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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.”

Report: Nets signing Taurean Prince to two-year, $29M extension

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The Nets traded two first-round picks to the Hawks to clear double-max(-ish) cap space for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

And get Taurean Prince.

Prince was an afterthought in his trade to Brooklyn, which signaled the Nets’ big summer. But Brooklyn acquired him for a reason and will pay to secure him longer.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Considering this information came from his agent, this is almost certainly the most favorable framing of terms. Maybe Prince got all $29 million guaranteed. But if there are any incentives, I bet that $29 million counts them as achieved.

The Nets are trying to build a championship contender. This deal gives them multiple avenues for uisng Prince.

His contract could help for salary-matching in a bigger trade. I can’t recall the rookie-scale extension so short, if there ever was one. Two years are not an especially long commitment. That hints at using this deal as a trade chip. So does Brooklyn extending Prince before he played a regular-season game there.

Of course, Prince has a track record from Atlanta. He’s a good outside shooter with the frame to defend well when engaged. Maybe the Nets really believe in his long-term potential. He fell out of favor with the Hawks only after they changed general managers.

The Nets needn’t decide on Prince’s long-term future now. They have paid for team control for the next three seasons (including this season, the final year of his rookie-scale contract). They can monitor how he plays – and what trades become available.

Pacers, Domantas Sabonis reportedly agree to four-year, $77 million extension

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Indiana is going all-in on the idea of Domantas Sabonis playing the four next to Myles Turner at the five this season. The Pacers have put up the money, now we’re going to see if it can actually work.

After initial struggles to find common ground on a contract extension — leading to reports of the Pacers testing the trade waters for Sabonis — the two sides have come to terms on a four-year contract extension, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The exact figures here are still in flux.

How likely those bonuses are remains to be seen.

This is a pretty fair contract number, a little more than $19 million a year average for the man who came in second in the Sixth Man of the Year voting last season seems about right. Plus, if it doesn’t work out with Sabonis starting next to Turner, this is a very tradable contract and there would be interest in his services (he was harder to trade at his $3.5 million current salary and get anything of value to match that smaller number).

The Pacers hope it doesn’t come to that and Sabonis becomes part of one of the better, younger frontcourts in the league.

Sabonis is skilled and versatile on offense, a fantastic pick-and-roll or dribble hand-off guy who sets good screens then he rolls into open space. He’s strong around the basket and plays a crafty, high IQ game.

The concerns with Sabonis, and why some teams are not convinced he’s a starter, are twofold. First, he is not good defensively and is not a rim protector.

The second concern is that he does not space the floor (76.4 percent of his shots came within 10 feet of the basket last season, and he doesn’t make many beyond that range).

Indiana is betting on this core. They have inked big contracts with Turner (four-years, $72 million) and Malcolm Brogdon (four years, $85 million). Victor Oladipo will be coming up for an extension in a couple of years and, if he returns to pre-injury form, is a lock max player. Throw in this Sabonis contract and that is a lot of guaranteed money. Are these guys worth it?

We’ll find out soon enough, the Pacers have gone all-in with them

Report: Spurs signing Dejounte Murray to four-year, $64M extension

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In 2018, a 21-year-old Dejounte Murray became the youngest player ever to make an All-Defensive team. The following fall, he showed progress on his outside shooting and distributing. Everything was coming together for the young Spurs point guard.

Then, disaster struck.

Just before last season, Murray tore his ACL. He missed the entire year.

Yet, he’ll still get a contract extension in San Antonio.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Given his injury, it’d be difficult for Murray to reject this deal. It’s life-changing money. What if he lost significant athleticism or fails to hit his stride next season? That’d be a grim way to enter restricted free agency next summer.

But what if Murray picks up where he left off? This could be a major steal for the Spurs.

Given the wide range of potential outcomes, this extension seems fair. However, there’s also a reasonable chance Murray significantly underperforms or overperforms this deal. (That’s why it’s fair.)

Murray is a stout defender and elite rebounder for a guard. He can push the pace and slash to the rim. But it’s tough for lead guards who don’t shoot well from the perimeter. Murray’s playmaking for others must also improve, especially if San Antonio eventually transitions from an isolation-heavy offense around DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Murray is just 23. It’s OK he’s not a finished product. The Spurs should know better than anyone how to feel about his progress since the injury. They probably deserve benefit of the doubt in evaluating his value.

Still, long-term fit questions linger with Derrick White. White stepped up in Murray’s absence last season, especially in the playoffs. But White is another subpar 3-point-shooting guard. Can they play together? White will be eligible for his own rookie-scale extension next offseason.

San Antonio is mainly focused on the present, and Murray and White will factor prominently this season. They’re still just supporting players for now, though.

Long term, Murray’s extension is a key step toward whatever comes next for the Spurs.

Zion Williamson out 6-8 weeks after surgery to repair torn right lateral meniscus

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Much like his absence did at Summer League, this news sucks some of the air out the excitement around the start of the NBA season.

Zion Williamson, who tore it up for New Orleans in the preseason, also tore up his right lateral meniscus and had surgery on Monday to repair it, the team announced.

The smart money is on it being closer to the eight weeks because the Pelicans are going to abundantly cautious the future of the franchise. The Pelicans had originally said Williamson had a sore knee, then said he would be out weeks but avoided serious knee issues. This could be worse but is serious enough to require surgery.

This preseason, Williamson instantly took advantage of the greater spacing in the NBA game (Duke was not loaded with great shooters last season) and found lanes to attack and dominate. Williamson scored 55 points on 71 percent shooting across two preseason games, and defenses just were not sure how to stop him.

His loss is a setback to a Pelicans team that has playoff aspirations, despite its youth.

There are still young players with a lot to prove in New Orleans — Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram — and some solid veterans in Jrue Holiday and J.J. Redick. But the Pelicans will just not be the same — or as much fun.

This opens up the Rookie of the Year race, at least a little bit. NBC’s own Dan Feldman and I discussed this very topic on our predictions podcast: How many games does Zion need to play, and be dominant in, to win ROY? Probably around 50 (remember Joel Embiid could not pull it off with a dominant 31 games and Malcolm Brogdon won that year). If Zion is out the full two months, meaning a return just before Christmas, then he would miss about 30 games. Putting him on the bubble for the award. Other players such as Ja Morant in Memphis, RJ Barrett in New York, or maybe even Tyler Herro in Miami or Rui Hachimura in Washington can jump into the conversation.

That conversation is just a little less entertaining without Williamson.