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This Is What “The Leap” Looks Like

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - FEBRUARY 01: De'Aaron Fox #5 of the Sacramento Kings drives to the basket against Eric Bledsoe #5 and Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans during the first quarter of an NBA game at Smoothie King Center on February 01, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

You could sense a special venom to De’Aaron Fox early in last night’s Kings-Pelicans game down in New Orleans. With 3:40 left in the first quarter, Fox let a tipped Kings offensive rebound roll all the way back to the far baseline before he collected it. He briefly inhaled, zipped down the court, dribbled around a lazy Hassan Whiteside pick, and easily finished through Willy Hernangomez’s help.

Things did not go well for the Kings for the next 30 minutes, as the team’s historically waterlogged defense gave up 94 points in three quarters and Marvin Bagley earned himself a puzzling ejection right at the start of the second half. If a team is saddled with said historically bad defense; left with one functional big man thanks to injuries, the ejection, and Whiteside’s inability to move laterally or pass the basketball; and also tired out at the tail end of a road trip; that team is not supposed to win, let alone come back from a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit to do so. And the Kings would indeed have been dead and dusted were it not for Fox’s heroics. The quickest player in the NBA outscored New Orleans by himself in the fourth quarter, 17-15. Fox finished with 38 points and 12 assists, giving him 81 and 25 in two games against the Pelicans and the definitive upper hand in a rivalry with Lonzo Ball that began when Fox dropped 39 on Ball’s UCLA in the 2017 NCAA Men’s Tournament.

Fox has been the Kings’ best player for three seasons now, though that distinction is historically about the same as being the most virtuosic soloist in the Titanic’s house band. Until this year, Fox has initiated pointy offenses and knocked down a handful of game-winners but never looked like the sort of player who could truly take over a game by himself. His performance in New Orleans is the surest sign yet that he’s turning that particular corner.

Fox spent his one-man, 17-point run teleporting to the rack, through all three layers of help defense.

The Kings ran actions throughout the second half designed to put Zion Williamson on Fox, which the decidedly oaken Williamson—a game-worst -13 in 31 listless minutes—was not ready for.

Fox’s per-game numbers this season are nearly the same as last year, though he looks like an obviously improved player. He’s hitting just enough of his outside shots to start to command attention on the perimeter, his reads in the pick-and-roll are smoother than ever, he has an ideal backcourt partner in Tyrese Haliburton, and, most importantly, he’s learning to change speeds to deadly effect. Fox might have stepped onto an NBA court in 2017 as the fastest player in the league, but just being zippy is not enough to create space against NBA defenses. Ask John Wall; even the most turbo-enhanced playmaker has to learn the dance between hesitation and burst to manipulate defenders effectively.

Fox is good at that now, and he’s killing teams, putting up 28.3 points, 9.7 assists, and 6 boards in Sacramento’s Gulf Coast road trip. This is still the Kings we are talking about here, so I don’t want to even raise the possibility of a playoff trip or whatever. But Fox has clearly made the leap, and it’s made him more fun to watch than ever.