Early in John Wall‘s career as the point guard of the Washington Wizards, there was serious doubt about whether or not he would ever become the kind of player that was deserving of being the No. 1 pick in a draft. That is typically reserved for the kind of franchise changing talent that Wall has, but the problem was, simply, that he could not shoot.
As a freshman at Kentucky, he shot just 32.5 percent from beyond the arc. He made three fewer threes as a rookie in the NBA than he did as a rookie in the SEC, and he made a total of 15 threes in his second and third seasons in the NBA which included a spectacular 3-for-42 performance for an entire season.
But Wall got better. In two of the last four years, he’s shot better than 35 percent from beyond the arc and has at least become enough of a threat that a defense has to be conscious of the fact that he can hit a three, and it’s not a coincidence that has come at the same time that Wall has emerged as one of the four or five best point guards in the NBA.
De'Aaron Fox, who was Kentucky’s engine on both ends of the floor this past season, is, more or less, a John Wall clone. He’s not quite as tall and he’s not quite as long as his sprinter’s-speed is not quite superhuman, but looking at this from a big picture perspective, they’re mostly the same: A defensive menace and a nightmare in transition that may never be able to effectively run an NBA offense if he cannot find a way to fix his jump shot.
Weight: 170 pounds
2016-17 Stats: 16.7 points, 4.6 assists, 4.0 boards, 1.5 steals, 24.6% 3PT
STRENGTHS: The intrigue with Fox as a player starts with the physical tools. He has elite size (6-foot-3), length (6-foot-6 wingspan), athleticism (his vertical is nearly 40 inches) and speed for a point guard. He has game-changing ability in transition, whether it’s leading the break or running away from the defense in a lane. More than 31 percent of his offense came in transition this past season, nearly six points per game.
Transition isn’t the only place where his speed made him dangerous. He was nearly impossible to keep out of the lane when he wanted to get there; not only is Fox an explosive leaper — he threw down a number of highlight worthy dunks this season — but he has terrific burst and a quick first step off the dribble and off the standstill. When he gets into the paint, he showed off really impressive touch on his floaters, shooting nearly 60 percent in the lane, a very respectable number for a guy that still needs to add weight and strength to his frame to handle getting bumped off his angle.
Fox’s ability to get into the paint is even more impressive when you consider just how far defenses played off of him; defenders would often slough off as far as the foul line when Fox had the ball beyond the arc. He puts pressure on a defense in a way that cannot be taught.
A good passer that doesn’t turn the ball over, Fox was good enough to make plays at the college level — he was excellent throwing lobs and finding bigs at the rim in Kentucky’s offense — but he could stand to develop the rest of his pick-and-roll game.
Defensively, Fox has the tools to be an above average defender in the NBA. He’s big, he’s long, he’s laterally quick, he has terrific anticipation and he has quick hands. When he’s engaged, he can be a nightmare when applying ball pressure. He wasn’t always engaged, however, and his lack of strength means that he would die on screens too often and struggled defending bigger, more physical players, but that will come with time.
WEAKNESSES: His jump shot.
That’s not the only area of the game that he struggles, mind you. He weighs all of 170 pounds, which is far too light for a player that is 6-foot-3. He’s heavily reliant on his left-hand, both when he’s attacking the rim and when he’s finishing around the bucket. His ability in the pick-and-roll needs to be expanded. He needs to continue to develop as a playmaker, particularly in the half court, as he has a habit of deciding what he wants to do before the play instead of reading a defense, and he can be somewhat inconsistent as a defender.
But that jumper, man.
That is what’s going to determine his future. We’ll get into that, but first, some numbers: Fox shot 24 percent from three this season. He was just 9-for-45 on catch-and-shoot opportunities this season and averaged 0.65 points-per-possession on pull-up jumpers, shooting 31 percent on the season.
Simply put, that’s not going to be good enough at the next level.
NBA COMPARISON: The obvious comparison here is John Wall, as I mentioned earlier. Another comparison that I’ve seen is Mike Conley, who isn’t quite as explosive as Fox but who has similar question marks about his jumper; Conley now has the largest contract in the NBA. That’s Fox’s ceiling. That’s why he has the chance to be a top three pick in this draft. That’s why there are people that would legitimately pick him over Lonzo Ball.
They’re doing that based on the idea that they’ll be able to teach Fox how to shoot. But what happens if they can’t? What happens if Fox, four years into his NBA career, is still shooting in the low-20s from three? Well, he’ll likely find himself following the career path of someone like Elfrid Payton, Kris Dunn or Michael Carter-Williams, lottery picks that were supposed to be two-way stars at the point in the NBA if they only learned how to shoot the ball.
OUTLOOK: There are two questions that we need to ask about Fox in the longterm.
The first is whether or not a point guard that is not a great shooter can be a starter, let alone a star, on a team with playoff aspirations, and the answer is probably not. Four playoff teams had starting point guards that shot under 35 percent from three this past season. One of them was Russell Westbrook, and he shot 34.3 percent from three and is disqualified from this discussion for not being human. One of them was Tony Parker, who, against, is disqualified because the Spurs are the Spurs. Wall was a third and the fourth was Dennis Schroder of Atlanta, who still made 34.0 percent from beyond the arc, a number that is vastly more impressive than the 24.6 percent that Fox shot from the college three point line.
Which leads us to the obvious second question: Is Fox’s jump shot beyond repair?
That question is trickier to answer. Let’s start here: Fox shot 73.6 percent from the free throw line this season, attempting nearly six per game. That’s typically a good sign. Free throws isolate form, and if Fox is hitting those, the thinking is, there’s a foundation to work with. And, frankly, most NBA people will tell you that Fox’s stroke isn’t quite as bad as the numbers will make you believe. In March, when Fox was at his healthiest, he made 55 percent of his pull-up jumpers and 36 percent of his spot-up jumpers in a half-court setting. He also shot 9-for-17 from three in the final month of the season. It’s a small sample size, yes, but it’s still an improvement.
Most people believe that all it takes is time and effort to improve player’s jump shot, and to a point that is true. Shooting is always going to be the easiest skill to develop — it’s hard to teach someone to see the floor, and you cannot make a player grow or get a longer wingspan no matter how hard you try — but if that player is shooting with a stroke that is broken, often times it won’t matter how many jumpers he takes in the offseason. For every Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry there is a Ricky Rubio or a Rajon Rondo.
So which is Fox?
Well, his stroke isn’t awful, but there is a lot of movement; he has a slingshot action in there where he releases the ball from the side of his head at times. Some scouts will tell you that the biggest issue with Fox is his confidence, that he missed a few early, it got in his head and, since no one could keep him out of the lane, he just drove as often as possible. Others will tell you that his shot is all arms and that he’ll be better when he gets into an NBA strength and conditioning program. Still others believe he’s just never going to be a good shooter.
I think he’ll be a capable three-point shooter in the NBA, somewhere in that 32-35% range, which will be enough to make him a starter on a playoff team but not enough for him to get into the conversation as one of the best point guards in the league.