Those who have shared the basketball court with De’Aaron Fox every day for the past nine months weren’t surprised by what happened here Friday night.
They know what usually transpires when UK’s lightning-quick freshman point guard gets going. And those teammates who were asked about Fox on Saturday — less than 24 hours after his 39-point performance in an 86-75 NCAA Tournament victory over UCLA — say they’ve never shared the floor with anyone quite that fast.
“People really don’t notice how fast he is until they watch him in person,” said senior Dominique Hawkins. “His speed is what makes him an excellent ballplayer. He gets to the rim with ease just because of it.”
That’s the Fox who UCLA saw Friday night, and that’s the Fox who rolled through the SEC Tournament a couple weeks ago, scoring 66 points over three games — shooting better than 50 percent from the field in all of those games — and earning tournament MVP honors.
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That’s not the Fox who Kentucky had toward the end of the regular season.
The trouble started in the first half of UK’s home victory over South Carolina on Jan. 21, when Fox rolled his ankle driving through the lane and had to leave the game. He watched the second half from the bench with a protective boot, and — although he returned to the starting lineup in the next game three days later — he didn’t look quite the same.
Going into that victory over South Carolina, Fox was averaging 16.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game. He played in the next two — including a 10-point, two-assist performance in a loss to Kansas — then he sat out a game against Georgia with an illness. He returned for the Cats’ lopsided loss at Florida — again, not quite looking like his normal, explosive self — turned in a series of uneven performances after that, and then he sat out another game, UK’s home win over Florida on Feb. 25, with a knee injury.
In the four weeks since, he’s been pretty much unstoppable.
“Things are just clicking at the right time,” Fox said. “I’m making pull-ups. I’m making tough shots — floater’s going in. I’m reading the pick-and-roll well. My energy has picked up defensively. And when we’re playing defense, our offense is clicking like that.
“It’s a process. I didn’t try to rush anything when I was struggling. I just tried to make the little plays, do the smaller things.”
Now he’s doing the bigger things, the game-changing things, the things that extend a team’s season this time of year.
For all that will be made of Malik Monk’s 47-point game in December against North Carolina leading up to Sunday evening’s rematch between these two teams, Fox might be the Cat who the Tar Heels should be most worried about.
When he has been healthy, he has been the one to make this UK team go.
When his mid-range jumper is on target — as it was Friday night against UCLA — defenders have to play him close. When defenders play him close, he often blows right by them.
“When his shots are falling for him, it’s hard to contain him,” Hawkins said.
On Friday night, Derek Willis talked about the first time he played on the same court as Fox last summer, right away noticing how “stupid fast” his new teammate would be. Hawkins said Saturday that John Wall is the only player he’s ever seen in person who’s faster than Fox.
Five-star freshman Hamidou Diallo is the newest addition to this UK team. He joined the Wildcats in January and has been practicing against Fox every day for the past two months. Diallo is 6-5 with a 6-11 wingspan and elite athleticism, but — like pretty much everyone else — it’s a challenge for him to stay in front of Fox.
“You just have to try your hardest,” Diallo said.
When Fox is on — as he was Friday night — is anyone’s “hardest” good enough? Diallo just smiled at that question.
“There’s really nothing you can do if he’s on like that,” he said, shaking his head a little. “He’s unguardable when he gets heated up like that.”
De’Aaron Fox in the postseason