This is a piece about De’Aaron Fox, about why he’s a much better bet to shoot the basketball than at first we might believe. And in that, about why we should remember Occam’s Razor when examining draft prospects.
The simplest explanation is almost invariably the correct explanation. What does that have to do with De’Aaron Fox? Well, perhaps quite a lot, once you look at his body.
Which is to say, he’s super skinny and not physically developed. Isn’t it possible, or to say even likely, that most of Fox’s issues on the basketball court come from a lack of strength?
By issues, of course, I mean Fox’s supposed inability to shoot and Fox’s occasional trouble with clearing screens. (Of course, it’s at least a little concerning that Riley LaChance got wherever he wanted to go in the 2nd half of the Vanderbilt game, no matter which Kentucky defender was covering him.)
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that De’Aaron Fox’s troubles on defense might also be caused in part by BBIQ, by a lack of awareness, which is at times also a question on the offensive end. Also, De’Aaron Fox’s decent, but not exceptional, length. (Most measurements say 6’6″ wingspan against a 6’3″ frame, though the most recent measurement is a bit shorter at 6’4.5″ and would be a small flag.)
However, I think most of the problems in Fox’s profile can be tied back to a lack strength. That we’d see marked improvements across the board on both sides if Fox were merely stronger. Dealing with traffic on defense. Finishing at the rim. Body control. And the inconsistency with his jumper as he moves out to the three-point line. All potentially improve if, or perhaps rather when, Fox improves his core, leg and upper body strength.
Since strength and conditioning are, without a doubt, the two aspects of a prospect’s game that we can most expect to improve upon entering the NBA. So if my hypothesis is correct and De’Aaron Fox’s inconsistent shooting and lack of depth on his shot stems from a lack of strength, we might reasonably expect his jumper to be more fixable than most. Which is why the smoothness of Fox’s form is important to notice, and also Fox’s confidence in it.
De’Aaron Fox, A Short Discussion on Defense
In this piece, I don’t want to deal too much with the defensive concerns. As I think it’s obvious the ways in which increased strength and experience will help Fox there.
It won’t solve the fact that his Wingspan isn’t freakishly wide as compared to his height, unlike some of his fellow Kentucky brethren Point Guards (Rajon Rondo, John Wall, Eric Bledsoe), but Fox is willing enough on that end, and good enough, that I think we can expect a fair amount of improvement as he gets older.
Which is to say, it’s easy to project De’Aaron Fox as a plus defender going forward. Not perhaps the true impact player on the perimeter that a guy like Josh Jackson or O.G. Anunoby might be, but somewhere between average to way above average.
De’Aaron Fox, A Discussion of Shooting and Strength
But I would like to talk about why I think Fox is a pretty decent bet to shoot a reasonable percentage from three and become perhaps more than that from the mid-range. So first, let’s look at how strength can affect shooting. Then let’s look at the numbers, and some examples of Fox shooting.
How does strength affect shooting? Let’s listen to Scott Kenney from USA Basketball:
“Strength and stability in your shot both come from your legs and core. Whether you are making a cut or bracing for your shot, keeping a low center of gravity improves your stability, responsiveness and overall agility. You’ll notice players who are fatigued coming into their jump shot are more upright with less bend in their knees and a less athletic stance. What follows is a slower release, since they can’t gain their balance as quickly, and the shot falling short, since they can’t generate the same amount of power. ”
And this is true, every great jump shot starts with a player’s legs and core. That’s where the power really comes from. However, arm strength is also important when it comes to maintaining repeatable and consistent mechanics. And with Fox, we see a general lack of physical development across his entire body.
In this case, that’s actually a good thing. After all, it’s the easiest and most likely aspect of a prospect’s game to improve. No matter how skinny the prospect is when he enters the league, we can expect him to add a meaningful amount of muscle.
De’Aaron Fox and What Kawhi Leonard Can Teach Us
Everyone who follows the NBA knows the story of Kawhi Leonard. Sub-30% Three-Point Shooter in college to a 37-38% guy in the NBA, basically overnight. And then to where he is now, a 40-45% guy from three as his team’s primary option. Perhaps almost as importantly, he’s a mid-range master, regularly shooting over 40 or 45% from all two-point areas, and sometimes even over 50% on deep Twos.
No sensible person would expect such an improvement from Fox. It’s just very rare for a guy who can’t shoot in college to place himself in the argument as the most complete scorer in the league. So what we’re looking at in Leonard is not the degree to which he improved, but if there was a foundation in place that made it possible for him to improve at all.
So let’s go to the master shot doctor, Chip Engelland, himself, with a quote from Jeff McDonald’s excellent series on Kawhi Leonard.
Chip Engelland: “I guess we can start from the beginning, before the draft. I walked into pre-draft camp, and Kawhi wasn’t scheduled to work out. He was getting tested. Some of the players will take a few shots, just because there are baskets there. I evaluate shooters for the draft. A lot of them, I have to watch on film. It’s nice when you get to watch it in person. I happened to walk in, and he happened to take shots literally right when I walked in. I got to see it in person. We all talked (as a staff). I felt his shot didn’t need a full makeover. With just a tune-up, he could become a very good shooter, if not great shooter.”
The key here is that Engelland says, “I felt [Leonard’s] shot didn’t need a full makeover. With just a tune-up, he could become a very good shooter, if not great shooter.”
Which is basically what we see with Fox. A form that looks functional and fluid. Very smooth. And watching him pull up in games, it’s obviously something Fox has great confidence in. Just watch these clips from last week’s Vanderbilt game. (Or better yet, watch the game, it features one of the greatest missed dunks of all-time as Malik Monk tries to cram on 7-foot Kornet, taking off from what looks like 10 feet away.)[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lG27R3AVTwg&w=560&h=315]
5 pull-up jumpers and one three-pointer off the catch, which was clean. And most of the pull-ups were from 14 to 18 to feet. (This is not the first time I’ve seen such shooting from Fox. Though it was by far the most consistent he’s been.)
So taking what we know visually with what Chip Engelland has said, we can at least guess that Fox has perhaps the kind of shot that might not need huge tweeks to make it a much more functional weapon in the NBA.
Though I would be remiss not to note that Engelland lays out a couple other points that were in Leonard’s favor. One, he was very receptive and wanted to learn, to improve. Two, he was and is a total gym rat. He’s willing to put in the work. Even after he’s tasted money, success and fame.
Those are questions that no one can yet answer about Fox with absolute certainty. And certainly not myself.
De’Aaron Fox, Josh Jackson and Shooting the Basketball: Some Numbers
Now let’s look at the numbers. Mid-range and three-point shooting data, comparing Fox’s shooting to some prospects from this class like Josh Jackson, Dennis Smith, Jr., Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac. As well as some players from the last few years for who we have shot data. (Thanks to hoop-math.com.) I’ve taken the liberty of color coding players who might be interesting reference points for each other.
Though please note, the older seasons might not be 100% acccurate due to hoop-math only containing percentages for these players, and what looks like perhaps not full seasons.
1) Before we get to De’Aaron Fox, I just want to point out the similarities between Jayson Tatum’s and Buddy Hield’s first season. Which is to say, I don’t know if Tatum will be that successful shooting this year. But I’d be more surprised than not if he doesn’t eventually find his shot from distance in the NBA. Right now, it’s the most intriguing part of his game.
2) Also, Markelle Fultz and Dennis Smith, Jr. They compare much better to each other than they do to anyone else on this list. While I haven’t loved Smith, Jr. this year, he does have a legitimately exciting scoring profile off-the-bounce from mid-range and three.
It’s not all that common for a Freshman, or indeed any legitimate prospect, to put up numbers like these. Even if Smith, Jr.’s percentages from the mid-range don’t look great, notice that he never gets any help. He’s shooting pull-ups all the time. Indeed, all of his makes from that range are unassisted. These are difficult shots and suppress overall percentages.
Which makes Markelle Fultz’s scoring profile even more exciting, since Fultz is way beyond Smith, Jr. Or anyone else in the class. It’s not the best scoring profile on record. Damian Lillard accompanied his great scoring off-the-bounce with great Free-Throw Percentages. But Fultz is also a Freshman and mid-60s Free Throw Percentages do often improve with repetition.
3) Now to the part of the discussion where we talk about Josh Jackson. Josh Jackson’s shooting numbers are bad. Very bad.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MFXgr-nUEv0&w=560&h=315]
The recent guys to whom he compares best? Elfrid Payton, Andre Miller, Jakarr Sampson, Rajon Rondo, and Tony Wroten. It’s just really difficult to be a productive offensive player in the league if your range doesn’t extend beyond 3-8 foot floater. With Rajon Rondo managing to do it as he lived at the rim for a few years and was an excellent passer. And Miller managing to do it because he was excellent at being a Pure Point Guard, while virtually never making offensive mistakes.
That’s basically the only pathway for a player with Jackson’s current skills. One that almost necessitates he play Point to bring value as a player going forward. And even then, in most best case scenarios, we’re talking about an Even to +2 player on that side of the ball. With virtually only Lebron James’ or Jason Kidd level-outliers getting beyond that consistently.
(Remember James was quite good in his early career, even when there was little reason to be threatened by his jump shot. Jason Kidd as well. These are really exceptions. For most players, being able to connect somewhere beyond 8 feet is important.)
4) I searched sub 60% Free Throw Percentage season and Sub 30% Three-Point Percentage seasons in the Sports-Reference database. That goes back to 1991. That’s 7,642 player-seasons. Thereabouts. Which is to say a lot.
Besides the players mentioned above who never learned how to shoot, we find some other similar NBA guys or borderline NBA guys who put up such a season and didn’t learn how to shoot an NBA jump shot. Mardy Collins, KJ McDaniels, Renaldo Balkman, JP Tokoto, Al Thornton, Eal Clark, Ish Smith, Jamison Brewer, Kenneth Faried and a whole slew of other Bigs who never learned to shoot. Those kinds of guys.
However, I did find a few perimeter players who put up a season like that, and later learned to shoot. Two bigs: Kelly Olynyk and Udonis Haslem, who was money out to 15 feet. Jackson’s gifts are such that even a solid jumper out to 15 feet would likely be enough for him to be a real deal offensive player in the NBA.
Then eight NBA perimeter guys:
Antawn Jamison, Jason Richardson, Brandon Roy, DeMarre Carroll, Matt Barnes, Tyler Johnson, Kent Bazemore, and Justin Holiday. With Victor Oladipo falling just above the boundaries his Freshman year.
5) Antawn Jamison, Jason Richardson, Brandon Roy, DeMarre Carroll, Matt Barnes, Tyler Johnson, Kent Bazemore,, Justin Holiday, Victor Oladipo, Udonis Haslem and Kelly Olynyk. That’s not so bad.
But the thing with this list, it actually makes the picture look much rosier than it perhaps is. The reason why? The problem of sample size.
Josh Jackson has already shot 35 3-point shots and 76 Free Throws in basically half a season. Victor Oladipo shot 26 3-pointers and 85 free throws his entire Freshman season. Tyler Johnson, 28 3-Pointers and 50 Free Throws. Jason Richardson, 27 three pointers and 42 three-point attempts. Brandon Roy, 10 three pointers and 37 free throws. Kelly Olynyk, 18 3-pointers and 37 free throws. Justin Holiday shot less than 40 shots in his Freshman and Sophomore seasons from these ranges combined.
So we probably aren’t talking about True Talent in these cases, but about variance.
6) Even in the case of guys like Haslem or Jamison, who shot 150+ Free Throws but less than 5 three-pointers, we might be talking more about the problem of range/depth on a jumper (Fox’s biggest issue) than broken form and confidence. (Jackson’s issue.)
I’ll consider Jamison moving forward, but not Haslem, since Haslem never truly extended his range.
7) That leaves us four players. Antawn Jamison, DeMarre Carroll, Matt Barnes and Kent Bazemore. You’d have a pretty good argument that they were True Talent 30% Three-Point Shooters, 60% Free Throw Guys. Or thereabouts. Since that’s right around the average for each player’s college career as a whole.
What are we talking about with these guys? Antawn Jamison was 28 before he had an even decent NBA 3-Pt shooting season. Carroll was 27 before he learned how to shoot. Barnes was 26 and wasn’t consistently decent until he was 31. Though he had alternating good and bad seasons, which would probably be enough for a player like Jackson to keep defenses honest. Bazemore was 25.
Both Carroll and Bazemore didn’t shoot until they were coached by Mike Budenholzer of Atlanta. Which seems an unlikely place for Jackson to end up. And these are the exceptions to the rule.
Most of the guys really are much more like J.P. Tokoto, whose currently 23 and yet to have any sort of breakthrough. Still shooting 30% in the NBADL.
When a player’s shooting numbers are worse than MCW’s, it’s difficult to be optimistic. Of course, it’s a long season and Jackson is a much better player in other ways than MCW, but there’s a reason MCW has had trouble sticking at every NBA destination, despite being a pretty decent defensive presence at his position.
8) Of course, we should remember small sample sizes. Even a single season of data is a small sample size, especially at such a young age, when players are most likely to improve. But the combination of data points should leave us concerned if this shooting holds up. Reasonable volume with bad results across all level.
The Free-Throw Percentages is perhaps the single data point that should be to us most concerning, since bad shooting from deep for a young player is not all that unusual. I’ll show you some examples when I talk of Fox, but 56% shooting from the Free-Throw line is rare.
9) Also, please remember that Jackson’s Mid-Range percentages (41.2% on decent volume) are heavily bolstered by being really good in that 3-8 foot area on floaters. That might make T.J. Warren a good comparable for a player, since he lived in that range at NC State. And while, T.J Warren has been very inconsistent with his jumper and a not very good offensive player overall, he’d arguably be good to excellent if he, like Jackson had real ability to pass the basketball.
10) Far enough that most prospect never get there, or are close to 30 by the time they do. That’s a big investment for a team to make, since they are almost certainly on the player’s 2nd contract, paying him Big Money and hoping he’s making progress by the time he’s really successful. Which is to say, Jackson is the kind of player we can expect the Hawks or Spurs to acquire after his first team grows wary of him.
The good thing about Jackson is he does everything else well, very well or exceptionally. So he’s a decent bet to stick in the league long enough to eventually learn how to shoot for some team.
11) If you’re wondering about Shawn Marion, to cite another shooter who had janky form, I found his percentages as Freshman at Vicennes JC. He was pretty much the same as he was as a junior at UNLV. 30% from three. 70% from the Free Throw line. The difference between 56.6% and 70-73% in this case is probably significant.
Jackson also reminds me a little of Marion in terms quick-twitch read-and-react ability. He’s probably not quite as quick-twitch as Marion, but the way Jackson blocks shots coming out of people’s hands is pretty unbelievable. And one of my favorite things about the college season.
Now Let’s Get Back to De’Aaron Fox
1) First, let’s talk about De’Aaron Fox and the problem of small sample sizes. A season of shooting data is a very small sample size. The first month or month and a half of a season even less so.
What’s happened since then? Fox has started making some mid-range jumpers off the bounce. Out to 18 feet. And his percentages have climbed into a territory that is more than acceptable at 34.7%. Especially considering his Free Throw Percentage is also in at 72.6%. Not great by any means, but decent. And the 35% mid-range number is excellent considering how often Fox shoots off the dribble.
Of course, we’ll have to see if these numbers hold up. And we’ll have to watch the mid-range shots to see that they are indeed jumpers. But that’s been the case to a great extent from what I’ve seen.
2) 88.5% of Fox’s mid-range makes are off-the-bounce. Some other notable players with mid-range season data right at 35% and equal or lesser burden. Damian Lillard, Isaiah Thomas, Jordan Clarkson, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson.
I’m not saying Fox is as good a shooter as these players. Or that he’ll ever be. I’m saying there’s legitimate reasons, considering Fox’s build and age, for hope of improvement. Who knows how much? Since how much is the question basically no one can answer, since its dependent not just on the player’s improvement but on his future role within his team’s offense.
3) As it is right now, it’s quite likely that Fox’s percentages from mid-range would be much better if he got to shoot easier shots off the catch more often. I’d guess 3-6%, depending on how, though it’s impossible to know for sure.
4) It’s also definitely important to remember we are only halfway through the season. There’s no guarantee his percentages will hold. But if they do, the number of mid-range makes that De’Aaron Fox will have on the season will certainly be impressive.
That is to say, De’Aaron Fox is on track to have as many unassisted makes in a season as Kawhi Leonard had when he was a sophomore. And he already has as many unassisted makes in just half a season than Justise Winslow did in an entire season.
5) For instance, if Winslow had Fox’s role in an offense, his three-point percentage probably looks somewhat similar to the one we see Fox carrying now. Almost definitely sub 25% from three, since he was 25% on shorter mid-range shots off the dribble.
6) There is of course the question of De’Aaron Fox’s three-point percentage. 12.5% is ugly. However, it’s really not that unusual for Freshman to struggle from deep, shooting sub 20-25% percentages, and few of them shoot as many off-the-dribble shots as Fox.
Here are some examples of bad Freshman Three-Point Shooting Seasons:
I’ve included Josh Jackson and some positive comparisons as well, though please remember they were very difficult to find. Whereas Fox comparisons that shed positive light on Fox’s numbers were relatively easy. At least compared to Jackson.
The reason being, Freshman, for a variety of reasons, often aren’t very good at three-point shooting and free-throw numbers are much more reliable.
5) Indeed, it’s also not that hard to find similar sophomore and junior seasons. And I included just a few, like those of Draymond Green, Grant Hill or Meyers Leonard.
6) Of course, I also included some players who didn’t work out. Prospects like this are by no means a lock. They are a mystery box. However, I do think it would be helpful to remind yourself of Grant Hill, who was money out to 18 feet his Freshman through junior year, but was not comfortable to stretch his distance out to the college Three.
Also, DeMar DeRozan. The reason being, Fox with even a mid-range jumper is an incredibly dangerous offensive player. Think about how good DeRozan has been recently. Now add better passing ability, better ability to get to the rim and better understanding of offensive principles.
If there’s defensive value to go along with that offensive player, you are talking about a perennial Top 15 guy. And a guy it really isn’t anymore difficult to build around than any other player not named Lebron.
7) The problem with the discussion of whom to build around is that you don’t really have to go farther than these three questions:
- Is the player a Top 3 player?
- Will he ever be a Top 3 player?
- Was he ever a Top 3 player, who is perhaps capable of recalling that level during the Playoffs?
If not, you are shit out of luck. It’s going to be difficult to build a legitimate championship contender around that player. No team has won without a guy playing at that level since probably the 70s. And then you are talking about the real teams. Teams like the 78-79 Sonics. Five good to great guys playing together as a unit.
It’s almost impossible to build those teams now because of the salary cap. And the two teams that resemble such a unit, Golden State and San Antonio, both have at least one true Superstar. The kind of guy who gets at least one, “Yes” answer to a question above.
So it would be impossible to test the synopsis if a true team can beat a couple of stars and some other guys. I think the answer is, “Yes”, and Lonzo Ball might even one day help us test the hypothesis. But it’s possible we won’t see such teams again as long as there is a salary cap in the NBA.
Note, I’m not talking about teams that play well together. I’m talking about teams that are legitimately competitive for NBA championships without one or two true Superstars players. It takes a lot of unique factors to make such a team. And with the salary cap, it becomes very hard to keep them together.
8) No, the Early-Oughts Pistons don’t qualify. Ben Wallace was a superstar.
9) I know uncertainty is difficult. But it’s really best to think of Fox, with respect to shooting the basketball, as an uncertainty or mystery box prospect.
He’s so far ahead of all the non-shooters he gets compared to. Rajon Rondo was not only afraid to shoot and had much poorer results. John Wall’s form wasn’t nearly as smooth or as his clean, and despite better results from three, I’d be willing to place money Fox, at least to this point in the season, is better on jumpers in the mid-range.
We don’t have John Wall’s numbers. But we can see two-point percentages, where John Wall was 51% in his lone season at Kentucky, whereas De’Aaron Fox is currently at 53%. This despite John Wall being fucking magic in the open court and around the rim.
Fox is good around the rim (67%), but he’s likely not as good as John Wall was, so what is making up the discrepancy? Fox happens to be pretty good in the mid-range.
10) I would never say the three-point numbers aren’t disturbing. However, I think it’s pretty clear they aren’t abnormal for a Freshman, and that a great number of Freshman with other NBA talents put up such three-point numbers early in their college career and learn to shoot quite proficiently. Some of them even become great.
If strength is the main issue with the jumper, I will say you would expect it to manifest more and more as the player traveled further and further away from the rim.
11) The same might even be said, in a few cases for Josh Jackson’s Free-Throw numbers. Ron Artest wasn’t good. Lowry, in very low attempts, wasn’t all that great. The guys I named above.
But what is very rare, is the combination of 3-Point and FT futility, followed by later NBA success. And when it does, it often takes years.
12) One, at least slightly good piece of information for both players is how often they generate their own looks:
This is a good sign for both players. At the very least, we can assume the shots they are making, especially from mid-range, have some level of difficulty. And that’s always an important factor to keep in mind.
And, yes, at least as of now, Markelle Fultz, for a Freshman, is pretty fucking amazing.
13) Fox’s profile isn’t 100% clean. There are questions, but his play on the court has been so much better than Dennis Smith Jr.’s so far. Even in games when Smith Jr. puts up good numbers, like Virginia Tech, he’s looked bad when matched up against real athletes. The kinds of guys he’s going to see in the NBA.
And while I like Smith, Jr. (and loved watching him play the few times I saw him during summer events in high school) every single skill that a player like Lonzo Ball needs to add to win on-the-ball is something that Smith, Jr. is going to need to add as well.
There’s just a difference between vertical and side-to-side athleticism with the ball in one’s hands. And right now, Smith, Jr. is not great side-to-side and not nearly good enough to win versus the better athletes at the NBA level. He’s going to need to learn to change speeds, to take angles, etc . . . in order to win against such guys. Lonzo Ball as well.
Fox is already there. His speed with the ball in his hands burns just about everyone. If he has even a mid-range jumper, it’s highly likely he’s going to be a very productive offensive player. And though it’s uncertain, there’s real promise that the jumper will extend to at least 15-18 feet.
14) Note, this is not an argument for Fox over Ball. Nor over Jackson. Though both Lonzo Ball and Josh Jackson are going to be context dependent in terms of their success or failure. What team do they go to and what that team tries to do with them will have a great affect on their future beating.
15) It is an argument against the supposedly big gap between Smith, Jr. and Fox. Given that Smith, Jr. seems pretty likely to be a net negative on defense, and Fox is likely to be a net positive on that side of the ball, they seem like pretty comparable prospects.
Of course, we’ll have to see how they finish the season. Will Fox continue making Free-Throws and mid-range jumpers? Will Smith, Jr. up his play as the season goes on? That certainly happened for Derrick Rose. It’s possible. It’s a long season.
However, up to this point, I’d rather have Fox.