De’Aaron Fox is set to score a max contract, and after the Kings passed on Luka Doncic, he better be worth it

To say the Sacramento Kings have fumbled their way through the last decade of drafts would be an understatement. A source with ties to the organization at the time told CBS Sports that Tyreke Evans was chosen over Stephen Curry in 2009 because he was seen as “more ready to contribute right away,” and though Evans did win Rookie of the Year that season, that was the start of a number of high-profile misses that continue to cripple the franchise. 

In 2011, they took Jimmer Fredette (via a trade for the rights to Bismack Biyombo) over Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard. In 2012, they took Thomas Robinson one pick ahead of Damian Lillard. Ben McLemore, Nik Stauskas and Willie Cauley-Stein were all taken in the top eight from 2013-2015. In 2016, the Kings took Georgios Papagiannis and Skal Labissière in the first round, and two years after that they infamously opted for Marvin Bagley over Luka Doncic. 

Myriad rumors remain as to why the Kings passed on Doncic, but in the end it probably comes down to two simple factors: One, they had no idea how great Doncic was going to be, and two, they already had De’Aaron Fox. It is through the prism of this latter consideration that Fox’s value to the franchise becomes even more magnified. 

Not drafting Doncic was a massive mistake, but it becomes an outright disaster if, at the very least, Fox doesn’t evolve into a star in his own right, and beyond that if Bagley doesn’t fatten the aggregate value by making good on at least a significant portion of the potential Sacramento saw in him. 

The good news is Fox does appear headed for stardom. When the season was suspended, he was averaging 20.4 points, 6.8 assists, four rebounds and 1.4 steals per game, making him one of just three players league-wide to be averaging at least those numbers across the board. The other two are James Harden and Russell Westbrook. 

Under the designated rookie rule, Fox will be eligible to sign a five-year extension (at a max salary of 25 percent of the cap) this offseason. The Kings, who aren’t in a financial position to chase big free agents and are even further committed to Fox for having passed up on Doncic, are almost certain to offer this extension, and it would be a shock if Fox doesn’t sign it. Then the question becomes: Is he worth it? 

Max contracts aren’t what they used to be, which is to say they don’t necessarily equate to a franchise player. Far from it, in fact. Particularly for small-market teams with limited reach to make big-name acquisitions, these rookie extensions, outside of trading their most prized and affordable assets, become their only viable pathway to relevance. In short, they have to (over)pay their highly drafted guys, because they can’t realistically get their hands on anybody else’s. 

That’s how Andrew Wiggins winds up getting $148 million. 

Fox, for the record, is not Wiggins. He’s closer to the Devin Booker camp — an obviously budding star who’s largely proved his own merits but is yet to prove he can be the centerpiece of an organization that successfully transitions from bad to good. The Kings, if you squint, look like a team on the right track. 

They have Buddy Hield locked up through 2024. They’ll likely re-sign Bogdan Bogdanovic after shunning trade inquiries this past deadline. Bagley, when not measured against Doncic, has the makings of a solid NBA player. Heading to the Orlando bubble, the Kings are three games back of the No. 8 seed with two games remaining vs. the Pelicans, one of the teams they’d have to jump to get in. 

Either way, these Kings are closer to their infancy than their ceiling, wherever that resides, and how relevant they can become in a Western Conference poised to remain indefinitely loaded will depend heavily on Fox. There is much to love about his game. 

Let’s start with the speed. Even those only casually familiar with Fox’s game know he’s a bullet in the open court, but his sudden accelerations in the half court, combined with elite footwork and handle, are what separates him from, say, a guy like Lonzo Ball, who pushes the ball as fast as anyone in the full court but lacks Fox’s stop-start burst.

Notice that last dunk with Matisse Thybulle draped on him. That’s not a one-off. Fox is a lot more physical than you might assume for a player of his slender build. He is not deterred by contact; in fact, he mostly plays right through it as a ball handler and often initiates it as a shot creator, throwing his body into retreating and compromised defenders and would-be shot blockers while drawing a foul on 18.3 percent of his shot attempts, which is the highest rate in the league among point guards, per Cleaning the Glass. 

And it’s not just at the rim where Fox manipulates positioning though surprising physicality. He loves to get his back into defenders around the foul-line area, not so much as an overpowering technique but more as a rhythm creator, bumping and backing his way into a sliver of leverage before deploying an array of shots.

These are great examples of the poise and control with which Fox plays, which again might come as a surprise to those who think he’s always going 100 mph. He’s not. He plays on his terms with varying pace and rarely gets out of control; he’s only been called for five charges this season, per PBP stats, which is half the amount John Wall was whistled for in just 32 games last season, while Russell Westbrook, another speed demon always looking to get to the basket, has been whistled for a charge 17 times this year with only a slightly higher usage rate. 

Fox shifts gears and changes direction once inside the lane as adeptly as anyone. He sidesteps, weaves in and out with a deft handle, even jump stops with old-school effectiveness. His use of pump fakes illustrates his controlled game and is one of my favorite tools in his arsenal. 

He’s also a controlled passer in tight spaces, already proficient at the art of slowing down, even pausing, more evidence that the game moves much slower in his head than the speed at which he’s actually playing. 

Even when Fox is moving at full speed he’s in control and seeing the floor. Consistently, he’s not as creative or natural a passer as, say, a Trae Young; he’s more like Westbrook, piling up assists born of his own aggression. 

Per Synergy, Fox accounts for 1.32 points per possession when factoring in his scoring and passing, which ranks in the 82nd percentile league-wide. He also ranks in the 74th percentile in pick-and-roll efficiency when factoring in passes. It’s when you analyze him as a straight scorer that he dips to 0.94 points per possession, which lands him in the 44th percentile. When you break that down even further into only half-court possessions, he falls to 0.88 PPP, or the 31st percentile. 

To a large degree, there are two reasons for this. One, Fox is a 30 percent 3-point shooter, and two, he converts just 40 percent of his short mid-range shots, per Cleaning the Glass. To be fair, the lack of consistent 3-point range is somewhat mitigated by Fox’s aforementioned ability to draw fouls. In Miami, Jimmy Butler is having an All-NBA season by getting to the line 9.1 times per game to offset the career-low 25 percent he’s shooting from 3-point range.

So far this season, only two players are averaging at least 20 points and six free-throw attempts while playing fewer minutes per game than Fox: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Zion Williamson. That goes a long way in compensating for Fox’s subpar 3-point numbers. 

Plus, it’s not like Fox can’t shoot. He’s taking, and making, a wider variety of 3-pointers than he did during his first two seasons — off screens, relocating, step-backs, etc. — and the comfort and easy form of his shot suggests improvement should be expected. This is a highlight reel, yes, but this is not a man who can’t shoot:

Given his speed and constant threat to penetrate, Fox doesn’t need to be a lights-out 3-point shooter. Something in the range of 35 percent feels attainable. At that point, defenders wouldn’t be able to navigate under ball screens with relative impunity, and chasing him downhill would be futile, as would bigs trying to stay in front of him on hedges and switches. 

Until that happens, however, defenders are going to go under and continue to retreat in defense of Fox’s downhill speed, leaving the short mid-range shots wide open. Young is a better scorer than Fox not just because he’s a better 3-point shooter, but because he’s already a veritable artist in the realm of these in-between jumpers, push shots and floaters that Fox has yet to master. Ball has trouble with these shots as well. 

Again, there is every reason to believe Fox will develop these kinds of shots and eventually knock them down more consistently. He’s fluid and confident, though hesitance does show up more often in these ranges than it does elsewhere. Offensively, Fox is already a borderline All-Star player, and he clearly has both the room and talent to grow significantly. 

Defensively, he’s a bit more of a muddled picture. The advanced numbers look horrible, but that’s in part attributed to his common pick-and-roll partners — particularly Nemanja Bjelica and Harry Giles, who leave much to be desired when it comes to containing perimeter players. Giles can take some terrible angles. Look how much ground he concedes in the clip below as Kyle Lowry has a sea of space to pull up. 

Fox is cat quick and jumps passing lanes; he’s top 20 in steals per game, and he can be a pest on the ball. Where he legitimately struggles is navigating screens. He just doesn’t have a good feel for anticipating them yet, and once he gets hit, his effort to get back in the play — which his speed should at times allow him to do — isn’t consistent enough. 

If you sit down and watch Fox’s defensive film, you’ll see a whole lot of him chasing, too quick to concede to being taken out of a play with a screen, too often a step slow for a guy who was born to play a step ahead. And again, his bigs don’t do him a ton of favors. 

This is how Fox ranks in the 18th percentile as an individual defender and the Kings rank 29th overall in pick-and-roll defense when you include passes, per Synergy. Fox is part of that problem off the ball, too, where the Kings as a whole do not excel in getting out to shooters. 

For Fox, it’s not a matter of effort. Giving up a little too early after being screened is a pretty normal thing; it’s just the elite guys who resist the temptation. Watch Jrue Holiday in the clip below; this is what it looks like when a defender refuses to concede to a ball screen. 

To be clear, I’m not here to disparage Fox’s defense. He extends his pressure high, he crowds space, and again, he’s a much better defender than the numbers indicate. But he needs to get better, and anticipating and navigating ball screens would be the best place to start. 

All things considered, It’s a very minor nitpick on a highly impressive third-year player, and like with his shooting, there is nothing limiting Fox from making these strides defensively, at least to the extent he can control given his current ancillary support. He is such a dynamic player, particularly offensively. His ability to create for himself is what sets him apart. 

In fact, I would submit that Ball is better than Fox at 90 percent of the game — passing, defense, shooting, ball-sharing instincts — but that 10 percent is Fox’s vastly superior ability to create his own offense, and that’s such a powerful skill that it makes him the better player. It’s like James Harden and Paul George. George is better at more things, but Harden is way better at the one thing that matters most. 

And who are we kidding — creating offense gets you paid. Ball is eligible for the same rookie extension Fox is this offseason, and there’s no way he’s going to get a max deal. Fox will. And to me, he absolutely deserves it, if only because the Kings can’t afford not to pay him. 

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