The spacious five-bedroom house is located in a quiet cul-de-sac in a Sacramento suburb, far enough away from the practice facility and Golden 1 Center to provide De’Aaron Fox the solitude and and independence he craves.
His closest neighbor is a man-made lake. The silence is broken only by the whirring of angry air conditioners, straining in the triple-digit heat. A sprinkler system turns on and soothes a front lawn down the street.
After welcoming visitors inside one recent afternoon, the Kings’ prized rookie proves to be a gracious host. He offers water or soft drinks, provides a tour of the premises, including an empty room — think man cave — soon to be transformed into a video game haven. Trophy displays, photos and other mementos are neatly presented down the hall. Another room is soon to be occupied by a piano, one of his passions.
Fox wants to compete like Russell Westbrook, pass like Chris Paul, shoot like Damian Lillard. But he also wants to play the piano like Beethoven.
“The Fifth Symphony is my favorite piece,” he said while reaching for his cellphone and touching an app. As the famous symphony fills the light, airy living room, the former Kentucky Wildcat expresses an affinity for Bach and Mozart as well. “My high school algebra teacher played classical music during class, and I really took to it. I listen to it before games, or as background music, because it keeps me from getting too hyped. But I like all music. Drake, for sure. Coldplay. My favorite band is Daughter.”
This new Kings point guard? This is a different kind of cat. Unlike most rookies who sign million-dollar contracts and insulate themselves with friends, relatives, handlers, hangers on, Fox prefers to fly solo. Though his mother, Lorraine, and brother, Quinten, furnished the house while he attended rookie orientation in New York, the plan is for his parents, brother and best friend to visit, but only on occasion.
‘An old soul’
Lorraine Fox describes her son as “an old soul” disguised as a teenager, as a precocious 19-year-old who wears an independent streak like a badge of honor.
Asked how often De’Aaron got in trouble during his school days, she laughs. Not her boy. Though he was a latch-key kid, she never imposed a curfew. She knew he was at school, doing homework at the kitchen table, shooting hoops in front of the house or playing video games in his bedroom. He was invariably homebound by choice. The Fox family compound in suburban Houston, in fact, was the go-to hangout for an entire neighborhood.
“The only thing De’Aaron did was talk too much,” his mother said, laughing. “That’s when I would get the phone calls from school. I always used to tell him that if he stopped talking so much and concentrated on his schoolwork, he would get straight A’s. He was still a good student, though.”
Fox settled for B’s in the classroom and an almost-perfect score on the basketball court. And as it turns out, those verbal skills are working in his favor. As he transitioned from Cypress Lakes High to high-profile Kentucky, and then to the pros, he is charming and charismatic, and as comfortable in front of the cameras as he is handling a basketball. He has already, dare we say, been deemed a media darling.
Kings fans erupted when the freshman was available for the Kings at No. 5 overall, perhaps envisioning an embraceable reprise of a Jason Williams-Mike Bibby combo. Interview requests and commitments kept the team’s media officials scrambling throughout the Las Vegas summer league. Mere weeks into a career, Fox is such a recognizable figure around town — at restaurants, bowling alleys, malls, movie theaters — that his left hand threatens to cramp from signing autographs.
But he is not one to hide, which is probably a good thing since his distinctive faux-dreadlocks hairstyle is a trendy attention-grabber. The credit belongs to his mother. Every few weeks for the past several years, Lorraine sits her son on the floor in the living room, on a short stack of pillows, and then twists strands of his locks for an hour or so, depending upon the length of time between haircuts.
“De’Aaron has a very close-knit family,” Kentucky Coach John Calipari said recently. “When I met him and spent time with his parents, I thought, ‘This is the kind of kid who comes in and has success.’ There is something about him. He is his own man. He is not a follower. On the court, he is a giver, not a taker, and he is incredibly unselfish. He’s the type of player who takes a team to another level.”
Breaking a new path
Fox, of course, joins the Kings at a particularly interesting time. The team didn’t break down in a day. The fix will take years. Yet finally, and wisely, the repeated mistake of patching together a roster to compete for the eighth and final playoff berth has been scrapped, replaced by a more measured, long-term approach. The plan is to assemble a roster of talented young players, give them time to develop, and thrust the franchise back into contention within the next three to five years.
With training camp opening Monday, newcomers occupy almost half the locker room. Rookies Justin Jackson, Harry Giles, Frank Mason III and Bogdan Bogdanovic are preparing for their NBA debuts. Buddy Hield, Malachi Richardson, Skal Labissiere and Georgios Papagiannis are beginning their second seasons, and Willie Cauley-Stein his third. Veterans Garrett Temple, Kosta Koufos, Zach Randolph, George Hill and Vince Carter are being asked to contribute on the court and in the locker room, though most are on short-term deals.
As the losses pile up — and they will — the question is this: Who will be standing after a grueling 82-game marathon?
In a league where point guard production is paramount, Fox, with his tantalizing talent and electrifying presence, is projected as the signature piece. The pace of his development very likely dictates how fast the Kings play, and more importantly, how rapidly the team improves.
His personal history hints at a pretty good clip. Fox started all except two games last season for Kentucky and was in the opening lineup all four years at Cypress Lakes, though admittedly, only after making the wrenching decision to abandon football. “If I had a football body,” he said, “you’d best believe I’d be playing football. Until eighth grade, I played quarterback, wideout, defensive back, ran back punts, kickoffs, all the skill positions. My dad’s friends all think I’m a better football player.”
‘Transformed into Superman’
At 6-foot-3 and 180 pounds, Fox is wiry and long-limbed, with broad shoulders, a slender waist and almost skinny legs. His hands are small for his size, and while the lefty is an exceptional ballhandler and explosive two-handed dunker, he cannot palm a basketball.
“De’Aaron, the way he looks, surprises people,” said Emmanuel Olatunbosun, his varsity coach at Cypress Lakes. “When he came in as a freshman, he wore glasses, was this skinny kid, looked like a nerd. He was small, frail. Then there was this whole Superman concept. Before he stepped onto the court, he took off his glasses and put in contact lenses, and it was like he went into a (phone) booth and was transformed into Superman. His skill set was amazing. Then after games and practices, he would put his glasses back on, go back to class, and do it all over again.”
Fox received so many prep awards and accolades that he can’t remember half of them. The trophies, plaques and photo display in the spare room come to his rescue. District MVP. McDonald’s All-American. All-State. MVP of the Jordan Classic, and so on.
His success attracted dozens of major college recruiters to the Katy campus, including 6 a.m. visits by Calipari and Louisville’s Rick Pitino, coaches for the two finalists on Fox’s list of colleges. Calipari won down the stretch, mainly because he produces pros like widgets on an assembly line; former Wildcats (Fox, Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere) currently account for one-fourth of the Kings’ 12-man roster.
It was in Lexington, under Calipari’s constant carping, that Fox began to fully exploit his major asset: a sprinter’s speed.
“De’Aaron has got to be forced to understand how his speed changes the game for your team and for yourself,” Calipari said. “Use it every time you can. The second piece is that he has a runner, a floater, an in-between game. He is a good finisher at the basket. He can really pass it and handle it, but at the end of the day, he should be flying down the court on every possession.”
Though Fox never ran track and refuses to incorporate distance running in his training routine, his speed, quick hands and anticipation enabled him to emerge as an elite defender. Olatunbosun never had to tell his young star to pick his man up early or harass him as he advanced the ball. Fox attacks on his own, crouching, extending his arms and that 6-6 wingspan, moving his feet in unison with his opponent’s. At the first opportunity, the first mistake, he pokes the ball loose and creates transition opportunities.
Front of his class
Kings General Manager Vlade Divac was so intrigued by Fox, by his immense talent on both sides of the ball, that he maintained a running dialogue with Calipari.
“I told Vlade, ‘If you want to draft De’Aaron, you better do something because he’s not going to be there when you pick,” Calipari said. “When the (lottery) balls dropped and the Kings moved up (from eighth to fifth), they knew they had a chance.”
Throughout the season and NCAA Tournament, the Kings saw the same abilities as everyone else. Besides averaging 16.7 points and 4.0 rebounds, and leading the Wildcats with 4.6 assists and 1.5 steals, Fox outplayed UCLA’s Lonzo Ball in their two matchups last season. The scouting reports — the ones from high school and college — were consistent. His reputation as a teammate is stellar. He has worked with a trainer, Chris Gaston, since eighth grade, compensating for his slight frame with strength and flexibility, and is widely regarded as both a willing pupil and ferocious competitor in all phases of life.
Jennifer Hilsinger, the algebra teacher who introduced Fox to Beethoven, remembers a tall, skinny student who wore glasses and asked to sit in the front row.
“De’Aaron wanted to sit close so he could focus, which made the seating chart a challenge,” she said. “It was hard to put anybody behind him because he was already 6 feet tall as a freshman. But I was so impressed. I never had to ask him to turn something in twice. He did all of his work, took care of business. I never had any problem disciplinary-wise or academic-wise. He told me his parents would be very upset if he caused any trouble.”
Lorraine Fox, who played basketball at Arkansas-Little Rock, endorsed De’Aaron’s decision to turn pro after his freshman year, but hopes he eventually earns a degree. No pressure, though.
“He always makes good decisions,” she added. “I never have to worry.”
Fox realizes that new and serious challenges await. George Hill, who signed as a free agent last summer, is an accomplished point guard. Mason arrives with four years of college experience and the motivation to prove the scouts were wrong, that he should have been a first-round pick.
“I’m just ready to get started,” Fox said. “For me, the worst part is the offseason, the waiting. People don’t pay attention to how much stuff they throw at you before camp. What’s good about our team, though, is that most of us young guys already know each other. Justin and I played on the same AAU team. But like I said when I was drafted, it didn’t matter where I went. I would adjust. I just want the opportunity to play basketball and win. It’s all about winning.”
- What: Kings training camp
- When: Media day is Monday; practice begins Tuesday
- Where: Golden 1 Center practice facility
- Preseason opener: Oct. 2 vs. San Antonio, 7 p.m.
- Season opener: Oct. 18, vs. Houston, 7 p.m.