Abe Beame got a three-point jumper that’ll put you in The Bad Place.
There are many skills in the NBA that improve with age. Look at our lord and savior LeBron, by most metrics, the best player in the league this season at the mind shattering age of 36. He’s stronger, better at the rim, better beyond the arc, better on D when he locks in, and crucially, he’s a smarter player than he was in his mid-to-late 20s, when most terrestrial beings achieve their physical peaks. But with modern medicine, tech, and the things we know about exercise and conditioning, even the non-Gods have ways to improve their games between their late 20s and 30s. You can lift weights and get stronger, spend nights in the gym to improve your shot, work on your legs to increase your vertical, watch hours of film to learn tendencies, both your own and your opponents, and become a more educated and controlled player.
But, quickness. Speed is both a knowable and unknowable quality. A kind of kabbalah in the league and one of the very few things it’s difficult to harness. Ostensibly, we know where speed comes from. Fast and slow twitch muscle fibers are what muscles are composed of. Slow twitch muscle fibers are important for sustained use. We rely on them to stand, to run for long periods of time, they feed off oxygen and can be replenished.
But fast twitch muscle fibers are anaerobic. Like speed itself, it’s a resource that is quickly sapped for most. It’s where power comes from, things that require a fast response time. There are things you can do to develop and sustain fast twitch muscle fibers. Any number of health magazines, runner blogs, and track and field gurus will tell you: do exercises that require bursts of intense effort and energy, like heavy squats, burpees, or wind sprints. But the truth is, elite quickness is innate. There are things that the blessed can do to develop their kinetic burst, but at a certain level, you either have it, or you don’t.
What’s more is as we age, we lose muscle mass in general, but we begin to convert fast twitch muscle fiber to slow twitch. We get slower. All this is a very dry and scientific way of trying to explain why it is so important, today, or tomorrow, or the next time the Sacramento Kings play, to enjoy 23 year old phenom point guard, and the most accurately named man in professional sports, De’Aaron Martez Fox. He is, at the moment, the quickest player in the NBA (which by extension, makes him one of the quickest human beings on Earth), potentially the quickest player who has ever played in the NBA, and because of the nature of quickness itself, when you watch him in his next game, it may be as quick as he’ll ever be.
Before the nerds jump in here, when we talk about quickness we’re not talking about top end speed. Fox is also very fast in this respect, but there are faster American athletes. However, ESPN once did me a huge favor and brought then Kentucky Freshman De’Aaron Fox to a novelty, between-Sportscenters show called Sports Science to clock his speed using a bunch of high end tech. Here’s some stats:
- It takes Fox 1.3 seconds to run from a standstill at the three point line to baseline (15% faster than Kyrie Irving running the same drill)
- It takes him 1.07 seconds to get from half court to the free throw line
- His top end in game speed is 17 miles an hour. The fastest NFL players of all time, the fastest running backs who have ever played professional football, top end at 19 mph running their 40s in combines, and they aren’t dribbling.
- His hands are faster than a professional fighters’
In a league full of physical marvels capable of accomplishing incredible feats, Fox is perhaps the most impressive. Even as a finally filled out version of the scrawny flash with a mop of hair he came into the league as, he’s still slight, at a generously listed 6’3 and 185. His first step acceleration, the way he can seamlessly down shift from standstill following a basketball move to sprint speed, is so incredibly fast he could lose a fabled step and still beat most if not every perimeter defender in the league to a spot.
He has Harden levels of body control. He can stop as abruptly as he starts, and completely change directions after feinting in the opposite direction, without sacrificing balance or control. His pull up dribble rhymes with the great Chris Paul’s iconic lunge. Fox does not have Paul’s once in a generation vision, but the good news is with his ability to invent space, he makes what should be a difficult pass look easy via his ability to get wherever he wants unhindered, particularly when you consider the presence of his elite young floor spacing defensive zone crisis, Buddy Hield. Even without Paul’s mutant precog abilities, he’s several times the athlete the Point God was when he was the same age.
He plays with a surreal fluidity. A sprint into a stop into a fake into a spin into a step back, or cross, or abrupt pull up, all happens at a relentless speed that leaves a defender, literally any defender, on his heels and guessing wrong. Fox can switch hands, swivel his hips and be past you before have an opportunity to react. This is why his hot knife drives to the basket highlights have a kind of doctored, deep fake quality, it’s like he’s maneuvering around stanchions in a drill. And even when he doesn’t leave defenders flat footed, he can take contact as if he took no contact. Out muscled and outweighed by almost everyone on the floor, he absorbs force and redirects without the same force of gravity on his leap that applies to the rest of us.
Oh, and did I mention he has insane, trampoline bounce? He can dunk effortlessly, and scarily off either foot. A lot is made of what sports LeBron also would have dominated. I watch Fox’s hands, his feet, his incredible self possession, and wonder: What sport couldn’t he dominate? I am personally of the opinion that he may be the greatest pure athlete in the NBA. Fox does everything fast. He’s an elite ping pong player. He’s one of the league’s most vocal and visible gamers, which makes sense. He plays basketball with the reflexes and dexterity of a 12 year old South Korean esports superstar.
(And just for fun, here’s another clip I found of Fox testing his hand speed against Lakers point guard Dennis Schroeder.)
In an attempt to get my arms around Fox’s prodigious talents, I spoke to Chris Gaston, the Houston basketball legend and Fox’s trainer from the age of 13, turned the CEO of Family First Sports Firm, and Fox’s agent today, who may know Fox as a player better than anyone on Earth. What struck Gaston immediately wasn’t the speed Fox’s hands or feet, but his mind. “When I first saw him at 13, when he came and played in my AAU program, what blew me away was not, he wasn’t super fast, he wasn’t super athletic, he was a small scrawny kid; he was really cerebral; his IQ was off the charts for someone in the eighth grade playing with juniors and seniors in high school. He knew where to be, he knew to make the right reads, he knew where to be for help side defense, he understood the angles. His feel for the game is what first blew me away.”
And you feel this in his game. He’s a great chess player. Almost every point guard has the job of organizing their team’s offense, but there are few in the league that have their entire offense on a string the way Fox does. His decision making is as quick as his feet, which along with his speed, puts incredible pressure on opposing defenses. No response time is fast enough, no space small enough. A driving lane that would be closed for most other players becomes the section of the Turnpike above exit 13.
As the Kerr Warriors and D’Antoni Rockets have shown us, there’s nothing more dangerous on the court than an offense that negotiates structure and freedom around their sets when you have a general who can think through his possessions. Fox is that, one the smartest young ball handlers in the league. He doesn’t play so much as he conducts. Watching him ruthlessly manipulate defenses into submission over and over again is one of the most joyful experiences the league has on offer at the moment.
Here’s a clip of Fox against the Magic from a few weeks ago, running a brake and walking up the side of Nikola Vucevic:
I tried to get an impression for how you could theoretically build speed like that. What drills can, oh I don’t know, let’s say a certain rookie point guard currently splitting minutes with Elfrid fucking Payton can do to attain Fox’s brand of electric athleticism. Gaston quickly dumped a bucket of water on the notion that a regiment of drills and exercise can solve the problem. “He definitely worked hard in the weight room, but that type of speed is genetics. That’s natural ability, that type of speed. You can’t teach that type of speed. You can work on quick twitch, you can get on the vertimax, you can improve your athleticism, but what he has is a gift from God.”
It’s the height of irony that De’Aaron hails from the city of Houston, Texas, a city known, perhaps for nothing more, than slowing things down. The historic courts have been home to legions of ballers, from the captain who makes love to pressure, to perhaps the city’s proudest son, who graduated from Houston’s University and eventually won a ring as a Rocket, Clyde Drexler. But Fox is the city’s highest drafted player ever. He is in elite company, a hair older than Jayson Tatum and alongside Brandon Ingram, Jamal Murray, and Bam Adebayo as the youngest max extension player in the league. He grew up watching tape, and patterning his game after similarly lightning quick freaks like John Wall, Russell Westbrook, and Derrick Rose. There is a strong possibility that he will eventually surpass all three.
This is because De’Aaron has next level drive. He’s brilliant and affable, a curious and generous interview subject, but don’t get it twisted. I fell in love with De’Aaron’s game when he played a marquee matchup, Kentucky vs. UCLA, in college. He was going against Lonzo Ball, the point guard ranked, hyped, and eventually drafted in front of him. This game was the same game that convinced legendary former Kings GM Vlade Divac that Fox was his man, which means Vlade and I have the same taste in players and all around basketball IQ. Here’s what happened:
Fox worked with Gaston on adding an off the bounce three to his game this off season, which should possibly be against the rules as it flies in the face of fair competition. If you can’t go under on Fox, and you can’t stay in front of him (no one can), you can begin to imagine the nightmare he presents for opposing defenses. He’s the King of Early Action. What’s remarkable about Fox is he can make a half court set feel like a foot race with numbers in transition. He’s a walking, gliding human mismatch. It is impossible to be in place and set with Fox in front of you.
So let’s talk about the one glaring weakness in his game, the free throws. It makes no sense that a shooter as adept as Fox hovers around 70% from the stripe. The King’s announcing team of Mark Jones and Doug Christie monitor his success from the line night in and night out like parents concerned that their bright and capable son hasn’t gotten to the work of writing his college admission essay the week of the deadline. The free throw shooting is fascinating because according to Gaston, the culprit is the very thing that makes Fox special:
“It’s not form, it’s just a matter of concentration. He can’t do one thing at one time. If he was on this Zoom call right now he’d be texting somebody, emailing, playing a video game, and reading a book, listening to music, and doing all of them equally well at the same time. It’s just the way his brain works. So free throws, it’s like, everything stops, you’re doing that one thing. It’s just a matter of getting to the free throw line and blocking out everything and locking in.” His challenge going forward, will be quieting his voracious mind long enough to sink what is, in theory, basketball’s easiest shot.
Right now, the Kings’ offense is a far cry from what Zach Lowe described, in his 2019 snapshot of a then ascendant squad, as former coach Dave Joeger’s “egalitarian system of cuts and screens.” There is a basic initial motion, perhaps a reset hand off that quickly goes back to De’Aaron in something that barely constitutes as a switch, then Fox pounds the ball for the majority of every possession, with all the weight of the offense on him to shoot, create or simply choose a matchup for another limited Kings player to attempt to beat his man, while the other guys stand around.
For many years, the Warriors had the easiest to scout and hardest to stop team in the NBA, because they didn’t run a ton of tricky motion. It was a group of the smartest and most skilled players on the planet moving and improvising. Luke Walton, who once coached under Steve Kerr, does not seem to realize this team needs a touch more direction. It’s a testament to De’Aaron that in spite of this, it’s been enough for the recently scorching hot team. Fox is David Fincher on set, currently (with help from a heating up cast of characters including Buddy, Marvin Bagley, sigh, Tyrese Halliburton, and……..Harrison Barnes??!!) he IS the Kings’ offense. A level up you could describe as astonishing if it wasn’t so predictable.
The other night I was rewatching a flawed but compelling showcase of several of the league’s bright young players, the Kings Pelicans game, on January 17th. The first play involved the King’s standard series of lazy handoffs that started with Fox and wound up with a reset, the ball back in his hands at mid court, left with a half court zone to dissect, with all the attention on him.
With 12 seconds on the shot clock, Fox crosses a truly great perimeter defender, Eric Bledsoe, at the top of the key, leaving him in his shoes. From there, it’s Zion Williamson’s job, marking Marvin Bagley III towards the top of the key, to shift over and cut off Fox on help. And he tries to, seeing his 2019-2020 second team All Defense guard transformed to a pillar of salt as Fox makes his initial move toward the rim.
Williamson sees immediately he can’t get to his mark laterally, so he tries to cut the downhill moving Fox off at the nail, as both Steven Adams and Brandon Ingram collapse on the baseline from opposite blocks, attempting to prevent this man, in some cases nearly a foot shorter and *allegedly* 50 pounds lighter, from an easy lay up.
And at least Adams and Williamson do their job, converging at the choke point where they should easily be able to dissuade his shot, or at least send him to the floor forcefully and make him earn both points at the stripe. But they had been split by a streaking purple blur, and by the time they arrived at the place that would have allowed them to put a body on him, De’Aaron Fox was gone.