Fox’s leadership, speed make him intriguing prospect

It was about two months into the 2016-17 season when Kentucky head coach John Calipari delivered a simple message to his freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox.

“This is your team.”

A wiry, 6-foot-3 speedster out of Houston, Fox was billed as the next great point guard in an ever-growing list of them to be coached by Calipari. Despite those high expectations, Fox didn’t step foot on campus in Lexington and take control of that status from the start.

After about two months into the season, Coach Cal had a simple message for De’Aaron Fox: You’re my point guard. Go do your thing. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)

Sure, Fox’s stats were exceptional from the outset. He had a 12-point, 12-assist double-double in the Wildcats’ season opener. He went for 21 points in game No. 2. He became the second player in school history to record a triple-double when he had 14 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists against Arizona State on Nov. 28.

But in the words of Calipari, Fox didn’t try to come in and let everyone know this team and this program was his. Instead, he deferred to others. When that mindset changed, so did he.

“About two months in, we’re playing games and I look at him and I said, ‘Hey, kid, this is your team. You’re my point guard. You’re it. Go do your thing,’ ” Calipari recalled on a teleconference Tuesday morning. “And I think he became more challenged and more challenged and more comfortable taking over.”

Never was that more apparent than in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament when Fox battled UCLA and star freshman point guard Lonzo Ball at the FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. Fox scored a career-high 39 points, the most ever by a freshman in an NCAA Tournament game and the fourth-most points ever scored in an NCAA Tournament game by a Wildcat, and led UK to an 11-point victory and a berth in the Elite Eight.

Fox hit his first four shots and scored the first eight UK points. By halftime, Fox had 15 of Kentucky’s 36 points and the Wildcats led by three. Coach Cal walked into the locker room, confirmed with his team that they were watching the same game he was and then suggested they play through him for the final 20 minutes.

Among the first players to speak up in favor of the idea was freshman teammate Malik Monk, another expected lottery pick in next week’s NBA Draft.

As NBA personnel evaluate Fox, his leadership qualities elevate his status. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)

“Malik knew De’Aaron led the right way,” Coach Cal said. “(De’Aaron) led for his teammates more than he led himself.”

Those leadership qualities are one of the many traits that stand out with Fox. By playing with so many other talented players at Kentucky, Fox has a season of competitive, fiery practices under his belt. During that time, the teenager also went through a Leadership 101 course of sorts under the tutelage of Coach Cal.

“So, what you get with him,” Calipari said, “(is) an unbelievable personality, will be great in the locker room, knows how to be a great teammate, is willing to share, will defer to someone else who has it going (and) has a tough wiriness to him. Because I looked at his legs when I saw him. When I recruited him, I was like, ‘Look at this dude’s legs. He can’t be this skinny.’ Then all of a sudden he went out there and those skinny legs ran real fast and he’s tough. He’ll go in and get hit and banged, he’s fine.”

Fox’s elite speed is another quality that has NBA personnel salivating. One of the quickest players with the ball in his hands in all of college basketball last season, Fox will also be one of the fastest players in the NBA from the moment he signs a pro contract.

Calipari has said in the past he’d like for Fox to use that speed as more of a weapon, ala John Wall, but that will come with time and experience as a professional. That speed also allows him to be a nice fit for a number of clubs. Speed in the NBA, as always, is in vogue.

Fox worked out for the Los Angeles Lakers, owners of the No. 2 pick in the draft, on Tuesday. Many of the most popular mock drafts have pegged him going anywhere from No. 3 to the Philadelphia 76ers, to the Phoenix Suns at No. 4 or the Sacramento Kings at No. 5.

Fox’s speed helps separate him from other prospects in the NBA Draft. (photo by Chris Reynolds)

“De’Aaron would walk in more of a true point guard and be able to do some things that (the 76ers) need done both on the defensive end and offensive end,” Calipari said.

Really, one of the only knocks on Fox’s NBA Draft report card is his outside shooting. Fox shot 24.6 percent from 3-point range last season, but showed an improved stroke as the season progressed, knocking down 47.4 percent (9-19) over his final 10 games.

“When you can make free throws and you can make 15-17 footers at a high clip then you can make 3s,” Coach Cal said in regards to Fox’s outside shooting. “There’s nothing mechanically wrong. … But the reality of it is, when you look at guys like De’Aaron, unless they’re trying to win in a minute, I mean that should be the least of their worries.”

Wherever Fox ultimately hears his name called on June 22 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, Calipari said expectations need to be tempered.

When Wall was taken first overall in 2009 by Washington, some expected the electric playmaker and scorer to instantly transform the Wizards into a playoff team. Instead, it took time for Wall, one of the top point guards in the league, and the Wizards, one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, to get to the point they are today.

But the second Fox does step on the court he becomes someone who needs to be accounted for by opposing teams.

“What you have is a long guard that can pick up 94 feet, that will be as fast as anybody in the league” Calipari said when evaluating Fox. “When you ask John Wall, ‘Is he as fast as you?’ John Wall will even say, ‘No, he’s not as fast as me,’ but John Wall will say, ‘He is really fast.’ So, when you have that it becomes – and he’s really good in pick-and-roll – he’s on a scouting report. How do we play this? How are we going to guard this? What are we doing in transition? When he gets the ball in his hands you have to get back in the lane because he’s coming.”