If the resemblance to his alma mater’s famed predecessor wasn’t striking from the moment De’Aaron Fox slipped on a royal blue and white Wildcats jersey, the on-court similarities – unmatched end-to-end velocity and ridiculous burst at the basket – were inescapable by season’s end.
Along with collecting the SEC Tournament MVP award for his mantle and setting the NCAA Tournament freshman scoring record – 39 points in a Sweet 16 victory over UCLA on March 23 – Fox finished his fruitful collegiate campaign by almost perfectly mirroring John Wall’s per-40-minute production at the University of Kentucky.
“Being compared to someone like him, it’s a huge honor,” Fox told ESPN.com in 2016. “I see similarities, but I still feel like we play differently. With speed and athleticism, I think we’re really similar…I feel like he handles the ball better, and I feel like I shoot the ball better.”
No. 5 pauses and softly chuckles when asked if he’d outrun Wall in a full-court sprint, before conceding the Wizards All-Star may have the slight upper hand.
“I’m still trying to get faster,” said Fox. “He’s probably faster now than when he came in, and than I am now. I’m still getting better at it.”
The former Wildcats will square off as NBA pros for the first time on Sunday afternoon, though the Golden 1 Center matinee will hardly mark the pair’s introduction.
Wall first caught wind of his future protégé through a vibrant highlight reel shared on Twitter over two years ago, and has since served as a mentor to the studious 19-year-old by sending welcomed words of advice through frequent text messages.
In fact, Wall sees a lot of himself in Fox, acknowledging the fifth overall pick has the potential to emerge as the brightest backcourt prospect in the much-heralded 2017 Draft class.
“A lot of people might say I’m biased because he’s from Kentucky, but I think De’Aaron Fox might end up being the best point guard out of that class,” Wall recently told NBC Sports Washington. “He reminds me of myself a lot.”
Under the tutelage of Kentucky Head Coach John Calipari, the New Orleans, La. native exploited his elite-level speed in the open court by consistently pushing the tempo. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Fox scored 5.9 points on the fastbreak – tops in the SEC and ninth in the nation – with 31 percent of his possessions coming in transition.
“When I’m pushing the pace, defensively, the other team is just running back to the paint,” said Fox. “I’m getting guys open looks. If I’m using my No. 1 weapon, I feel like that helps the team a lot.”
The First-Team All-SEC selection didn’t waste any time in his NBA regular-season debut on Oct. 17, catching Rockets defenders off-guard by flying down the floor and finishing with a nifty left-hand lay-in – less than two minutes after checking in mid-way through the first quarter.
Even in half-court settings, Fox has effortlessly blown past almost any defender who has futilely tried to stay in front of him with quick crossovers and hesitation dribbles. The first-year standout has converted around the basket with an array of acrobatic lay-ups and crafty floaters to the tune of 71.4 percent within five feet – the fourth-best mark in the League (min. 10 attempts) – according to NBA.com.
Kings veteran Garrett Temple, who played alongside Wall for four seasons in Washington, couldn’t help but liken the dazzling Kings rookie to the Wizards’ perennial All-Star.
“Even though I’ve seen (Fox) for the last month or so, it’s something to see,” said Temple. “When those lights go on, his ability to get into the paint and push the pace is something I haven’t seen, besides John Wall. A couple of the Houston players were saying to me, ‘He’s just so fast.’ It’s hard to explain.”
A natural facilitator with impressive court vision, Fox recorded a higher assist-to-turnover ratio (1.90) than Wall (1.62) while playing in the same offensive system at Kentucky, recognizing how much his penetration to the rim allows him to create easy scoring opportunities for his teammates.
Not surprisingly, over his first five NBA appearances, the 6-foot-3 floor general leads the Kings in passing (5.0 assists per game), dishing on 30.5 percent of the team’s baskets while on the court compared to only 7.4 turnovers per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. Sacramento’s two most-frequently utilized lineups with Fox in the backcourt have outscored opponents by 15.5 and 13.3 points per 100 possessions, respectively.
Although Fox, like Wall, has faced scrutiny surrounding his jump shot, if the second half of his lone collegiate season serves as any indication, he is gradually progressing into a reliable outside scorer. The lefty playmaker connected on 37.5 percent from downtown over his last 15 games, including a sparkling 47.4 percent in his final 10 appearances.
Early into his pro career, the Kings point guard has been similarly consistent from the field, connecting on three-of-six tries from behind the arc, in addition knocking down seven-of-15 pull-up jumpers, via NBA.com.
“He picks and chooses his spots. He’s pretty conscious of what we’re trying to do, when he can go, and then when to get us in some stuff (offensively),” said Kings Head Coach Dave Joerger. “He has a terrific charisma and I think he’ll be fun to play with.”
Of course, pace and points tell only part of the story in evaluating both the Kings’ top pick and his fellow UK alumnus.
When it comes to the other end of the court, Fox – the consensus top defensive point guard in his Draft class – comes from the same mold as Wall, an elite two-way player who was named Second Team All-Defense in 2014-15 and led the League in steals last season.
“Swipa” has made a habit of playing 94 feet of suffocating perimeter defense, utilizing his lateral quickness to apply pressure to opposing ball-handlers, as well as his swift hands and catlike reflexes to disrupt passing lanes and come up with timely swipes. In the pick-and-roll, the feisty guard has aggressively fought over screens and forced three-point shooters into off-balance attempts.
According to SportVU data, Fox has limited his opponents to only 34.2 percent from the field outside of five feet, while chipping in with nearly one steal, 1.2 loose balls recovered and 1.2 deflections per contest.
Even though slowing down an All-NBA Team mainstay in Wall may present Fox’s trickiest challenge to date, the Sacramento draftee isn’t one to shy away from a challenge, or worse yet, buckle under the pressure.
In a matchup of two open-court blurs, each zooming the length of the court in a matter of seconds, Fox is ready to take on his cheetah-fast counterpart, stride for stride.
“I live for the big moment,” Fox said. “You’re never going to see me nervous.”