De’Aaron Fox Speed & Reactions Make Him A Consistent Defensive Force

(Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
(Photo by David Berding/Getty Images) /

De’Aaron Fox is beginning to cement himself as an elite off-ball defender with the use of his superb basketball IQ and off-the-chart athletic abilities.

“Offense wins games, defense wins championships.” Nearly everyone even somewhat involved with or educated in basketball knows this legendary quote by 11-time NBA Champion Phil Jackson. With the Sacramento Kings having missed the playoffs every year for 13 seasons, most fans would be content with just winning games rather than dreaming of championships. But defense is where teams and players can find consistency.

Some nights the shots simply won’t find the bottom of the net, but the defensive end is less reliant on chance. The 2019-20 Kings have had promising stretches on the defensive end at times, and Luke Walton has been transparent that that side of the ball is a focal point. While defense is a team effort, it requires an arsenal of capable and high-IQ individuals in order to be successful. Sacramento’s arsenal is far from full of weapons currently, but there is one sitting in there brightly polished and top-of-the-line.

To lead, let’s explain what goes into playing defense. Reading, reacting, countering, countering their counter, countering their counter to your counter, and so on. This is valid when operating both on and off the ball.

Different Defense For Different Tendencies

On-ball defense is heavily reliant on physical capabilities — lateral quickness, wingspan, height — but I.Q. will perpetually be a factor. Furthermore, understanding the scouting report is crucial.

For example, even though Damian Lillard is right-handed, most teams will coach their players to sit on his left side since he is more comfortable as a pull-up shooter rather than driving and it’s more natural to rise into a shooting form if the ball is in an offensive player’s off-hand. The proof is in the pudding — Lillard shoots 42.9% on pull-up jumpers this season when going left compared to 33.3% when pushed right, per Synergy.

Lou Williams is another representation of player tendencies that are unquestionably instructed to players via the scouting report. Per Synergy, 76.7% of the time that Williams is driving left he resorts to pulling-up off the dribble, and 74.2% of the time he’s directed right he gets downhill and attempts either a floater or at the rim. Elite defensive players all have this in the back of their minds as they are locked in on defending the best of the best.

The difficulty of remembering and effectively using this information during live-action should not be understated and that is why even though every NBA player is educated on this, only a few can take advantage of that knowledge in real-time.

Off-Ball Defense

As for off-ball defense, all of the aforementioned tendencies factor in, but a player’s defensive-IQ, awareness, and understanding of rotations are on full display. Rotations are everything, and I mean everything.

Say Joel Embiid is posting up and a double team is necessary. De’Aaron Fox is the initial help defender, but who then becomes responsible for the man that Fox was guarding? Who is to be held accountable for the player that defender then rotates off of? How much should I be sagging off of my man? Should I be in denial, sagging off of a non-threat, or laser-focused on the Kyle Korver or J.J. Redick level shooter I am matched up against?

Stay between your man and the basket. Never allow the ball-handler to drive toward the middle. If your man is one pass away, you are to be in denial. Two passes require roughly one foot in the paint. Guarding the far weak side deems you responsible for protecting the rim. One eye on the ball, and one on your man — you will often see defenders pointing one hand at both. There are countless fundamental rules, but every rule has its asterisks and exceptions and the elite understand when the stray from these fundamentals.

Off-ball defense is a slew of questions stemming from the information you can gather with minimal time to answer. This can be visibly overwhelming for some players leading to inexcusable defensive lapses — take a guess now which King I have in mind — but there players such as Robert Covington, Jayson Tatum, and Kris Dunn who are able to read the offense instantaneously and practically predict the future. Given time, Sacramento has its own player capable of reaching that tier in this regard.

Can Fox Be That Guy For The Kings?

It should come as no surprise I am talking about De’Aaron Fox, who already possesses phenomenal recognition at the young age of 22 participating in his third NBA season. Of players his age or younger, he is 4th in the NBA in steals per game, averaging 1.5 currently.

Many of those surrounding him in this category have the overwhelming length to swallow defenders and reach into passing lanes — Matisse Thybulle, Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz — but the speed Fox possesses that was voted top of the league by NBA executives is equally beneficial.

Often, players don’t even see Fox approaching until it is too late.

He is fully deserving of the Swipa nickname with how he stalks his prey and pounces at the prime moment when they are most vulnerable with a speed that further translates to his hands.

The closing clip in the video above where he abandons his assignment on the far weak side in order to aid Dewayne Dedmon with the elite offensive weapon that is Karl Anthony-Towns, I think, will become a staple and signature move for Fox as his career progresses. Offenses will learn and adapt to continuously take note of where Swipa is on the floor, but that diverts focus away from scanning to capitalize on passing opportunities and adds increased pressure.

Pulling The Chair

Big men around the league have every reason to be on their guard’s case to communicate when Fox is on the way. And if they elect to post Fox up in a scenario where he is switched onto them, Fox has studied pulling the chair out from underneath them.

It’s a move that your dad or an old man in the local park has in his bag and he is sure mock you afterward if it is successful, but it’s effective on the biggest stage in basketball all the same. The idea is that players are expecting resistance when backing into the defender and right as the big man takes an added dribble and shifts their weight into them the defender lunges to the side and that offensive player foolishly tumbles. Just as in high school when you go to sit on a chair and it is comedically pulled from underneath you.

Denying The Entry Pass

Pulling the chair is only conceivable if the pass even arrives at the man striving to post-up in the first place. Delivering successful entry passes is a massively underrated skill in the NBA and players like Fox make it that much more challenging. His timing is impeccable and his slender frame (and, of course, his unrivaled speed) benefits him here in enabling Fox to slither past the defender at the ideal moment that the pass is made. Timing is everything here, and Fox is not immune to mishaps, but I am convinced plenty to trust his decision making.

It is necessary that defenses be locked in when De’Aaron Fox is lurking in the shadows. A lackadaisical entry pass? That’s a steal for Fox. A dribble hand-off where the two offensive players don’t rub shoulders to eliminate any space for opposing hands? That’s a steal for Fox. A telegraphed pass with no defender nearby? That’s a steal for Fox. Looking to make a decision before fully securing the ball? That’s a steal for Fox. Is the receiver of the pass not moving toward the ball? That’s an interception for Sacramento’s pro-bowl free safety.

The Brains To Boot

High, active hands paired with acceleration comparable to an animated blue hedgehog and the brainpower of an i7 processor is the stuff of nightmares for opposing facilitators. And that database of knowledge just continues to widen day-by-day with additional experience.

Fox’s mind absorbs basketball knowledge and retains that information for further use in a way that only the greats of the game are known able to do. James Ham, of NBC California, mentioned a moment to me on the Kings Pulse podcast where an assistant sat with Fox to review the film on his turnovers from a previous game and Fox commented that he didn’t need to. In response to why, he recalled what happened with each turnover, the reasoning behind them, and where his thought process was faulty.

Few players have the basketball I.Q. that force opposing offenses to be as predictable as an airport paperback mystery novel. Not many are gifted with foot speed rivaled by a prime Randy Johnson fastball, cheetas, or foreign luxury vehicles. De’Aaron Fox has both and is still in his adolescent stages of development in the NBA.

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His praised learning process is a primary element as to why he is already coming into his own as a top-tier defender and why I am optimistic he will continue to trend upwards into elite status.