Sunday Musings: De'Aaron Fox opens up, talks pairing with Domantas Sabonis

Despite losses, Fox has found his game since Sabonis trade

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It’s not easy watching the soul of a player get crushed. 

Instead of “stacking days,” the Kings stacked defeats throughout the first half of the season. No one likes losing, but the burden is heavier when you are the face of the franchise.

Seeing De’Aaron Fox drained of his love for the game wasn’t easy to watch. After a breakout 2020-21 season, the 24-year-old looked like he was ready to carry the Kings back to the playoffs on his shoulders.

One loss at a time, the joy dissipated from Fox, until he was almost unrecognizable as a player, and that was before trade rumors started swirling. He was wearing his struggles, although he wasn’t the only one facing adversity. 

“I’ll use the example of Russ (Westbrook) right now,” Fox told The Kings Beat in an exclusive sit-down this week. “Obviously, he’s not playing well right now and people are talking. It weighs on anybody, no matter how much we’re self-driven or only care about people that we care about. That stuff, it will weigh on you when it happens for a good amount of time.”

Westbrook’s struggles since joining the Lakers have been monumental. A first ballot Hall of Fame player, the 33-year-old superstar has become the poster child for all that ails the Los Angeles Lakers. He’s also a player that Fox grew up idolizing.

While Fox is still trying to establish himself as a player and Westbrook is in the twilight of his incredible career, the weight of expectations can get inside of almost any player’s head. 

In the first year of his massive extension, Fox’s salary jumped to a franchise record $28.2 million this season. He openly admits that he wasn’t playing well to start the season. His 3-point shot was off. His added muscle during the offseason seemed to slow him down more than anything else. 

Leading up to the trade deadline, Fox sat out eight straight games with a sore ankle. The break seemed to help clear his mind, as well as reset his body. 

And then the trade happened. 

There were two transactions at the deadline that helped reshape the Kings’ roster, but the one that truly changed everything was the deal that sent Tyrese Haliburton, Buddy Hield and Tristan Thompson to the Indiana Pacers for Domantas Sabonis, Jeremy Lamb and Justin Holiday.

Fox went from a self-imposed lone man trying to hold up the weight of the Kings’ franchise, to one of two pillars of the Kings’ new foundation alongside Sabonis.

“You add a two-time All-Star to any team and I think that everybody feels like that they kinda, not necessarily have to do as much, but it’s definitely a huge help for me,” Fox said. “He commands so much attention.”

The dynamic on the court has changed, but Fox understands that the expectations haven’t changed, at least not yet. Sabonis can shoulder some of the pressure, but he’s also the new guy. His honeymoon period with the team will stretch into next season and potentially much further than that.

“It definitely does help, but I still feel like everybody looks to me as the face (of the franchise), but having another guy that plays at an extremely high level night in and night out, it helps, it definitely helps” Fox said. 

It will take time for Fox and Sabonis to fully build chemistry, both on and off the court, but the early returns are solid. The Kings aren’t winning, like they had hoped, but the quality of play is improving and they are competing.

Maybe more importantly, Fox looks like he has found his smile once again and the results are turning heads.

“I’ll be honest with you, this is the most enjoyable I’ve seen him play,” Alvin Gentry told The Kings Beat. “He really likes Sabonis, he really likes playing with Sabonis because he’s a smart player and he can manufacture things and stuff like that. I think he’s been great.”

In the Kings’ 13 games since the trade, Fox is averaging 29.2 points, 6.8 assists and four rebounds while shooting 51.4 percent from the field and 37.3 percent from 3-point range. 

These are the numbers that Fox was posting in February and March of last season when he won two Western Conference Player of the Week awards. 

Why is Fox suddenly so impactful? Fresh legs help, but so does a big man with a skillset like Sabonis. 

“Since he’s been here, he’s very straight and narrow,” Fox said. “He comes in, no B.S., you know what he’s about, you know what he’s going to do. And then obviously, he’s also a guy you can play through as well. That’s huge. That’s really big. I haven’t had anyone that I’ve been able to play with that we can do the things we can do with him and how versatile he is.”

The Kings haven’t had a center with passing skills like Sabonis since Chris Webber, Vlade Divac and Brad Miller. Gentry now has all kinds of offensive options and it feels like we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential of Fox and Sabonis.

There is also something sneaky about the pairing that the Kings are just starting to learn how to explore. 

“He commands so much attention, regardless if he has the ball or not,” Fox said. “And then with him being a lefty as well, it’s like, when we would play him, we didn’t want him to roll left. So now, when he got here, I said, ‘you can set screens for me to go right, because people want me to go right anyways, and you can go left’. But if teams are more focused on him, and they’re pushing me to go left, it’s making it easier for me. He just makes the game so much easier.”

Sabonis’ impact on Fox’s game happened almost immediately, but it has taken a little longer for Fox to figure out how to make life easy for his center.

It’s a process, but there is major room for growth. It should also be noted that Fox has a total of five points/assist double-doubles this season and four of those have come in the last 13 games. 

Sabonis is the best passing big that Fox has ever played alongside at both the college and professional level. But Fox is the fastest player that Sabonis has suited up next to and his ability to get into the lane and finish is an asset.

“I feel like I’m the best finishing-type guard that he’s played with,” Fox said. “Once I get in the lane, there’s usually ten eyes on me. Just being able to drop it off…I just want to make it as easy for him as possible, where he doesn’t have to always bang-bang-bang to get a bucket. Those ones where I’m going through the lane and everybody is looking, I’m dumping it off and he has a lay-up or an easy dunk, those are the plays I feel like, for one, help the team, but gets him going as well.”

This is a one-two punch that the Kings were lacking. Losing Haliburton in the trade was a major blow, but the pairing of Fox and Sabonis has the potential to be elite. They compliment each other in a different way and it seems to be working. 

In 11 games in a Kings uniform, Sabonis is averaging 17.4 points, 12.8 rebounds and 5.9 assists. His presence hasn’t equated to wins yet, but a lot of the Kings issues stem from guys missing shots, especially on the perimeter. The goal this summer will be for Kings general manager Monte McNair to add pieces around this duo to further unlock their potential. 

“If you need somebody to break down the defense, then me. If you want to play through the post, you’ve got Domas -- you can play through the elbow, he can bring it up,” Fox said. “There is so much stuff that you can do with a guy that strong and that versatile and that can pass the ball like that. He gets everybody easy shots and I feel like I’m able to get people easy shots as well.”

After another loss on Saturday night, the Kings chances of making a late run at the play-in tournament are all but gone. Sabonis missed the game due to personal reasons, but isn’t expected to miss much time.

Wins and losses won’t matter much down the stretch, but with so many new faces, this is an opportunity to build chemistry and maybe even some momentum for next year.

“You play out this season the way it’s supposed to be played,” Fox said. “You continue to play to try to win games. You go into the offseason and everybody stays connected, especially people who are still signed through next year. A lot of times, before teams are good, people come back early to continue to try to build chemistry and you hit the ground running.”

Fox is playing some of the best basketball of his career and he’s also stepped up in the leadership void that was left when Haliburton and Thompson left the team. Sabonis is also finding his voice and the Kings are playing a more competitive brand of basketball, even if it hasn’t equated to wins.

There is a newness to this group and an optimism that hasn’t been there for a while. It starts with Fox and Sabonis, but there is a lot of work ahead for this group. More pieces are needed, but the Kings have two pillars to start their build. If they make the right moves this offseason, this could be the start of something in Sacramento. 

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