Fox Ready for Familiar Foe

As the Kings and Lakers renew a longstanding rivalry, find out how Sacramento’s rookie is preparing for a long-awaited point guard showdown.
by Alex Kramers
Kings.com Contributor

Kings and Lakers fans alike have had the date circled on their calendars since mid-summer, but for De’Aaron Fox, Wednesday’s head-to-head matchup against Los Angeles guard Lonzo Ball is “just another game.”

“What rivalry?” he asks with a wide grin, tilting his head back at his locker. “It’s not a rivalry there. When we get on the court, we compete. But as far as a rivalry, that’s a media- and fan-driven thing.”

Nearly eight months have passed since the two last shared a basketball court – a memorable night that ignited the friendly competition between the pair of future Pacific Division floor generals.

Sacramento’s No. 5 pick is still all smiles as he vividly recounts the 86-75 Wildcats victory over Ball’s Bruins in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament on March 24. The then-Kentucky guard exploded for a career-high 39 points on 13-of-20 from the field, while on the other end, limiting his counterpart to 10 points, eight assists and four turnovers.

In their previous regular-season meeting on Dec. 3, 2016, UCLA escaped with a narrow 97-92 victory, though Fox yet again came out ahead in the point guard battle, finishing with 20 points, nine assists and one turnover, compared to Ball’s 14 points, seven assists and six turnovers.

Since entering the NBA, injuries have sidelined Ball – the No. 2 overall selection in the Draft – from Kings-Lakers tilts in both Summer League and preseason, further intensifying the buildup to the inaugural professional matchup between the two franchise building blocks.

Fox is no stranger to Ball’s unique skill set, dating back to their first encounter at AAU camp as high-school sophomores, and distinguishes that despite playing the same position, their individual styles couldn’t be more different.

“You’re not guarding (Ball) to stop him from scoring 30 (points) – you’re just trying to get him uncomfortable, just so he doesn’t make his teammates better,” said Fox. “That’s the hardest part about guarding him – his ability to make plays.”

Ball – whose prolific passing and court vision have drawn favorable comparisons to 10-time All-Star Jason Kidd – ranks second among all rookies in assists per game (7.1), and is one of two first-year players to record multiple triple-doubles.

Not to be outdone, Fox – the lightning-quick dynamo with a game reminiscent of Wizards superstar John Wall’s – has already added a game-winner to his NBA résumé, pulling up from the top of the key to bury a contested 15-foot jump shot against Philadelphia on Nov. 9. According to Elias Sports, the 19-year-old became the youngest player over the last five seasons to make a game-winning field goal in the final 30 seconds of the fourth quarter or overtime.

“When we need a shot, I feel I can create for myself and I can create for others,” said Fox. “If we need a shot like that, I feel comfortable taking it, but if I see a man open, I can get it to him.”

Utilizing his nearly-unmatched speed in both transition and half-court settings, No. 5 – the point guard Ball recently called the fastest he has ever faced – recognizes the crucial areas he’ll need to exploit to once again get the upper hand against his talented opponent.

“I’m going to attack him like I attack everybody else,” said Fox. “I feel like I have quickness over everybody … I know I need to shoot it better, but (defenders) aren’t going to get that close to me. It would be stupid if they try to get close to me.”

While both guards are getting more acclimated to the League with each passing game, Fox believes he had the benefit of a different role in the early stages of his career. Despite leading the team in minutes played (26.6 per game), the Kings rookie served as the backup to veteran George Hill in all but two of his first 14 appearances, while the Lakers standout has been in the starting lineup since opening night.

"It doesn't matter to me if I start or not, but the best part about coming off the bench (is that) you see the flow of the game, you see what’s going on, you see what your team really needs, and then you get out there and just try to implement that,” said Fox, who has started alongside Hill in the last three contests.

“Just coming into the NBA is difficult, but after the first couple of games – getting my feet wet and being out there – it’s gotten a lot easier. The pace has really slowed down for me, and now I’m just in the flow better.”

Although he’s not concerned with his personal statistics or accolades, the Houston, Texas native has kept a close eye on not only Ball, but every point guard in a Draft class dominated by numerous potential stars at the position.

“I watch a lot of basketball anyway, so I check on a lot of those guys,” he said. “It’s nothing major, but when we step on the court, it’s all business.”

On the season, Fox – one of only five rookies to rank among the top-10 in both scoring and assists among first-year players – has not only scored at a more efficient clip (46.1 true-shooting percentage) than Ball (36.8), but has also recorded a higher assist rate (28.5 compared to 28.1), according to NBA.com.

Even if he doesn’t believe there’s a burgeoning rivalry yet, Fox recognizes he and Ball will be unavoidably linked throughout their respective NBA careers, and playing in the same state and division will command even more attention to their games for years to come.

But with their first much-anticipated meeting finally on the schedule – the first of four regular-season tilts between the Kings and Lakers in 2017-18 – the Sacramento draftee is quick to deflect from the individual duel in favor of the bigger picture.

“I’m just staying in the moment,” he said. “It’s crazy, just how fast time goes. I still remember my first high school game! It’s going by fast, but I’m having fun with it, and just hope that I can win as much as possible.”

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