While De’Aaron Fox’s early-season shooting struggles inspired several questions at Kentucky’s media availability Monday, his defensive ability may be what separates him from other players of great promise.
“He’s phenomenal,” said Cleveland State Coach Gary Waters, whose team plays UK on Wednesday afternoon. “He’s got a chance to be one-and-done. When you say that word, that tells you.
“And he loves to play defense. That’s the uniqueness about him. He plays it well. But he also loves to do it. Not a lot of guys out there feel that way.”
When asked what percentage of players enjoy playing defense, Waters laughed and said, “low single-digit percentile.
“If they have any offense, they’re thinking of that first. You know (Fox) has offense on his mind. But he loves that other end of the floor. That’s what’s so unique about him. He knows he can help his offense by his defense.”
UK Coach John Calipari gushed about Fox’s defense.
“How he plays on-ball,” Calipari said. “How he plays on pick-and-roll defense, I mean, wow.
“And it’s not like we taught that a whole lot. He just gets after it.”
Calipari talked about how Fox had made “great strides” from his arrival on campus this summer through the season’s first four games.
“He’s playing way faster,” Calipari said. “He’s running faster than he has ever run in his life.”
All the running inspired Fox to offer a novel suggestion on why he is not yet as vocal on the court as Calipari would like.
“It’s hard to talk when you’re playing,” he said, “just because you’re using breath, and you might get tired quicker.”
But Fox acknowledged that his most recent point guard predecessor, Tyler Ulis, did a lot of talking. And as UK fans know, Ulis played more minutes than any Kentucky player in four decades.
“Tyler never shut up on the court,” Fox said. “That’s what you expect from a leader.”
Fox, who does not turn 19 until Dec. 20, said his age played a part in his relative quiet demeanor on the court.
“It’s been difficult to run the team with people who are much older than me,” he said. “But I think the respect level is there. So they listen to me. I listen to them.”
Fox, too, talked about making strides.
“I feel like I’m running the team pretty well,” he said. “My assist numbers are up. I haven’t turned the ball over too much.”
Through four games, Fox has posted an assist-to-turnover ratio that even Ulis surely would be proud of. He’s gotten credit for 27 assists and committed only nine turnovers.
Fox acknowledged an aspect of his game that needs improvement.
“One thing I haven’t done well is shoot the ball,” he said. “My percentages are pretty bad. … It’s just something to work on.”
Fox has made only one of nine three-point shots (11.1 percent), which dragged down his overall shooting accuracy to 37.8 percent.
With UK having made only 28.4 percent of its shots from beyond the three-point line, Calipari said he expected opponents to sag their defenses into the lane in an attempt to deny drives to the basket.
“Heck of a way to play defense,” Calipari said. “When you walk in and say, ‘We know we can’t guard these guys. Let’s sag and hope they miss shots.’”
Calipari dismissed the notion of concern about Fox’s shooting against Cleveland State or any future opponents this season. The UK coach noted that Ulis struggled with three-point shooting early last season (3-of-14 in the first four games, 4-of-19 in the first five).
“I don’t worry about a guy like him … ,” Calipari said. “He’s the least of our worries.”
Cleveland State at No. 1 Kentucky
When: 1 p.m.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 4-0, Cleveland State 1-2
Series: Kentucky leads 2-0
Last meeting: Kentucky won 68-61 on Nov. 25, 2013, in Lexington.