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Clutch Player Ladder: De'Aaron Fox finishes the season on top

NBA senior writer Shaun Powell makes his selection for the inaugural Jerry West Clutch Player of the Year Award.

Coming through in the clutch was nothing new for De’Aaron Fox in the 2022-23 season.

The best anyone can say about De’Aaron Fox this season is that he usually came through when it counted.

That’s probably the highest compliment a player can earn, other than carrying his team to the playoffs and being stamped a certified winner. Because “coming through when it counts” means you are trusted with the ball by your coach and teammates and rarely let them down in those moments.

It’s the definition of a clutch player, and that’s what Fox is and has been since the regular season began. The Sacramento Kings’ guard separated himself from most in the league by scoring often, and efficiently, in the final few minutes of close games in regulation and overtime. This is why, if the voters agree, he’ll be the winner of the inaugural Jerry West Clutch Player of the Year Award, named after the former Los Angeles Lakers great who was made for those moments.

It has been a gradual ascent for Fox, who showed promise as a rookie and improved almost across the board as a ball-handler, shooter, passer and leader here at age 25, all while becoming a first-time All-Star in 2022-23. It would not be unexpected if Fox is named to one of the All-NBA teams when those honors are announced this spring after establishing himself as one of the NBA’s best at his position.

But, in the clutch? Sacramento’s growth can be traced to its ability to win tight games, something the young team struggled with last season — and actually for the last decade. In 2021-22, the Kings were 17-23 in clutch games. This season, they practically flipped that, going 25-19 in those games. Anyway: Coach Mike Brown designated Fox as the prime candidate for hero ball shortly before the season began, and Fox repaid the gesture by constantly thriving in these moments.

“When I took the job I didn’t know how consistently he would be in the clutch,” Brown said.

Fox led all NBA players in clutch scoring, as his 194 points were 35 more than the next-highest player (DeMar DeRozan). Additionally, Fox did so with supreme confidence and accuracy, shooting 52.9% overall and 86% from the free throw line in the clutch, showing a steady hand when it mattered most.

Therefore, the poise, leadership and shot-making all factored into Fox being the league’s finest clutch player.

“His presence, calmness, demeanor, however, you want to call it has just been fantastic down the stretch of games, especially one-possession games,” said Brown. “It’s just a confidence that he exudes during that time in the game, and he’s shown play after play after play that he can go get it done.”

There are others deemed worthy of this award as well. While Fox was consistent all season, a handful of players not only had moments but strengthened their case for consideration with a string of clutch games in the second half of the season.

Below is our final top five of the season for the Clutch Player Ladder.

(Editor’s note: For Clutch Stats, qualifying players appeared in at least 15 games.)

1. De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings

Last month’s ranking: No. 1
Clutch stats: 5.0 ppg, 52.9% FGs, 31.8% 3pt

Relive some of the top clutch plays from De’Aaron Fox this season!

We’ve already stated his case above, and how the Kings all but guaranteed he’d be top-five by constantly giving him the ball whenever the situation grew tight in games. But Fox did his part as well because if he stumbled or proved sloppy, it would’ve impacted the won-loss record. And if you haven’t noticed, the Kings finished pretty well in the standings. With Fox, the Kings had a winning record (22-17) in the clutch, and that was crucial for a franchise that found ways to lose close games over the last decade. Therefore, Fox in a sense was the face of this Sacramento rejuvenation, based on his work when games turned critical. What else needs to be said?

2. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

Last month’s ranking: No. 3
Clutch stats: 3.5 ppg, 50.5% FGs, 22.2% 3pt

Jimmy Butler takes over in crunch time to finish off the Clippers.

One reason why “Jimmy Buckets” just finished what was arguably the best season in his career was his clutch ability. He was Miami’s go-to savior late in games, and it’s a shame Butler couldn’t stay healthy for much of the season. Had that been the case, two things could’ve happened: Miami would have had a far better overall record and perhaps avoided the AT&T Play-In Tournament, and Butler would have had a better case for winning this award. Despite that, Butler’s hero ball could earn him much consideration for one of the All-NBA teams. What’s really telling is Miami’s 25-18 record in Butler clutch situations, which gives him an edge on the third-place finisher for this award.

3. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls

Last month’s ranking: No. 2
Clutch stats: 4.7 ppg, 47.1% FGs, 27.3% 3pt

DeMar DeRozan drops a season-high 49 points to lift Chicago past Minnesota in a double-overtime thriller.

No question, DeRozan sparkled in the clutch just as he did in his debut season with Chicago in 2021-22, ranking third in clutch scoring (4.1 ppg). He finished second to Fox in total clutch points this season and had a knack for getting to the free-throw line as his 65 free throw attempts ranked second only to Butler’s 67. The mid-range maestro was arguably more clutch last season, and if this award was launched then, he’d have been the runaway winner. No shame in finishing third on this list, though. And anyway, DeRozan’s reputation for being clutch was only enhanced this season.

4. Jalen Brunson, New York Knicks

Last month’s ranking: No. 4
Clutch stats: 4.0 ppg, 51.6% FGs, 37.5% 3pt

Only Fox shot better from the floor among top-10 clutch scorers than Brunson, and nobody was sharper from the 3-point arc among those leaders than the Knicks’ point guard, whose late-game heroics helped the franchise return to the playoffs. By all accounts, his first season in New York was a smashing success and maybe a bit of a surprise because until now, Brunson was best known from his days playing alongside Luka Doncic in Dallas. In any event, Brunson was the leader and late-game player that New York demanded and received.

5. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Last month’s ranking: No. 6
Clutch stats: 3.8 ppg, 49.3% FGs, 33.3% 3pt

Luka Doncic notches a historic triple-double in a comeback win vs. the Knicks in late December.

Who can forget Doncic’s historic 60-point, 20-rebound triple-double and unflappable clutch moments in a December victory against the Knicks? That was easily the finest clutch performance of the season, and maybe a long time. He rallied the Mavs from nine down in the final 33 seconds including a rebound-follow-up to force overtime, then clinched the victory. Yes, we harp on that performance not because it was the only one of the season for Doncic, but because otherwise, the season was a bit disappointing for him and the Mavericks overall.

The Next Five: 

Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers

  • (Last month’s ranking: No. 9)

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

  • (Last month’s ranking: No. 5)

Kyrie Irving, Dallas Mavericks

  • (Last month’s ranking: No. 8)

Lauri Markkanen, Utah Jazz

  • (Last month’s ranking: No. 7)

Tyler Herro, Miami Heat

  • (Last month’s ranking: Not ranked)

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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