De’Aaron Fox should be running away with Most Improved Player

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CHARLOTTE – When De'Aaron Fox was about 6 years old, he watched “Freddy vs. Jason.” The horror movie stuck with him for years.

“All through elementary school, I wouldn’t leave doors open if it was nighttime,” Fox said. “I would make sure I closed every door.”

Now, Fox is only opening doors – for himself and the Kings.

The second-year point guard is the NBA’s breakout player on the league’s breakout team. His speed and energy have invigorated Sacramento, which could end a 12-season playoff drought.

But to truly appreciate Fox, you must understand his rookie season.

“It wasn’t good,” Fox said.

He received no Rookie of the Year votes. He didn’t make an All-Rookie team. He made the Rising Stars game only as an injury replacement.

The Kings went 27-55 and played even worse with Fox on the court. He played below replacement level. His poor shooting and distributing in such a big role proved destructive toward winning.

Now, Fox is arguably the best player in his draft class, in the running with Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell.* Fox received deserved All-Star consideration this year. Sacramento is 30-27 and at its best with Fox on the floor.

*Last season’s Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons, was drafted the prior year.

Fox is lightning quick with the ball and a pest defensively. With his shot now falling, he looks to be in complete control.

He leads the Kings’ up-tempo attack while keeping them organized. With Fox on the court, Sacramento plays like the NBA’s fastest, best-fastbreak team all while maintaining the equivalent of a bottom-five turnover rate.

Fox’s improvement is one of the biggest – not just in this season, but in NBA history.

His box-plus-minus leap from -4.4 to +0.9 is telling.

Here are the biggest increases in box plus-minus (center) from a previous career high (left) to the listed season (right) since the NBA began tracking turnovers in 1973-74 (minimum: 1,000 minutes each season):

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Why isn’t Fox the overwhelming favorite for Most Improved Player? I suspect because there’s a belief second-year players are expected to improve.

I’m just not sure why that matters to voters.

Nobody punishes James Harden in the MVP race because he was an established star expected to be good. Nobody punishes Luka Doncic in the Rookie of the Year race because he was a polished young player expected to be good. Nobody punishes Gregg Popovich in the Coach of the Year race because he was an all-time great coach expected to be good.

“Even if it’s expected, if you improve, it doesn’t matter what the expectation is,” Fox said. “You expect Steph Curry to win MVP, right?

“I don’t think it should matter.”

Fox shouldn’t clinch Most Improved Player just yet. If he stumbles down the stretch, others could catch up.

It can also be tricky to compare Fox to players who didn’t play as much in previous seasons. Fox demonstrated his dismal production over a large, reliable sample last season. How does that compare to players like Wizards center Thomas Bryant, Nuggets guard Malik Beasley and Bulls guard Ryan Arcidiacono? Their lack of prior playing time indicates less prior ability, but perhaps they were erroneously looked over and haven’t improved as much.

Fox is a safe choice for Most Improved Player. We know he was bad last season. We know he’s good this season.

But the Kings didn’t know Fox would develop like this. They took a chance entrusting him with such a large role as a rookie, letting him work through his mistakes.

The payoff has come unusually quick. This level of responsibility is still a lot for a second-year point guard – especially one on a good team.

Fox (24.6 usage percentage, 32.6 assist percentage) is one of just 14 current players who, in his second year, started most of his team’s games at point guard while posting usage and assist percentages above 23. Here are all 14, sorted by team’s winning percentage that season (players who changed teams in-season are listed by their teams’ combined record while they were on each roster):

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Players marked in purple also met the 23%-23% usage-assist thresholds while starting as rookies. All three heavily burdened second-season point guards to lead their teams to winning records – Damian Lillard (2014 Trail Blazers), Russell Westbrook (2010 Thunder) and Fox – had big roles as rookies. It clearly prepared them.

Obviously, that prerequisite doesn’t guarantee second-year success.

But it’s a good bet with someone as talented and driven as Fox.

“People might be surprised by the jump I’ve made, but I’m playing the way I think I should play,” Fox said. “And I think I should be playing even better.”