De'Aaron Fox has almost every quality NBA scouts covet in a point guard prospect. Standing slightly over six-foot-three and blessed with a six-foot-six wingspan, the Kentucky freshman has good size for the position. Athletically, he checks the elite boxes: speed, tremendous lateral quickness, and a near-40-inch vertical leap.
On the floor, Fox is an elite playmaker in transition. His 30.6 assist rate is solid for a guard with few shooters surrounding him, and his 13.6 turnover rate is exceedingly low given that the Wildcats often play with a crowded paint. Ask Fox to score, and he's terrific in the midrange—his sweet, left-handed floater has him sitting in the Synergy 97th percentile for shots that are classified as "runners." He finishes well in traffic, too, placing third among top-100 draft prospect guards in half-court field-goal percentage at the rim at 64.9.
Defensively, few freshman guards force turnovers and relish disrupting opposing ball-handlers at the point of attack like Fox. So given all of the preceding, why is he seemingly the consensus fourth option among college point guards in the upcoming 2017 NBA draft?
One reason: a questionable jump shot.
Even with a small sample size, the numbers tell the story. Fox is eight-for-48 from three-point range this season, good for just 16.7 percent. Out of 2,032 Division I basketball players to take at least 25 catch-and-shoot jumpers this season, Fox currently ranks second-to-last, with an effective field-goal percentage of 13.8. He isn't much better off the dribble, ranking in the 13th percentile nationally with a 24.5 effective field-goal percentage.
On draft night, front offices considering Fox will be confronted with a pair of related questions. One, can a team build a top offense in the modern NBA around a starting point guard who can't shoot? Two, is Fox's jumper totally broken and unfixable?
Let's tackle the second question first. VICE Sports talked to four NBA executives about Fox's jump shot. None of them believed it was nearly as bad as the percentages indicate. Two said they think Fox can work his way into becoming a league-average three-point shooter; the other two doubted he would improve beyond shooting 30-32 percent from behind the arc, which is still much better than his college performance.
Keep in mind, NBA scouts tend to be more bullish about the shot-fixing potential of players they like for other reasons. Still, there's reason to believe that Fox can get a whole lot better. The pro-Fox executives point out his touch is actually pretty good, as seen on floaters and the fact that Fox is shooting a non-catastrophic 73 percent from the foul line.
When he shoots, Fox gets good elevation, has fine balance, puts arc on the ball, and doesn't lack confidence. His biggest problem is mechanical: the upper half of his body has too much motion going on, and much of that is inconsistent.
"[His shot] needs a lot of work," said an executive. "He constantly changes his release point. There's a lot going on in that motion, including a thing where sometimes he brings the ball back to the left side of his head. Someone's just gotta help him get it to consistent."
A NBA scout believes that Fox's lack of physical strength—he's currently a skinny 180-185 pounds—makes it hard for him to shoot with repeatable form. "With him, often his shot depends on how much of his legs he gets into it," the scout said. "If you don't have really strong upper body, you have to get your legs in the shot in the right way. If not, you're going to overcompensate. I think that's what he's doing. He'll be helped a lot just by filling out and getting stronger."
With a lot of practice and hard work in the weight room—likely over multiple summers—people around the league are confident Fox can become at least a semi-respectable shooter. Kyle Lowry shot 23 percent from behind the arc as a Villanova freshman, and just 26 percent in his first four years in the NBA; he has since become a 38 percent three-point shooter over his last four years, peaking this season at a deadly 42 percent. Mike Conley and Jrue Holiday also struggled from distance as college freshmen, only to become good shooters as mature pros.
Of course, for every NBA point guard who has managed to transform his shot, there's one who hasn't. Think Ricky Rubio, Elfrid Payton, Rajon Rondo, or Michael Carter-Williams. Shot projection is hardly an exact science. Much depends on the team situation and shooting coach a prospect ends up with. For Fox, the arc of his jumper's development—more like Lowry, or more like Payton?—will have an outsized impact on both his NBA potential and the fate of the team that drafts him.
When the mechanics need refining. Photo by Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports
In today's NBA, it's awfully difficult for poor-shooting point guards to lead top-tier offenses. Ball-handlers who are pull-up shooting threats have tremendous value: they put pressure on defenses to play tighter, open up driving lanes and cutting space for teammates, and make high-pick-and-rolls—the bread-and-butter action of modern basketball—far more dangerous. Just as having great spot-up shooters who force defenders to stay home can open up space for elite point guards to attack the rim, having a point guard who can pull up (think Steph Curry) creates gravity that gives his teammates more room to operate.
By contrast, a non-shooting lead ballhandler limits spacing, and forces general managers into finding other players who can provide it. That's not fatal, but it makes team construction more difficult and less flexible. Consider the Washington Wizards, who feature another so-so shooting Kentucky product at point guard, John Wall. Wall is an elite talent and four-time All-Star, yet Washington's offense has sputtered until this season. That's not really Wall's fault; he long has been among the NBA's leaders in points created per game. However, his lack of shooting ability created unique challenges that the Wizards have struggled to build around.
During Wall's first six years in the league, Washington's average offensive rating sat in the league's bottom third, and never once finished in the top half of the NBA. Much of this had to do with a clogged offense that chucked long two-pointers with reckless abandon, limiting space for Wall to operate, and also hit three-pointers at a slightly below average rate.
This season, things are different. Sweet-shooting Bradley Beal has increased his shooting volume while maintaining his efficiency; Otto Porter is leading the NBA in three-point percentage; Markieff Morris is a threat from outside; and center Marcin Gortat's screen-setting and roll ability gives him his own gravity. Meanwhile, Wall isn't a great shooter, but he's respectable enough that surrounding him with better shooters works. The Wizards are ninth in offense, and everyone has enough space to operate.
When you get by with a little help from your friends. Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Fox is extremely fast, but he doesn't possess Wall's transcendent quickness and end-to-end speed. Still, a Washington-like situation might be his best-bet NBA future. Creating that sort of lineup isn't easy. It took the Wizards seven years to find the right mix of complementary shooting (and two-way play) from other positions, which limited their options. Most general managers don't have that long to figure things out. A team thinking about Fox will have to consider its own timeline, and whether it can realistically acquire the right pieces in a league where shooting has never been at more of a financial premium.
Fox doesn't have to live up to Wall to have a successful career. He doesn't even have to improve like Lowry. Any team that selects him will be thrilled if he simply develops into an above-average starting point guard. Thanks to his myriad non-shooting skills, his floor is relatively high. A player who can get out in transition, avoid turnovers, make plays for teammates, and play relentless defense will always have a place in the NBA.
If Fox wants to be special, however, his jump shot will make the difference. The league already knows there's work to be done. How well can he do it?
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