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NBA: Sacramento Kings at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

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De’Aaron Fox is moving fast, and in the right direction

The Sacramento Kings’ second-year guard brought speed to the NBA. And he’s learning how to use it.

A few years ago at the NBA scouting combine in Chicago, Kentucky coach John Calipari was holding court and talking about his guys. This was Cal in his element, offering an endless stream of lavish praise for the latest crop of talent to come out of Lexington and enter the NBA. You take Cal with a grain of salt, but there was something about the way he talked about De’Aaron Fox that left an impression.

“He has a buzz about him,” Calipari said that day. “He has a spirit about him. I’d say (to my coaches), ‘Where’s De’Aaron? They’d say, ‘Where do you think De’Aaron is? He’s across the street (in the gym.)’ Those kind of guys are unique.”

Fox was hardly a secret coming into the draft. He was a lottery pick from the day he arrived at Kentucky and was taken fifth overall by the Kings. Still, after battling an ankle injury at UK and struggling with his outside shot, Fox was viewed as a bit of raw clay in a point guard heavy draft.

He was the third point guard chosen after Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball, their scoring and playmaking being obvious points of reference. Fox’s thing was defense and speed. Pure, uncut speed.

“He doesn’t view it as a weapon. Yet.” Calipari said. “When he views it as a weapon, it’s a wrap.”

Safe to say, Fox understands how to use his speed now and it’s been a wrap for anyone trying to stop him. He’s averaging 17-and-7, playing in a fast-paced system designed specifically for him to excel, and it’s brought the Kings to the home stretch of a playoff chase that was beyond anyone’s wildest expectation.

He has enough upside to become an All-Star in due time, and maybe even more down the line. You see, Calipari was right. There’s a spirit about Fox that reveals itself in every fast break dunk and end-to-end dash. Notably mature for a 21-year-old, he instills a sense of togetherness, even joy, while playing the game with purpose.

Fox has it, that something special that’s impossible to quantify but you know it when you see it. You can call it intangibles or you can try to quantify it as leadership. You might refer to it as presence, or you might say, as one member of the team put it, “You can’t bullshit him.”

Told of that assessment, Fox allowed a sly smile.

“That’s my personality,” he says. “I have the personality to read things faster than others, on the court or off the court. That’s how I’ve always been.”

On the court, Fox has to read things faster than others because he’s in attack mode from the moment the ball is tipped. The Kings play with the fastest pace in the league, but playing with pace is not just about running fast. What makes Fox so effective is that he’s learned to harness his speed to create offense not only for himself, but for the rest of his team.

“We play space and speed and that’s in his wheelhouse,” Kings coach Dave Joerger says. “That’s what we’re doing it for, to try and open up the court. He’s taken that on and is more aggressive more often. That’s good for us because he’s not just aggressive for himself. He’s aggressive for his team. Guys really enjoy playing with him because he does not have an attitude or a conceitedness about him. He goes about his business and works hard. He’s ultra competitive and I love that about him.”

As a rookie, Fox endured the usual struggles that all young point guards must go through. He struggled with the physical nature of the pro game and his outside shooting left much to be desired. The Kings were bad to begin with, but they were even worse when Fox was on the floor.

“I didn’t have a very good year at all last year,” Fox says. “I didn’t show a lot of things I could do, and this year has been a preview. Just being in this league, developing consistency is probably the hardest thing to do.”

In the offseason, Fox took stock of his rookie troubles. He studied film of Chris Paul and attacked the weight room, adding muscle and definition to his skinny frame to better withstand the rigors of the position.

Fox dramatically improved his 3-point range, from 31 percent as a rookie to a more-than-respectable 37 percent as a sophomore. He needs to improve his free throw shooting, but he gets to the basket at will and finishes at a strong clip. Fox also ranks in the top-10 in both steals and assists, part of a select group that includes Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Jrue Holiday.

“The game ultimately slows down,” Fox says. “Coming in, knowing exactly what to expect from a defense. That’s really been the whole story.”

As the game has slowed down, Fox has revved up the pace and the Kings have gone with him. They went 6-3 to start the season and hung in the thick of the playoff chase before a late swoon damaged their chances. Barring a late-season miracle, Kings will miss the playoffs for the 13th straight year, the longest postseason drought in the league.

Even with this tough stretch offering more hard-earned lessons, the Kings finally have a positive identity. Fox is the personification of a young, dynamic team brimming with enthusiasm and optimism.

“This is a foundational year because we were able to establish something,” Fox says. “Everybody knows when you play the Kings you’re going to play fast. We’re going to get you out of your comfort zone. We’ve established ourselves as being here. It was a laughingstock the last couple of years, and now that we’ve had this season people’s eyes are opening and starting to take Sacramento serious.”

All of that has Fox in the hunt for the Most Improved Player Award, a nebulous creation that offers a wide range of possible definitions. Is someone improved because they received more minutes or found themselves in a better situation that took advantage of their ability? Did they come out of nowhere, or were they like Fox, a high draft pick who learned on the job and came to a point in their career where their talent could naturally flow?

“A lot of people say it’s expected (of a high pick), but if you make the improvement it doesn’t matter if it’s expected or not,” Fox says. “It’s improvement. It’s whatever with the award. If I win it, cool. If I don’t win it, cool. I just want to help my team win.”

The Kings are one of the youngest teams in the league with seven of the top nine players in their rotation under the age of 26. Simply being in the position to experience playoff disappointment constitutes a significant step forward for this star-crossed franchise that seems to perpetually exist at the intersection of chaos and dysfunction.

With Fox leading the way, you can see the outline of a perennial playoff contender. Given Buddy Hield’s consistent progress as a scorer and the still-to-be-tapped potential of Marvin Bagley and Harry Giles, the Kings might really have something here.

The next step is always the hardest and teams with less tortured histories than Sacramento have seen youthful optimism turn to cynical pessimism before they even had the chance to build on their unlikely success. That will be Fox’s next challenge. Now that he knows how to play the game at his speed, the trick will be maintaining that pace for 82 games. And if he can do that, it’s a wrap.

The List

Consumable NBA Thoughts

This is not a great draft beyond Zion Williamson. The top prospects haven’t lived up to the hype and injuries have limited the seasons of players like Darius Garland and Bol Bol, to say nothing of Zion who returned in time for the ACC Tournament. Still, there are players to be found and many of them figure to have decent runs in the NCAA Tournament. Here are five for you, the discerning NBA head, to watch over the next few weeks.

RJ Barrett

The consensus top recruit and early favorite to be the top pick in the draft, Barrett emerged as Duke’s top player in the wake of Williamson’s injury. He averaged 26-8-5 on 50 percent shooting without Zion, and even dialed back some of his alpha tendencies to play a sharper all-around game. Barrett’s outside shot is shaky and his take-over mentality can be his greatest strength, or his biggest liability. He’ll gain a few fans with a deep tournament run. He might lose a few too.

Brandon Clarke

The 23-year-old Clarke is a defensive weapon and various metrics paint him as one of the top players in all of college basketball. He also averages 16-and-8 on 70 percent shooting for top-ranked Gonzaga, albeit with a range that doesn’t stray far beyond the restricted zone. His free throw percentage has improved, but the jump shot is shaaaaky. That defense, though. Think a shot-blocking Andre Roberson. The mocks have Clarke as a mid first-rounder even with those considerable questions about his age and shot.

Jarrett Culver

The sophomore wing, and likely lottery pick, is Texas Tech’s leading scorer, rebounder, playmaker, and top defender. That says more about the Red Raiders’ talent base than Culver’s all-around game. He’s not a great shooter and you’re not going to ask him to carry an offense in the NBA. Smart teams will see a defensive-minded athletic wing with some two-way ability who can grow into a 10-year starter. A role player, maybe, but a really good role player for a long time. You can win with guys like that.

Ja Morant

It’s rare these days that we get a genuine college basketball phenom, especially one from a small school who has rocketed up the draft boards with an exciting game. Ja Morant is that dude. He’s a downhill freak averaging 24-10-5 in the Ohio Valley Conference while leading Murray State to the tournament with a 36-point championship game performance. If there’s one guy for NBA fans to watch it’s Morant.

P.J. Washington

The Kentucky sophomore came back to school after an up-and-down freshman campaign had him pegged a second rounder. With a massively improved jump shot Washington has became the Wildcats’ top scorer and rebounder. Washington is long and athletic with the physical ability to guard multiple positions. He’s a fringe lottery pick who could move up with a strong tournament.

Numbers

THE STATS THAT EXPLAIN THE WEEK

It took nine games and 140 minutes for Denver coach Michael Malone to pull the plug on the Isaiah Thomas experiment. IT was a healthy DNP on Wednesday against the Wolves and is out of the rotation. This is the latest in the completely unfair — yet also totally reasonable — reaction to Thomas’ play on the court since he returned from his devastating hip injury last season. He just hasn’t been productive and the Nuggets are trying to get right for a playoff push. There simply isn’t enough time to integrate IT into the lineup, especially since Monte Morris has emerged as one of the best backup guards in the league. It’s tough, man.

Heading into this week, the Pistons had recorded a 10.4 net rating since February, the best mark in the league over that span. Detroit went 12-2 during that stretch and positioned itself squarely in the playoff picture. Blake Griffin has been an All-NBA player all season, but Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson have both been excellent during their run. Then Detroit lost by 29 against Brooklyn and 34 to Miami, so who the hell knows. It was a fun couple of weeks.

Lost in the sea of pull-up 3’s and high scoring offenses has been another quieter offensive revolution: teams don’t turn the ball over nearly as much as they used to. The turnover rate this season is just 12.6 percent, the lowest rate ever according to Jared Dubin over at FiveThirtyEight. That makes intuitive sense, given the high rate of pick-and-roll offenses supplemented by dribble handoffs (DHO’s in the parlance) leading to more isolation possessions. It’s all so smart and safe, and efficient. Makes me miss the old freewheeling days.

The Pacers were down 19 points to the Thunder on Thursday. That’s when they turned what looked like an obvious L into arguably their biggest win of the year. Six different Pacers scored in double figures including ex-Thundarian Domantas Sabonis, which was enough to offset a 36-point night from ex-Pacer Paul George. You can keep sleeping on the Pacers and continue scoffing at their lack of top-level talent come playoff time. I’ll just be over here reminding everyone this team is legit.

Bradley Beal is having the best season of his career, averaging a career high in points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, and minutes. Lots and lots of minutes. Beal logged 44 of them in a loss to Charlotte that left the Wizards two-and-half games out of 10th place in the East. That heavy workload has become the norm for Beal who has gone over 40 minutes seven times in his 13 games. All credit to Beal who is having a monster season amid the annual Wiz dysfunction, but at some point it all becomes too much.

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