De'Aaron Fox is driving the Sacramento Kings

After an up-and-down rookie season (albeit with a much-improved second half of the season), De'Aaron Fox has been the main reason behind the shocking 5-3 start from the Sacramento Kings.

De'Aaron Fox was the point guard of the future for the Sacramento Kings from the moment that he was drafted last season, but you might not have been able to tell by watching their style of play. The Kings took the speedster with the fifth pick in 2017, and proceeded to play at the league's slowest pace with Zach Randolph as one of the offensive centerpieces. Given the complete incongruence of playing styles and Dave Joerger's insistence on starting George Hill, it was almost unsurprising that De'Aaron disappointed as a rookie.

After taking Marvin Bagley III with the second pick of the 2018 draft, and with the much-anticipated return of Harry Giles following his season of rest, the focus appeared to have shifted from their young lead guard to the team's dramatic over-abundance of young big men.

Neither Giles nor Bagley, however, has been the story of the new season in Sacramento. De'Aaron Fox has built on his solid finish to last season with a blisteringly hot start for the totally revamped Kings, averaging 17.5 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 6.9 assists per game to go along with 1.5 steals per contest while shooting 48.1% from the floor.

Every new season comes with plenty of small sample size theater, and Fox's hot start could be one of them. However, the nature of his improvements from last season and the team's apparent change in offensive philosophy show that De'Aaron Fox will make a leap in his sophomore season that may cement his place as the face of the franchise.

Offense: Finishing through contact

Fox is too skinny at this point in his career. This is an obvious flaw, but nonetheless is still one worth noting. Although he is too skinny right now, he was even skinnier last season. Sometimes pointing out the simplest flaw might not seem particularly insightful, but it's the simplest one to see for a reason.

Last season, Fox's lack of size significantly hampered his ability to finish around the basket. He shot a below-average 56.2% from five feet and in per, and the eye test matched those numbers--he would frequently get clobbered on his way to the rim and struggled to finish through that contact. De'Aaron is shooting 67.6% around the rim this season through eight games, a marked improvement from the year before. That increased strength doesn't just benefit his own scoring numbers--he is driving to the rim more often and creating space for his teammates as defenses collapse around him. He has used his first offseason in an NBA weight program to get to the point where he can finish around contact instead of shying away from opposing bigs:

The biggest difference in his game, however, comes from the Kings fixing their pace problems from last season. Sacramento finished the 2017-18 season as the slowest team in the league, a ludicrous mark for a team whose point guard of the future might be the fastest player in the NBA. Fox averaged 0.979 points on 240 transition possessions last year, which ranked in the 26th percentile league-wide per Synergy Sports. The Kings did not give many minutes last season to players who could keep up with De'Aaron in transition, so he often had to try to score on his own on the fast break.

This season has been a stunning reversal for the Kings offensively and is a huge factor in why the team is shockingly at 5-3 through the first eight games of the season. The Kings rank second in pace so far this season, and Willie Cauley-Stein and Marvin Bagley have been incredible in transition as rim-running bigs. The star of the show in transition, however, has been De'Aaron Fox. He is averaging 1.364 points per possession in transition on an increased volume of transition possessions per Synergy (through seven games), a mark that would rank in the 78th percentile league-wide. Even if those numbers regress as the season goes on, the eye test confirms his increased prowess on the break--he is more confident when he turns on the jets this season, and nobody can keep up with him once he gets going:

De'Aaron Fox's greatest weapon is his arguably unparalleled foot speed, and yet the Kings refused to take advantage of that last season. With some of the slower veterans (read: Zach Randolph) being removed from the lineup, Fox gets to show off his afterburners far more often--and the team is doing much better as a result of that increased tempo.

Defense: Learning the game

De'Aaron Fox's time in the weight room over the summer is more obvious on the offensive end, but it has helped him on the defensive end as well. That being said, Fox's next-level speed was always going to play a bigger role in his defensive success than any other physical tool. The mental aspects of defense were always going to be the limiting factor for De'Aaron.

With that in mind, the results from this young season are certainly encouraging. He has been a menace in pick-and-roll coverage to start the season, allowing just 0.541 points per possession in those situations per Synergy--in the 94th percentile league-wide. The small sample size of the early season might be playing a role in that, but Fox's increased ability to fight through screens this season has also been critical to that early success.

In addition to his improved pick-and-roll defense, Fox has done a much better job of swiping steals this season. His steal percentage was in the 39th percentile among point guards last year per Cleaning the Glass, but that mark had climbed into the 79th percentile through seven games this season. Fox's increased steal rate leads to better and more frequent transition opportunities as well, and he is taking full advantage of his increased freedom to get in foot races with opponents that he will pretty much always win.

Future Outlook: The next Sacramento All-Star?

De'Aaron Fox is not the only reason that the Sacramento Kings are out to a fast start. Willie Cauley-Stein has started to truly live up to his potential with a spectacular start to the season, and Marvin Bagley has looked far more NBA-ready than many had anticipated to start the season (in a 2018 rookie class with a stellar-looking top half of the lottery in the early going this season). Still, the leap that the team's second-year point guard has taken so far has outshone both of them.

That becomes clear when looking at the team's Net Rating with and without Fox on the floor. The Kings are outscoring opponents by 11.4 points per 100 possessions with De'Aaron on the floor through the first seven games, and are being outscored by a staggering 28.9 points per 100 possessions during his brief time on the bench. While the small sample size and Frank Mason's awful start to the season both contribute to those numbers, it is still an obvious sign of how vital Fox has been to the Kings' unexpected start.

The first few weeks of the NBA season are ripe with overzealous takes. At this point in the season last year, the Orlando Magic and Memphis Grizzlies were the hot stories atop their respective conferences--and both teams ended up in the top half of the lottery. DeMar DeRozan was suddenly a long-range sniper, and the Boston Celtics were almost written off after losing Gordon Hayward and their first two games.

De'Aaron Fox may well regress in the weeks to come. After all, any hot start from a player comes with the risk of them falling back to the pack. However, the nature of Fox's success to start the season looks much more like sustainable growth than a fluky first few games. The Sacramento Kings have been better than expected to start the season, and De'Aaron Fox has been the driving force behind that. In a development year for a young team, the growth of the team's most unique and irreplaceable player makes it easy to see a bright future for this decade's most beleaguered franchise.

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