NBA Draft 2017: Will De'Aaron Fox be as good as Fultz or Lonzo -- or even better?
UK guard eventually could be the best from this draft, and we should look at him that way
It's not a secret that rants and rumors about NBA prospects can become an echo chamber this time of year. I mean this for media who are writing about these young men -- alas, I'm guilty as charged -- as well as for the scouts and NBA executives who are constantly dissecting these players' games. And, of course, it's an echo chamber for fans who wonder where their team plans to cast its lot.
The most consistently loud part of the echo chamber of the 2017 NBA Draft has focused on two extraordinarily talented young point guards who, according to the conventional wisdom of the past several months, have roughly a 100 percent chance of getting drafted with the top two picks: Washington's Markelle Fultz and UCLA's Lonzo Ball. This groupthink stems from the two players' remarkable freshman seasons -- Fultz was an absurdly efficient offensive force for a not-so-talented Washington team, and Ball almost single-handedly made UCLA the most exciting team in college hoops -- as well as from the sensational media chatter around them: Will Fultz form a good back-court tandem with fellow Washington product Isaiah Thomas in Boston? Will Boston trade the top pick? Will Ball only work out for the Lakers? Will LaVar Ball's headline-grabbing nature negatively affect his son's NBA future?
But let me step out of the groupthink for a moment and pose a question I haven't heard asked during the lead-up to the June 22 NBA Draft:
What if the best point guard in this draft -- indeed, what if the best basketball player in this draft -- ends up being neither Fultz nor Ball? What if the best point guard in this draft ends up being a player who hasn't generated nearly as much chatter, despite coming from a college program that annually dominates draft chatter more than any other?
I'm talking about Kentucky's whirling dervish of a freshman point guard, De'Aaron Fox, who might have been the speediest player in all of college basketball last season. And I don't think it's at all crazy to think that, five years from now, we'll look at Fox's John Wall-like college stats and his John Wall-like athletic abilities and wonder why he wasn't even in the discussion for this year's No. 1 pick.
I can tell you of at least one person who joyously agreed with this idea: Fox himself.
"Definitely!," he told me the other day when I asked him if he would become the best point guard out of this draft. He was back home in suburban Houston between workouts with the Sacramento Kings (No. 5 pick) and the Los Angeles Lakers (No. 2 pick). "Of course I think that's true. I think I'm the most competitive player in this draft. What drives me is knowing I can go head-to-head with NBA guards."
It is not only Fox who believes in his abilities. And it is not only his college coach, John Calipari, either, who during this season told me he believes Fox will, in time, become the best point guard in the 2017 class -- because of his speed, his defense and his mind.
It's the unbiased NBA minds who think this as well. An Eastern Conference executive whose team does not have a pick in the lottery told me he has a "man crush" on Fox, and of all the players in this draft who have the potential to eventually become a better player than Fultz and Ball, Fox is the one he thinks is most likely to do so. A Western Conference scout told me a similar thing, that Fox is a more consistent jump shot away from being in consideration for the No. 1 overall pick.
And the outside shot is a problem, certainly. Fox shot 24.6 percent from 3-point range in 36 games at Kentucky, attempting around two 3s per game. DraftExpress.com's database of Fox's high school and college career has a larger sample size of 76 games and has Fox as only a career 28 percent 3-point shooter.
Then again, John Wall wasn't a great 3-point shooter in college -- 32.5 percent in his lone college season -- and he didn't even crack 30 percent until his fourth NBA season. That hasn't stopped him from becoming an All-Star.
"At the end of the day, my career, my success will depend on whether I can make shots," Fox said. "It's just developing confidence. Toward the end of the year, my confidence was getting high, and I was playing well, and I was making them. They want a point guard who can shoot. For me it's just being able to shoot the same shot every time."
It's true: Over the final 10 games of his season, Fox shot a sizzling 47.4 percent from 3-point range and averaged just shy of 20 points for a Kentucky team that was a game away from the Final Four. In the NBA, if he can pair that level of shooting with his natural speed, he could become one of the top point guards in the league. Because speed isn't something you can teach.
"Speed kills," an Eastern Conference scout told me. "You can't keep him in front of you. I don't think he has, like, Chris Paul's feel [as a passer], but he's still young. He's developing. He's learning. With the guys who have that special speed -- and he has a complete extra gear -- it takes them a little extra time to figure things out."
That echoes what Calipari told me about Fox during this season, that once the game slows down in Fox's mind -- once he adjusts his own lightning-quick speed to the speed of the NBA game -- he'll be able to rise to a whole new level.
Will he? I'm not sure. When I was asking an NBA scout to break down Fox's game, we had an interesting philosophical talk about how people look at shooting as a skill that can be improved with hard work instead of an innate talent. But what if that isn't true? What if it is more something that you're born with, and even if Fox puts in 1,000 shots a day for the next decade, any improvements will be on the margins?
That's certainly possible. And if that's the case, Fox doesn't figure to reach the heights that Fultz and Ball -- who both shot north of 40 percent from three in college -- can reach as possible All-Stars and possible franchise cornerstones.
But when I look at Fox's complete package, I see that as the only thing that's lacking in his game. His speed, as the scout told me, will kill. He has absurdly quick hands and great length that could combine to make him an elite perimeter defender. He has good court vision and a sharp mind. He works his butt off; his high school coach told me about letting him into the gym daily at 6 a.m. for extra self-guided workouts.
And although one-game sample sizes are silly to focus on, the impact of Fox's performance in the NCAA Tournament, specifically his domination of Ball in the Sweet 16, will loom large in the minds of NBA teams. In that game Fox scored a career-high 39 points, and his hounding defense coaxed Ball into an uncharacteristic 10-point, eight-assist, four-turnover performance.
So will this draft's echo chamber be right? Are Fultz and Ball the only two sure things? Well, there's a reason an echo chamber develops. Those two are really, really good. But five years from now, I believe we'll look back at this draft and wonder how silly we were for not including Fox in that conversation as well.
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