Friends joked that Sacramento Kings point guard De’Aaron Fox would get called in for a random drug test three weeks before training camp when he posted an Instagram photo of himself powering through single-leg lunges with a pair of 100-pound dumbbells.
The next day, Fox received a text message from an NBA doping control officer, summoning him for immediate testing under the league’s offseason anti-doping program.
“He’s out there in these pictures and he looks like the Hulk or something,” teammate Tyrese Haliburton said.
Fox has undergone a striking physical transformation since he entered the league as a skinny 19-year-old kid from Kentucky, where he electrified audiences with his speed and quickness in one season with the Wildcats. Fox weighed 169.6 pounds at the NBA Combine before the Kings selected him with the No. 5 pick in the 2017 draft. He has packed on nearly 30 pounds since then, adding strength and muscle that serve him well every time he attacks the paint.
His chest is bigger. His shoulders are broader. His arms, legs and neck have all gotten thicker. Fox feels different now as he begins his fifth year with the Kings, who opened their season Wednesday with a win on the road against the Portland Trail Blazers. He’s bigger, stronger and physically, mentally and emotionally more mature.
“I feel like, just as a person and as a player, my game has matured a lot,” said Fox, who will turn 24 in December. “Obviously, I’m still working on the defensive side of the ball and shooting the ball, but I feel like I’ve come a long way from just coming in and running fast. I feel like I’m a totally different player from then.”
Fox is entering the first year of a new five-year, $163 million max contract with clauses to reach the $195.6 million super max. If he improves his free-throw and three-point shooting, this could be the year he becomes an NBA All-Star. If he begins to reach his potential as a defender, and if others follow suit, Fox could be the one who finally leads the Kings back to the playoffs, ending a record-tying 15-year playoff drought.
He has felt the weight of these expectations since the Kings drafted him. Fox has embraced the challenge, famously vowing to fight for the fans who fought to save the team when the Kings were on the verge of relocation.
Fox isn’t just talking the talk. He’s putting in the work required to take his game and the Kings organization to another level.
“His leadership, his work ethic, his consistency continues to grow, (and) the commitment,” Kings Coach Luke Walton said. “His body is continuing to change and get stronger. He’s growing into that, and I think he’s made nice progress each year.”
Leaps and bounds
Fox averaged 11.6 points, 4.4 assists and 2.8 rebounds as a rookie, but he shot just 41.2% from the field and 30.7% from three-point range. He made significant leaps in his second, third and fourth seasons, emerging as one of the most dynamic young scorers in the league.
Fox averaged 17.3 points in 2018-19 and 21.1 points in 2019-20. He had another breakthrough last season, averaging a career-high 25.2 points, 7.2 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals. Fox shot 47.7% from the field, but he hit just 32.2% from three-point range and 71.9% at the free-throw line, two areas where he is still striving for improvement.
Fox finished ninth in the NBA with 7.2 free-throw attempts per game last season. The Kings felt that number should have been higher, arguing he was not getting the benefit of many calls around the basket.
“He wanted to put on weight to make sure his body can withstand the fouls — let’s call it what it is — the fouls he takes every single time he drives to the basket,” Kings forward Harrison Barnes said. “I think he’s in great shape to have a big season for us.”
Fox’s scoring average would have been more than a half-point higher if he were an 80% free-throw shooter and nearly another half-point higher if he had shot 35% from three-point range. Fox believes increased strength will help him become a more consistent and efficient shooter.
“Going into the offseason, it was really about being stronger. That’s kind of always a focus, and then a big emphasis on shooting the ball off the dribble,” Fox said. “That’s where a lot of my shots have come from, so just being able to be more efficient off the dribble.”
Fox’s increased strength has already helped him improve his finishing ability around the rim. His field-goal percentage inside of 3 feet jumped from 65.5% to 76.3% last season.
“He was already one of the best finishers in the league, but I think now it makes him even better around the rim,” Kings forward Maurice Harkless said. “He’s able to kind of control the ball, take more bumps and kind of control where he wants to go, and not really get bumped off his path. Add that to being probably one of the fastest guys in the league and that’s hard to guard.”
Walton said Fox’s improving strength will benefit him at both ends of the floor.
“It helps getting over screens (on defense),” Walton said. “So much of today’s NBA is 100 pick and rolls a night. If you’re a guard, you’ve got to be able to take that contact, so it will help fighting through screens and getting into people. And on the other end, finishing as well when he gets into the paint and being able to absorb that contact.”
Fox agreed, acknowledging his individual defense needs to improve.
“That’s something I know I needed to step up coming into this year, being a better defender,” Fox said. “Not just for spurts, but for a long period of the game, and for that it’s really just getting through screens and things like that. You’re going to take punishment, especially playing the guard spot, so just being able to stay fresh throughout the game, being able to guard throughout the whole 48 minutes.
“Added muscle definitely helps. Physically, whenever you’re guarding someone one-on-one, you’re going to take hits. And then, fighting through ball screens, bigs are going to come and hit you, so the stronger you are, the more you can push up on your guy, getting through the screens. I think strength definitely helps a lot. For the most part, the guys in the league who are good defenders are usually pretty strong.”
Fox is gaining that reputation, too. He isn’t done growing his game and developing his frame, but he believes he’s in a good place as he enters another new season in Sacramento.
“At some point in my career, I would like to play over 200 (pounds), something like that,” Fox said. “I’m at like 197 right now, so I’m almost 30 pounds up from where I was at the Combine. As I’ve gotten stronger, I feel like I’ve gotten faster, more explosive, things like that, so it’s nothing that’s ever weighed me down.
“It has made shooting the ball a lot easier, just being stronger, but a lot of it just came with time. I’ve always been strong for my weight, but putting the weight on was kind of difficult. As I’ve gotten older, it’s been easier for me to put weight on, so I’m probably not where I want to be, but at 23 years old, this is good for me right now.”