LEXINGTON, Ky. – John Wall was a blur at Kentucky. To use coach John Calipari’s favorite phrase, Wall was the gold standard of speed for a point guard. In a blink, he zoomed from 5-star recruit to college All-American to No. 1 draft pick to NBA All-Star.
So buckle up for this one, Kentucky fans: “I think I’m faster than John,” freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox said. Which answers another question: Nope, he’s not intimidated by the prospect of replacing Calipari’s latest All-American point guard, Tyler Ulis, either.
“I know it’s going to be tough, but it’s nothing that can’t be done,” said Fox, a consensus top-10 recruit and projected NBA lottery pick. “He left a huge hole in the program. I’m just trying to fill it, trying to do even more than he did.”
All Ulis did was break Wall’s single-season school record for assists last season. But Fox is the kind of guy who probably has that number (246) scribbled on a scrap of paper and tucked away in his locker. A goal, not an albatross.
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It’s hardly unfounded confidence for the 6-foot-3 McDonald’s All-American who scored 30-plus points 20 times as a high school senior. When Fox was finished flying up and down the floor during Sunday night’s on-campus combine in front of about 90 NBA scouts and a national-TV audience, more than a few jaws dropped.
“He is a world-class athlete,” ESPN analyst and former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg told SEC Country on Monday, after seeing Fox at three different UK practices. “His ability to start and stop, change directions and get to top speed is incredible.”
Sound familiar? Greenberg said he hesitates to compare recruits and college players to established stars in the NBA, but in the case of Fox and Wall, it doesn’t strike him as terribly inappropriate.
“He’s explosive in the open floor, he’s got a ridiculous burst. If you compare where they’re at in college, he has a lot of the traits and attributes that John Wall had. There’s no doubt about it,” said Greenberg, who then tantalized Wildcats fans: “I think Fox shoots it a little better than John at this stage, with better range.”
But that might not even be the most exciting thing about Kentucky’s newest prized point guard. When his teammates were asked to name the best defender on the roster, Fox’s name came up almost as often as established stoppers Isaiah Briscoe and Dominique Hawkins.
Calipari said Fox can “maul people” defensively. That, even more than his elite speed and playmaking ability, jumped out at Greenberg, too.
“He is as good on the ball as any player I’ve seen – his hands are as quick and active as any player I’ve seen – in a long time,” the analyst said. “He just takes you out. I don’t know if they keep deflections, but he’ll set a record for deflections at Kentucky. He’s got hands, great reach, terrific anticipation and instinct, and he’s got a mindset defensively to disrupt.”
Yeah, but back to the important stuff: Is he really faster than John Wall? Calipari thinks they’re in the same neighborhood, although Fox is still learning to maximize his unusual athleticism. Even the swiftest stars sometimes need a push.
“I saw De’Aaron Fox make a play in transition, shoot it, miss the layup, grab it and dunk it. What? Like, and that’s your guard – point guard,” Calipari said. But … “His pace of game is too casual at times. There are times he can look as fast as John Wall. John Wall knew that was his No. 1 weapon and he used it all the time, probably too much.
“De’Aaron hasn’t figured out that should be his No. 1 weapon. It’s a weapon he’ll use every once in a while.”
Those comments from Calipari came a month ago, however, during a preseason round-table interview with local reporters. Several practices and plenty of prodding later, Fox sure looked willing to go warp speed Sunday night.
Whether blowing by Briscoe for a basket or buzzing ahead on a fast break, he was practicing what Calipari has been preaching: “Just get it and go,” Fox said. “We’re not waiting for anybody.”
As if his coach has made him repeat it in the mirror – What is my most valuable trait? What is my most valuable trait? What is my most valuable trait? – Fox now has it ready to recite on command.
“It’s my speed,” he said. “Speed it something you really can’t teach. I don’t think many people know how to defend speed. We’re extremely athletic, really at every single position, every spot, so we’re going to get out and run and it’s going to be an exciting game to watch.”
Whether he’ll play faster than Wall or better than Ulis, or lead Kentucky to a Final Four as the starting point guard (which neither Wall nor Ulis did) remains to be seen. The pursuit of those three things could come with quite a bit of pressure. But not for Fox.
Among his many gifts, Greenberg said, “I like that he plays with a smile on his face. He plays with a genuine enthusiasm and love of the game, and you can see it. That’s really important. The pressure of being at Kentucky and the expectation, that grind, will not suffocate him. I think he will embrace the grind, and that’s the key.”