 per game) and assists (5.6); the other eight were all named All-Stars. Sacramento’s primary scoring option and best distributor, Fox finished with at least 30 points and five assists 11 times in 59 appearances, the 14th-most in the league.

For most players, averages north of 23 points and five assists would constitute a career year; even among the game’s best, typically only All-NBA mainstays reach those thresholds with regularity. But while he was still near the top of the leaderboards, Fox’s season-long numbers dipped in comparison to the high precedents he established the year prior, when he set career-bests with 25.2 points, 7.2 assists and a 20.7 PER.

After a slower than usual start, however, the speedy guard, fully recovered from a lingering ankle injury that sidelined him for eight games, found his rhythm alongside a new pick-and-roll partner. 

Since Feb. 9, the first night Domantas Sabonis put on a Kings jersey, Fox averaged 28.9 points – an eight-point uptick from his first 44 outings – on 58.4 percent true shooting (.503/.360/.767 splits), and dished out 6.8 assists in 15 games. His streak of 10 consecutive outings with at least 20 points on 50-percent or better from the field tied Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo for the longest by any player this season.

In their 13-game run together, the Fox-to-Sabonis connection resulted in 23 made baskets, which put the two-man combo on pace for 145 assists over the course of a full season. That would’ve been the fifth-most prolific partnership among all duos in the league, per PBPstats.com, and stands to only improve with more familiarity and repetition.

A closer look at Fox’s monthly splits demonstrates an almost perfect upward trend in effectiveness and efficiency as the year progressed.

A closer look at his shot distribution shows the strides he made as a scorer and shooter that helped bump up that efficiency.

An elite, savvy finisher around the basket, Fox converted 65 percent of his shots at the rim, a slight regression from his prior season (69 percent), but a rate that still placed him in the 84th percentile at his position, per Cleaning the Glass. Among all point guards with at least 200 attempts within four feet, only two – Luka Doncic and Ja Morant – were more accurate.

Fox continued to draw fouls at a staggering degree, too, finishing in the 90th percentile in attempts, and knocked down a career-best 75 percent of his six trips to the foul line per game.

But as defenses schemed to contain his speed in the half court and deny him avenues to the cup, Fox incorporated a larger volume of mid-range shots to keep opponents on their heels. Hunting for his sweet spots on the floor, he’d dribble inward toward the congestion in the paint, create separation by burying one foot into the ground and then step back to rise and release a soft fall-away jumper before his defender had a chance to contest.

More than half of Fox’s field-goal attempts came from inside the 3-point arc but outside of the restricted area, per CTG, an increase of eight percent from last year and 12 percent from two seasons ago. Fox not only took a higher share of shots from the middle of the floor than most floor generals, but he made substantially more of them, too. His 46-percent conversion rate placed in the 82nd percentile, within striking distance of Steph Curry (86th) and Trae Young (88th).

Fox’s proficiency from more areas on the floor is evident in his isolation scoring. While his frequency of one-on-one opportunities was virtually unchanged from last season (11 percent), his points per possession climbed from 0.87 (52nd percentile) to 1.06 (86th); of the 61 players with at least 100 possessions, only six ranked ahead of him in PPP, according to NBA.com.

The Kings were 1.9 points better per 100 possessions when Fox was on the floor, a net differential that ranked in the 64th percentile among all players, per CTG. That’s a development that deserves attention, as Sacramento was roughly two points worse with Fox on the court in each of the previous two seasons.

That positive rating was driven by how much he contributed offensively, as the Kings scored 6.6 more points per 100 with Fox in the lineup (91st percentile), plus shot better from the field, drew more whistles and committed fewer turnovers.

But despite his terrific block and steal rates, Sacramento simultaneously gave up 4.8 more points per 100 when he was in the game compared to when he sat. Fox has repeatedly committed to becoming a better, more locked-in and more well-rounded defender, and more minutes alongside Davion Mitchell, already an elite, versatile stopper, may also have a positive effect. 

A consistent 3-pointer remains the only other major blemish in Fox’s repertoire. While he’s had extended stretches of excellent outside shooting, he’s hovered toward the bottom in accuracy relative to his position in each of the last three seasons. In his last 16 games of the 2021-22 season, however, he fired 3.8 pull-up triples per night and made 40 percent of them.

What’s clear is that the 24-year-old star is far from a finished product, and neither makes excuses nor runs from acknowledging his shortcomings.

“I wouldn’t say I had a good season,” Fox said. “I think I had a good stretch before I got hurt, but that’s pretty much all it is. Before those, I guess last [16] games, I don't feel like I played even close to my ability.”

As he builds chemistry with Sabonis – an exceptional screener, crafty passer and elite finisher at the rim – Fox will benefit from even better scoring opportunities in pick-and-roll settings and through off-ball movement. With Sacramento expected to prioritize adding more outside shooting in the offseason, he may also find more open space to penetrate the paint.

After taking another step forward in his production – and if his strong second half was a preview of what’s to come – a leap into both the All-Star and playoffs conversations could arrive in his sixth season.

“I want to be a winner at the end of the day,” Fox said. “That's how I go into every game, into every season, trying to win every single game that I step my foot on the court [...] It's definitely hard to do in the NBA and it's hard to try to turn a team and a franchise around, but it's something that I'm willing to put the work in to change.”