De’Aaron Fox’s speed raced him up draft boards, made him confident wherever he lands

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De’Aaron Fox even talks fast.

Speed is what separates the point guard out of Kentucky from a deep crop at the position in this draft. Fox has got impressive playmaking skills, his defense can overwhelm, he has a maturity and confidence about him not seen in most 19-year-olds — there are multiple reasons he has climbed draft boards and is expected to be taken in the top five Thursday night during the NBA Draft.

However, it’s the speed that separates him.

“You can’t really teach speed, you either have it or you don’t,” Fox told NBC Sports. “For me, Coach Cal had me using that as a weapon and that’s just something I learned while I was at Kentucky.”

It’s that speed that intrigues teams. Fox generally has been projected to go to Phoenix or Sacramento (picks four or five), but the ground under this draft is shifting quickly and Fox said he has no idea where he will be taken. He could land a lot of places. He said he’d prefer it to be in an uptempo system, but he believes he can help any team that takes him.

“I think I just bring a level of playmaking that some of the teams in the lottery don’t have,” Fox said. “That’s offensively and defensively. Defensively that’s playing the passing lanes, just getting your hands on balls. And offensively just being able to beat your man and being able to create for yourself and others….

“The NBA game is a lot faster than the college game, but you still have to be able to play in the high gears.”

Where most people remember him using those higher gears was to overwhelm likely No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball of UCLA in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament (frankly, he outplayed Ball both times Kentucky took on UCLA last season). Fox had 39 points on 20 shots that March night, plus got to the line 15 times. However, more impressive was his defense on Ball, holding the bigger guard to 10 points on 10 shots (with eight assists). Again, it was about speed.

“I’m quicker and faster than just about everybody I played against so just being able to get under guards, just try to limit what they can do with their size,” Fox said. “I try to speed them up, play to my tempo.”

Fox has been fast up the draft board — and fast to get endorsements and deals. He inked a shoe deal with Nike. He was in New York Wednesday to shoot a new commercial for Kids Foot Locker — they wanted him even before the draft. Like a lot of scouts, they see a potential star about to bloom.

“I always thought I’d want to see myself in a commercial and things like that, see myself on TV doing things other than just basketball,” Fox said. “This is a blessing to be able to do things like this. I’m just blessed God gave me the talent and I’m just taking it and being able to affect the world.”

If scouts had one question about Fox, it was his jump shot. He shot just 24.6 percent from three last season, and his jump shot was as inconsistent as his release point. His form wasn’t terrible, just a little all over the map.

However, it has looked better in recent workouts, largely because Fox and trainer Chris Gaston put in the time in the gym.

“I put a lot of work on it,” Fox said of his jumper. “I know I’m going to need it at the next level, but also that was something I really just struggled with at the beginning of the year at Kentucky, so I that was one thing didn’t really worry about, I just had to tighten (it up)…

“Really it was just getting up reps, staying focused on every shot, locked in.”

Fox’s maturity showed through when asked what else he’s been working on — he’s been getting in better shape. Something some players don’t figure out until they’ve been in the league a few years.

“Getting my body right,” Fox said. “At the next level, you got to be a lot stronger, quicker, faster… (conditioning) really goes up a tremendous level from college to the NBA, and it’s something that you really need work. You really have to focus on that.”

Fox credits part of him being NBA ready with a year under John Calipari at Kentucky, a school that feels like a one-and-done factory at points.

“Just the way he coaches. He tries to run it like an NBA organization,” Fox said. “You know the track record he’s had, so you don’t go in there like you’re the only high major player he’s ever had, you’re one of many. You just listen to him and he’s able to get you to the next level, he helps us that way. He has us playing like an NBA team, it’s difficult in college to simulate that but he does it the best.”

Thursday night, years of work in the gym for Fox will all culminate with him being drafted — then another whirlwind will start. He will be flown off to the city where he is picked, meet the media, sit down with the coach, and quickly start workouts with the team in advance of Summer League. Fox hasn’t focused too much on where he will land, but he has focused on what he will wear draft night.

“I’ve actually had my suit picked out for a while now,” Fox said. “I haven’t actually picked the shoes yet, though.”

Would John Calipari approve of the look?

“I think he would.”

Utah’s Rudy Gobert, Brooklyn’s D’Angelo Russell both make return from injury tonight

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Let’s try something different: How about some good injury news for a change?

Going through the roughest part of their schedule without their Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert, the Utah Jazz have fallen out of the playoff picture in the West. The good news is Gobert is back starting Friday night.

The Brooklyn Nets took on a lot of salary (hello Timofey Mozgov) to get ahold of and see if they could develop D'Angelo Russell into their point guard of the future. However, he has been out since Nov. 12 and had to get his knee scoped to solve some issues. Now he is back as of Friday against Miami, and the Nets will again be able to get a look at him (as he heads into restricted free agency).

Neither of these returns are turning these teams into playoff teams, but they do help.

Brooklyn is not about the playoffs this season, but their gritty performances this season have picked up enough wins to frustrate Cavaliers fans (the Cavs have their pick in this draft). The Jazz are not completely out of the playoffs, but they are five games back in a deep Western conference and that will be hard to make up without some help. Getting Gobert back at least gives the Jazz a chance, and it’s an opportunity for Gobert and rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell to start to develop some chemistry.

Report: Cavaliers interested in George Hill trade with Kings

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When the Sacramento Kings made the much-maligned move to sign three veterans this summer to healthy contracts — George Hill, Zach Randolph, and Vince Carter — there were three reasons for it. Two the Kings were very public about: They wanted mentors for the 10 young players on their roster, and they had to get up to the salary floor anyway.

The third, less discussed reason is those guys might make decent trade chips. Especially as the Kings move toward playing their youth more (as they should).

Enter the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are stumbling through the East right now and have reached out to the Kings about a potential trade for Hill, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

In an effort to bolster their backcourt situation, the Cleveland Cavaliers are expressing interest in a trade for Sacramento Kings guard George Hill, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Cleveland has emerged as an interested suitor, with the Cavaliers pursuing Hill to potentially slide into a dual-guard role, starting at either backcourt position or playing as a reserve, league sources said.

The Cavaliers are starting Isaiah Thomas at the point, with the assumption that he will find his groove as his conditioning improves and he gets used to playing next to LeBron James, however, they have had issues at the two spot. J.R. Smith starts there now with Dwyane Wade and Kyle Korver (both really more threes) behind him, but with Iman Shumpert out due to a foot injury the Cavaliers could use backcourt depth.

George Hill appears to have taken a step back this season, but he is still a solid guard who can shoot the three (45 percent this season) and be a good floor general. He could be a better backup point guard than Derrick Rose. Hill is not a season changer for Cleveland, but he would give them some solid depth and versatility.

The problem is money — Hill signed a three-year, $57 million deal with the Kings. The Kings might be open to a Hill for Tristan Thompson and a second rounder deal (no way Hill earns a first, even a Cavs late one).

Consider it something to watch. The Cavaliers have to get better at the trade deadline, although they have no plans to move the Brooklyn Nets pick. The Kings are open to the idea of a trade. It’s a first step.

Stan Van Gundy backs off feud with ESPN ahead of televised Pistons game

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Pistons president/coach Stan Van Gundy said he wouldn’t give ESPN its usual access – a private pre-game meeting and an in-game interview – in the aftermath of ESPN publishing LaVar Ball’s negative comments about Lakers coach Luke Walton.

The first test of Van Gundy’s new policy comes with today’s Pistons-Wizards game on ESPN… and Van Gundy is mostly backing down.

Van Gundy, via Rod Beard of The Detroit News:

“I got an email from Rick Carlisle of the coaches association and they want me to cooperate, so my whole idea was to boycott the thing in support of coaches,” Van Gundy said. “If the coaches don’t want that, then it would be a selfish thing, sort of a grandstanding thing.”

“I’m certainly not looking to do extra stuff with ESPN.com when those guys call and want to do things,” Van Gundy said. “They want to put themselves out there as a journalistic enterprise — they’re clearly not. They don’t have any journalistic standards. I have no obligation to do anything extra.”

Many media members have quoted Ball on a variety of issues. Coaches threw a fit over this one because they’re sensitive to coaches being criticized. It wasn’t about journalistic ethics or the source. Van Gundy and other coaches simply didn’t like Ball’s conclusion.

I’m so glad Van Gundy is no longer grandstanding. [extreme sarcasm]

He’s not obligated to speak with ESPN reporters, but when Van Gundy rails on journalistic standards as cover for disagreeing with the opinion a journalist published, he sounds a lot like the guy he loves to criticize.

Pistons’ Jon Leuer to undergo season-ending surgery

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Jon Leuer‘s ankles survived this.

But apparently they’re not invincible.

Rod Beard of The Detroit News:

After suffering a sprained ankle on Oct. 31, the symptoms worsened, as an exam revealed bone fragments and other issues. Leuer has missed the last 35 games and has decided to have season-ending ankle surgery, he told The Detroit News on Friday.

Leuer, 28, has scheduled the procedure to remove bone fragments for next Friday and will have a four-month rehabilitation process.

The Pistons have applied to the NBA for a disabled-player exception

The Pistons have been without Leuer for a while, and they’ve done fine without him. Anthony Tolliver is a capable backup stretch four, and Henry Ellenson adds even more insurance there. Detroit misses Leuer as a stretch center, providing a different style behind Andre Drummond, but Eric Moreland and Boban Marjanovic have at least decently handled those reserve minutes.

The bigger issue: The Pistons are paying Leuer $10,497,319 this season and owe him $19,510,724 over the next two years and don’t miss him that much. He’s a luxury they don’t need and maybe can’t afford.

Perhaps, they’ll deal him before the trade deadline, as they look to upgrade the roster for a playoff run. Detroit could send Leuer and a draft pick or young player (Stanley Johnson) for a better player on a more favorable contract. How about Leuer and a first-round pick to the Bulls for Nikola Mirotic?

A disabled-player exception (DPE) would be worth $5,248,660, half Leuer’s salary. It could be used to sign a free agent for the rest of the season or trade for a player in the final year of his contract.

But the NBA grants a DPE only if a league-appointed physician rules the player is “substantially more likely than not” to be unable to play through June 15. The reported timeline would have Leuer back in May.

Still, the league tends to be lax with giving out DPEs. Detroit has a chance to get one.

The Pistons are just $2,745,417 below the luxury-tax line. So, they’re unlikely to use a full Leuer DPE to acquire another player (and would still need to clear a roster spot). But it could be helpful in facilitating a bigger trade.