How De’Aaron Fox’s clutch performance has pushed the Kings to another level

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Sacramento Kings guard De'Aaron Fox (5) during an NBA basketball game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Sunday, Feb. 26, 2023, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

When the news first hit last February that the Kings and Pacers had agreed to a deal that would land Domantas Sabonis in Sacramento and send Tyrese Haliburton to Indianapolis, plenty of pundits shared the same knee-jerk response: The Kings traded the wrong point guard.

You could understand why. Haliburton hit the ground running as an offensive-efficiency machine as soon as he entered the league, drilling more than 40% of his 3-pointers with a pristine assist-to-turnover ratio; in his brief opportunities to run Sacramento’s offense by himself, he’d shown enough flashes to make you think that he could be an All-Star at the point for years to come. On the other hand, his backcourt partner, De’Aaron Fox — a top-five pick three drafts before Haliburton’s — had stagnated some in the first half of his fifth season, missing while alternating between underwhelming play and occasionally looking like a future All-Star himself.

“[Fox] goes on these stretches where he’s as good as any guard in the league,” then-Kings head coach Alvin Gentry last season.

Whether Sacramento’s choice at the 2022 trade deadline represented an acknowledgment of a market reality (the younger, bigger, sweeter-shooting Haliburton was viewed as the more attractive player, and the one Indiana really wanted to kickstart its rebuild), a proclamation of unshaken faith in Fox’s ability to play up to his five-year, $163 million maximum contract, or a bit of both, the result was the same. The ball would be in Fox’s hands, and in his court; it was time to turn those stretches into steady, stable stardom.

So far, so good. While Haliburton has fulfilled prognosticators’ lofty projections, vying for the and earning All-Star honors in Indiana, Fox has likewise turned in his best pro season. The Kentucky product is averaging a career-high 25.5 points, 6.3 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game en route to his first All-Star berth, helping propel the Kings — who enter Thursday’s marquee national TV matchup with the similarly surprising Knicks — to a 38-26 record that has them tied for the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference.

The sea change in Sacramento — especially — was evident and traces directly back to last season’s big shakeup. Asked recently by to identify the difference between this year’s Kings and other iterations, Fox offered a matter-of-fact, “Well, [Sabonis] just got here a year ago.”

Sabonis’ bludgeoning and playmaking panache have certainly helped; the big fella’s , with the outside of perma-exception Nikola Jokic. So, too, have the offseason arrivals of trade target Kevin Huerter, free-agent signing Malik Monk and No. 4 draft pick Keegan Murray, who’ve combined to drill 421 3-pointers — a massive reason why Sacramento has soared from in triples made per game and in team 3-point accuracy last season to and , respectively, this season.

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Surrounding the Fox-Sabonis two-man game, which had in limited minutes last spring, with knockdown shooters who could also move off the ball gave new head coach Mike Brown an overwhelming number of options for overhauling the Kings’ offense. It transformed what had been an at-times aimless attack into a pace-and-space monster, an ever-whirring blender of dribble handoffs, off-ball screens, backdoor cuts, quick decisions and even quicker buckets — and, as of publication time, the .

It’s not just the surrounding circumstances that have improved, though; Fox has, too. And nowhere has that been more evident than in close and late situations. When the blender stops pulsing and the Kings need a bucket, they turn to Fox, who has produced more often than not — and, in fact, more often than any other player in the NBA.

Nobody’s got more points in “clutch” time than Fox. When the score’s within five points in the final five minutes, he has poured in 165 points on 63-of-114 shooting (55.3%), according to . When the margin’s three or fewer points in the final three minutes, he’s on 33-of-61 (54.1%) from the field.

That kind of efficiency on such a large workload — he’s taken 23 more shots in final-five-minutes situations than second-place Donovan Mitchell, despite playing — is awfully difficult to come by. Fox’s ability to consistently produce in those high-pressure situations highlights the improvements he’s made since coming out of Kentucky, growing into a fully formed three-level scorer who can dismantle defenses no matter how they play him.

Fox entered the league as a who had to beat opponents with a blazing first step. He still has those jets, but he’s built out the rest of his arsenal, too. He’s stronger now, better able to finish through contact once he gets into the lane. He’s also developed fantastic touch on his floater, giving him a shot he can step into with confidence when he’d prefer not to test a waiting shot-blocker.

A natural southpaw, Fox has become better at driving and finishing with his off-hand, too — and, perhaps most importantly, he’s paired those jets with some anti-lock brakes, allowing him to decelerate in an instant to create space in tight quarters. A half-decade of sharpening and honing that inside game has Fox shooting a blistering this season — a career high and . (The top 11 are all centers and power forwards.)

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Given Fox’s incredible burst off the bounce and consistently inconsistent jump shot, the book on him has long been to sag off him on the perimeter, conceding the jumper in favor of being in better position to contest the drive. And, in fairness, that’s still the smart play: Fox is , according to Second Spectrum’s tracking, compared to 32.6% from deep overall, and 29.4% . But Fox still steps into those threes with confidence and has shown just enough of a capacity to make them in big moments to force defenses to step up and guard him out there … which, in turn, opens everything else for him:

The real separator, though, is the off-speed pitch that Fox has given himself to dust the defenders that don’t want to give him daylight at the arc or a free path to the rim. His innate quickness, combined with a tightened handle and those handy brakes, have made him absolutely devastating in the midrange — a constant threat to stop a pell-mell drive on a dime, step back and rise up for an in-rhythm foul-line-extended J.

Those shots are the province of the stars in the modern NBA: the looks that coaches and front offices won’t cede to role players who can’t create or cash them in with consistency, but precisely the kind of drop-coverage-beating in-between daggers that you need to punish the league’s best defenses in the game’s tightest moments. Fox has become one of the NBA’s foremost practitioners of them: Only this season than Fox, and among them, only Kevin Durant (57.1%) and Devin Booker (48.8%) have than Fox (48.3%, the same as Kawhi Leonard).

A player who can blitz past defenders at the point of attack, finish with power and craft through them at the basket and shed them to create space, and knock down jumpers with confidence has every tool necessary to do damage outside the structure of the offense and create something out of nothing. Fox is averaging 1.1 points per possession finished in isolation this season and shooting 51.3% on those plays, according to — both are career highs, and they rank him who’ve finished at least 100 such plays, just behind the likes of James Harden and Luka Doncic.

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That full suite of offensive options has made Fox perhaps the best clutch weapon in the league this season, whether you’re using the eye test while watching those beautiful stepbacks, the box score while counting the raw point totals, or the advanced numbers like , where Fox leads the pack. (In second place, as luck would have it? His old backcourt buddy, Haliburton.) His individual excellence has played a massive role in Sacramento having by far the this season; the gap between the Kings at No. 1 (129.4 points per 100 possessions) and the Nets at No. 2 (118.2 points-per-100) is the same as the gap between Brooklyn and No. 20 Washington. And with the Kings continuing to struggle to string together stops in Brown’s first year at the helm, the Fox-led late-game offense is what has pushed Sacramento to — which, in turn, goes a long way toward explaining how the Kings team that few picked to even finish within hailing distance of .500 this season enters Thursday 12 games over it, just four wins away from the franchise’s first winning season .

That’s also the last time Sacramento made the playoffs; that 16-season interregnum, as you might have heard, represents the longest running postseason drought in NBA history. That ends in one month. The Kings won’t just make the postseason; with , the Suns’ Kevin Durant era still in its infancy, and half of the conference playing Musical Chairs between fifth and 12th place, they’ve got a great chance to enter as the second seed, with home-court advantage not only in Round 1, but in any matchup except a potential conference finals meeting with the top-seeded Nuggets.

We’re a long way from breaking down that matchup, of course, and reasonable people can differ on just how these Kings might fare in the playoff pressure cooker against lower-seeded but more seasoned opponents. Whomever they face, though, there will come a point when Sacramento needs a bucket with the game in the balance … and now, there’s no question where they’ll turn. De’Aaron Fox has spent the last five months turning stretches into stardom; the ball will be in his hands, and in his court. He’s earned it.

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