25-under-25: De’Aaron Fox at No. 8

25-under-25, Sacramento Kings

De’Aaron Fox is fast. But is he fast enough to outrun the chaotic legacy of the Sacramento Kings, and strong enough to carry his team with him?

Plastic bullets fill the air. Bone claws slowly protrude from skinned knuckles. Jim Croce’s voice offers sad reservations about time and bottles. And there is De’Aaron Fox, at his best, doing laps around the room in a pair of goggles and a Pink Floyd t-shirt. He’s the kind of fast that makes the rest of the world slow.

He is also trapped in a Sacramento Kings uniform, and the Sacramento Kings have been an uphill struggle for 15 years now. Most of those 15 years have nothing to do with Fox, but history dictated that this leg of his basketball life was to start on an incline. The ascent continues.

The team drafted Fox in 2017, and he started 60 games during the 2017-18 season, averaging 11.6 points per game and 4.4 assists. He finished his most recent season averaging 25.2 points and 7.2 assists. He is the team’s best player by several measurements.

SBNation’s Sactown Royalty’s Christian Rivas notes how such is true of both the corporeal Fox and his virtual avatar. NBA 2K22 rated him a solid 85 overall, with his teammate Tyrese Haliburton coming in at an 81 overall. That’s a solid B for a 23-year-old. That’s a solid B for a player whose floor seems firmly established and whose ceiling may still be something of a convertible top.

Rivas also notes how the 2K22 rating places Fox on a plane with “Jrue Holiday, Jamal Murray, and Ja Morant.” That’s a starting point guard from a championship squad and two widely accepted franchise cornerstones. The trade that would pry either Murray or Morant away from Denver or Memphis is almost unfathomable. And yet there is Fox’s name running laps through the rumor mill with the likes of Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons.

Is De’Aaron Fox ready to be a superhero for the Sacramento Kings?

That aforementioned Jim Croce enthusiast is Quicksilver. He is a character with a rich pedigree. Scarlet Witch is his sister. Magneto is rumored to be his dad. But Quicksilver for all his speed can only go so far. He is not a narrative unto himself. He is usually part of a Brotherhood, or a group of Avengers, or some off-brand contingent of X-Men. If given help, he is helpful. If left alone, he is likely to burn out and spend the rest of his time as an impostor on some misbegotten couch of the mind. He is something of a hummingbird in that sense. You’re more likely to catch him in glimpses than as anything else.

I used to think and say similar comments about Tony Parker, but I never saw Parker in an environment without Hall of Famers until his brief stint as a slowed-down Hornet in Charlotte. I also never witnessed Parker carry out many of the feats I have seen De’Aaron Fox carry.

I don’t recall Parker ever getting into the lane and delivering a wailing dunk over an opponent, and I don’t recall Parker ever having such ease and acumen beyond the 3-point line. Parker could obviously push the ball and get into the lane at will, but the end result was always a floater or a layup or maybe an up-and-under. Fox is obviously more athletic, and depending on his haircut in a given season, he also has Parker by more than a couple inches. But those are all issues and characteristics having less to do with effectiveness than with a style of play rooted in biology. One of these guys is a hummingbird. The other might be a warbler. I don’t really know a whole lot about birds.

But I do know Fox is the more stunning figure to encounter in the ninety feet of a basketball court because he offers more breadth in his game, and yet the significance of his contributions is impossible to predict or measure. At the moment, he is anchored to a core that includes Marvin Bagley III, Harrison Barnes, Tyrese Haliburton, Buddy Hield, and Davion Mitchell. Any of those names could be anywhere else in the coming weeks to months, or they could all be in Sacramento still and Fox could be anywhere else. That’s an uncertain place to build a future, and yet it’s how the future is always built. Even Parker was once rumored to be en route to New Jersey from San Antonio, and what saved a player so fast for the annals of history was not moving at all.

De’Aaron Fox was born in 1997, which also happens to be the year Speed 2: Cruise Control crashed into theaters. I remember seeing the film twice. Our family rented it once from Blockbuster, but I also saw it prior to that at a movie theater with my dad in Fredericksburg, Virginia. We lived in Georgia at the time. We were in Fredericksburg because we would soon be moving there. Seeing Speed 2 was a way to kill time while waiting on a realtor to show us houses or something. I really don’t remember exactly, and I don’t really remember much about Speed 2 other than Keanu Reeves’ absence, Sandra Bullock carrying tropical drinks, and Willem Dafoe’s body being blood-sucked by leeches.

Speed debuted in 1994. That’s three years before De’Aaron Fox was born, so he was probably something less than a rumor at that point in time. Speed makes a much greater impression on the viewer than Speed 2 despite less hype and a smaller budget. Life is weird like that, but there’s something about a bus versus a cruise ship that’s much more relatable and more frightening. There’s something about the presence of Keanu Reeves. There’s something about the chemistry between Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock versus the chemistry between Sandra Bullock and that other dude. There’s something easy to understand about a villain who is more into crazy rules than leeches: Drive the bus at more than fifty miles per hour or the bus blows up.

That’s also how Fox was introduced to most of the basketball public. His debut season in college, which was his only season at the University of Kentucky, made it clear that he was never meant to walk the ball up the court or to play with strings attached. The chemistry with Malik Monk was borderline magical for much of that season, and while Monk may have been the better player in Lexington, Kentucky, the NBA has already reduced Monk to something of a role player. That doesn’t seem to be Fox’s fate. Fox appears destined to continually raid the proverbial henhouse. Of course, that also makes for a dangerous night’s work.

Fox was — and still is — John Wall or Ty Lawson fast from baseline to baseline, but his attacks to the basket have always carried a variety and finesse that for either of those prior phenoms was never bedrock consistent. The NBA doesn’t quite work like college. The game is free and open, but the floor on every athlete is higher. There is less oxygen to consume and burn. Both Wall and Lawson left college basketball as championship point guards. Fox did not. But life catches up with players for a variety of reasons, and both Wall and Lawson alike couldn’t quite outrun all their demons or physical frailties. In one way or another, they either played or lived like arsonists being chased by their own wildfires.

Wall is still in the NBA and a very good player. But his relevance is on the wane. Meanwhile, Lawson fell out of the league, entirely as well as prematurely. His last stint, however, was in Sacramento. He was 29 that season before the team drafted Fox to run the show.

De’Aaron Fox has been running in Sacramento for four seasons now. That’s not very long really, but it’s also a full college career. His game is always surprisingly more than just fast. At times, his offensive versatility and the frame of his body moving in the half-court resembles Bradley Beal more than his fellow Wildcat John Wall. But the speed and all those ghostly antecedents are what bring a hint of reckless abandon to his game.

You buy the ticket because you know the hero is in danger someway somehow every night he takes to the court. What you don’t know is how he will escape the trouble that currently ensnares him. Maybe the team will trade him to a contender. Maybe he’ll figure it out for himself. Maybe the style of play speaks for itself. But whatever happens, what you’re really here to do is to kill all the time in the world until something significant happens and either you or this hero can get off the bus and land with both feet firmly on the ground. That’s the whole sad point of the ride, and at that point, the future splits into a cruise ship disaster sequel on the one hand or a red-pilled revelation on the other.

However long the decision-making lasts, an alarm will eventually sound. By then, Jim Croce will have stopped singing and a flood of water will have descended from a sprinkler system. And there will be the young kid removing his headphones. And that drenched moment will be the best that character will ever have been on screen, but neither the character nor those watching will know that yet. It would be terribly unimaginative if either of them did.

Until then, De’Aaron Fox is a blur among a cluster of options and mixed-up comparisons. It would be a stretch to call him the next Steph Curry, but you wouldn’t be surprised if someone else did.

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