Immediately after Sacramento’s 132-119 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Kings point guard De’Aaron Fox spotted then newly acquired big man Domantas Sabonis and wrapped his arms around him in a heartfelt embrace.
The emotion was palpable for everyone in the arena and watching on TV, but especially for Fox, who, in his five years in Sacramento, appeared to have the running mate he needed to help him end the franchise’s historic playoff draught.
Sabonis finished that game with 22 points, 14 rebounds and five assists while Fox added 27 points and eight boards in the duo’s first outing following the blockbuster trade at the deadline.
Fox gushed about his new teammate to the media afterwards, likening Sabonis’ strength to that of an Ox, immediately sparking a new nickname for the dynamic duo.
The Fox and the Ox followed that performance up with another 13-point win – this time over the Washington Wizards – that saw Sabonis record a near triple-double with 16 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists and Fox put up 26 points and four dimes.
It was just the sixth time this past season that the Kings won back-to-back games, and the team appeared to finally have the foundation to build something special in Sacramento.
Unfortunately, the duo was only able to log 11 more games together before injuries marred both their seasons, thus sinking Sacramento’s hopes of snapping its playoff drought.
But it was clear in the just 13 games total they played together, that both players benefitted from the ability to play off the other. In the 11 games following the wins over Washington and Minnesota, Fox put up some of his best numbers of the season, averaging 28.1 points on 52% shooting to go with 6.8 assists.
“Obviously, a guy like that, he takes a lot of pressure off of you because he’s such a dynamic roller, a guy that can post up,” Fox told the media in his end-of-season press conference. “I’ve always talked about how I’m seeing the best defenders every night. But we talked about how he screens, the way he passes. He opens up a lot more opportunity.
“I think I score pretty well off the dribble, but just being able to just have him out there and guys that know how to play and move, something we obviously need to do more of, but it just opens up and gives a wider range of opportunities to make plays and to score.”
Sabonis was a walking double-double before he arrived in Sacramento and continued that trend in a Kings jersey. He put up 17.4 points, 12.8 rebounds and nearly six assists per game in his 13 outings with Fox.
And while their seasons were cut short, both players understand the magnitude of their pairing heading into next year.
“I love playing with him. Those  games were great. We didn’t get as much as we wanted to play together but we’re going to have a long offseason, see if we can get together and get some workouts in, have training camp. I’m just excited for next year. We’re going to go through the whole, normal process — not getting traded in the middle of the season. So, I’m excited for that.”
This offseason will be pivotal for the development of Fox and Sabonis as the foundation of Sacramento’s future, but even more so for a team that added six new players at the last year’s trade deadline.
Fox and Sabonis are the foundation, but two players can’t do it alone. They’ll need continued support from Harrison Barnes and new additions Donte DiVincenzo and Trey Lyles, who both proved to be valuable over the second half of the season, as well as ever-improving rookie Davion Mitchell and up-and-coming role players Damian Jones and Chimezie Metu.
It’s difficult to build that chemistry in-season though, so Fox has already started brainstorming ways to get the team together this summer so they can hit the ground running come October.
“Probably half the NBA spends the offseason in LA. I think a guys will make their way there — just to try to get some weeks in together, working out,” Fox said. “Just being around each other, I think that’s what builds chemistry. That’s already [something] we’ve talked about from GMs down and players just trying to be around each other this summer. So those things are definitely in the works.”
Sabonis, who has been a member of four playoff teams during his six-year NBA career, echoed the same sentiment as Fox when it comes to putting in the work to build chemistry on the court.
“It still takes time to play off one another and we had six new players out there playing with everybody. That’s why I’m excited for the summer,” Sabonis said. “We’re going to get together as a group and try and build on things early before training camp even starts, and I think that’s going to help a lot.
“The more we play with one another, the more we get a feel for each other. We have a lot of time out there and everybody has that fire and passion that wants to play, so that’s half of the job done. So, we just have to make it work together.”
The Kings will undoubtedly be a different team when they step on the court for the 2022-23 season simply based off the fact they’ll have a full Training Camp to set offensive and defensive principles.
But it’s clear this team will only go as far as Fox and Sabonis take them. That starts with the team’s two best players developing chemistry and building a bond that brings out the best in one another on the court.
“He already had the role of leader on this team but he kind of stepped up and had the ball more in his hands,” Sabonis said. “I was out there to help him get open and attract more attention and he just took advantage of it.
“He was great at making shots, anytime we needed a bucket he was there to do it. Pushing the pace, talking on defense — he really showed a side I didn’t know he had and that makes me really excited for next year.”