2016-17 Season Stats:
47.8 % from the field
23.8 % from three
73% from the free-throw line
Weight: 171 pounds. Height w/shoes: 6′4″. Wingspan: 6’4.5″. Max Vert: N/A
What if Ricky Rubio could shoot?
Regular Eric Bledsoe
Skinny Eric Bledsoe
The experience of watching University of Kentucky point guard De’Aaron Fox attack a set defense is hard to describe to someone who hasn’t seen it with their own eyes. Some say that humans understand best through analogy. It’s fitting, then, that perhaps the closest you can get to conveying the sensation of watching Fox uncoil his long, spindly limbs to step through a maze of immobilized defenders is to compare it to something entirely different, something out of the realm of basketball. The best way to put it, somehow, is that watching Fox slither his way into the teeth of a defense is the experiential middle point between watching the Bullet Time scene from the Matrix and seeing a sleeping frog jump to consciousness to snatch an unsuspecting fly.
When De’Aaron Fox starts dribbling at the top of the key, defenses seem to settle in to contentedness. They know he can’t shoot, so they hang off him and occupy themselves with smothering shooters and snuffing out off-ball action. You look at the floor at that moment and you’d be hard pressed to identify the inch of space that Fox is supposed to penetrate or whip a pass through.
Everything stops for a second, and then, just like a frog snapping to swallow a fly, Fox begins to move. He shimmies, shakes, and glides, and that’s when the magic happens. Time on the court seems to take on an elastic quality. It’s as if Fox were conducting a piece of music the defense was too slow of foot to dance along to. Suddenly, he’s a Kanye West sped-up soul sample and the defense a syrupy, pitched-down chopped-and-screwed track. Fox is Neo and the dormant frog, the defenders are the bullets and the fly—he knows where they’ll be before they do, and by the time they catch up with his movements, the ball is in the basket or the hands of a wide open shooter.
This is De’Aaron Fox at his best, a long, athletic, brainy point guard with the patience and maturity to keep whole defenses on a string. In the few times a game where he flashes his offensive brilliance, it’s easy to see why he’s a projected top-5 draft pick with the potential to be a franchise cornerstone at the guard position. Still, Fox isn’t without his limitations on that end; he famously can’t shoot from the outside and, worse yet, has found puzzling difficulty finishing in the paint. These two limitations could shackle his game at the professional level, and if he never figures at least one of them out, he has worrisome potential to be a draft bust.
Luckily, there’s reason to hope that his jump shot won’t be an issue as his career progresses. Over the course of his one season at Kentucky, Fox has improved his shooting form from ugly and ineffective to slightly-less-ugly and almost-consistent. He’s more of a threat from beyond the arc now than he was when the season began, and he’s shown a knack for hitting pull-up jumpers around the elbows. What’s more, Fox is a solid free-throw shooter. Guys that can cut it from the line usually have the potential to figure out shooting from distance, and if Fox works as hard on his shot at the professional level as he has in college, there’s reason to believe he’ll figure it out sooner than later.
His struggles to finish around the rim have more to do with his still-developing body than with his skill level. At 171 pounds, De’Aaron Fox is rail thin (if not quite Brandon Ingram-level thin). He does his best to throw himself into the bodies of defenders when he goes in for layups, but his slender frame tends to bounce off bigger bodies like a flying bird bounces off the car window it fails to perceive.
To his credit, Fox seems keenly aware of his limitations around the hoop. He tries to compensate for them by exploiting his superior length and working in a bevy of pump fakes, pull-ups, and runners to trick rim protectors into giving him the extra millimeter of air he needs to put the ball in basket. When all of this fails, he’s shown the ability to keep his head up once he’s in the air, a skill that helps him angle in all sorts of off-balance shots. He’s also shown a flair for drawing fouls when he goes to the rim, something that will help him tremendously in the pros, even if his frame never fills in the way it should.
To talk so much about his offensive game is to ignore what is perhaps De’Aaron Fox’s most NBA-ready skill—his defense. He has truly tantalizing potential on that end, and his defensive floor is likely higher than his offensive one. Fox is wiry, long, and aggressive as an on-ball defender. He likes to pressure ball handlers and has hands quick enough to snatch the ball the second his opponent starts to doubt his dribble. And when he gets the ball, he’s gone. With his long strides and loose dribble, Fox is a bounding demon on the break off turnovers. This is a skill that should translate well to the NBA.
Of course, Fox is far from a finished product on defense. His slight frame will make him a prime target for getting posted up by bigger guards at the professional level, and bigs will be salivating at the chance to force him to switch onto them. His eagerness and confidence may hurt him a bit starting out in the NBA as well, as he has a tendency to overplay ball handlers and underestimate the power of an opposing guard’s first step. Those long arms will hurt him too at first, making him a prime candidate for reach in calls. Expect Fox to get into foul trouble early and often as he transitions to the NBA.
With time, age, and experience, however, most of De’Aaron Fox’s shortcomings on both ends of the floor will probably work themselves out. Fox is a prospect brimming with potential, sure, but what makes him really tantalizing is that the path to his fulfilling that potential is clear and realistic. He has the makings of a perennial All-Star and has All-NBA talent on both ends of the floor. Fox is special. Don’t expect him to last past the fifth pick in this year’s draft, because he won’t.