CHICAGO — There was an important person in the front row the night Kentucky point guard De’Aaron Fox torched his UCLA counterpart, Lonzo Ball, in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 in March: Magic Johnson, the former star and current president of the Los Angeles Lakers.
“I don’t know if he even knew Magic was there,” Wildcats coach John Calipari said last week at the NBA Combine. “He was focused on UCLA.”
Whether he knew it or not, Fox hung a career-high 39 points on Ball and the Bruins in front of Magic, pushing Kentucky into the Elite Eight. That performance came up in Fox’s interviews with NBA teams last week.
“Some people talked about it, that dog that I have in me,” he said, “going after someone like that. I’m just extremely competitive.”
Fox demonstrated that in a different way after the Cats lost their next game on a last-second shot against North Carolina. With a Final Four dream dashed, he sobbed in the locker room with his arm around teammate Bam Adebayo.
“You know who else cried after games? Derrick Rose. Karl Towns. Anthony Davis,” Calipari said, listing three of his four No. 1 overall draft picks. “(Fox) has a buzz about him. He has a spirit about him. Yet, he was like Karl Towns: never left his room. I’d say, ‘Where’s De’Aaron?’ They’d say, ‘Where you think he is? He’s across the street (in the dorm).’ ”
So to review: Fox rises to meet big moments, cares enough about winning to shed tears when he loses and has no off-court baggage? Perhaps that is the reason ESPN draft analyst Chad Ford wrote after the combine — where Fox interviewed with each of the eight teams owning the best NBA Draft lottery odds — that there is a “growing movement among teams to rank Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox ahead of Ball.”
Ball, whose game has few glaring flaws but whose father has created a media circus that might be off-putting to future employers, has long been projected to go first or second overall in the draft. Fox has long been projected in the 5-7 range, but now he “has a chance to go as high as No. 2,” Ford wrote this week.
So is Magic Johnson, whose Lakers have the third-best odds of landing the top pick, one of the NBA decision-makers whose opinion is shifting? After dazzling him on the court, Fox had a chance to impress Johnson and other key figures of the Los Angeles organization in an interview last week.
“I feel like we got a lot out of it,” Fox said. “We talked about my personality but also having a killer instinct. That’s me. I’ve always been humble, but on the court it’s an entirely different person. Magic was saying that’s how he is.
“He was a great leader and just the way he carried himself — when he walks in, he lights up a room — that’s someone I think would be a great mentor for me.”
Fox, who averaged 16.7 points, 4.6 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game in his lone season at Kentucky, knows his shooting must improve. He hit just 24.6 percent of his 3-pointers in college, so that’s been a major focus in his training for workouts with NBA teams.
But Fox is also supremely confident in his speed and feel for the game, both of which have led to numerous comparisons to former Kentucky star John Wall — another of Calipari’s No. 1 picks who is now dominating in the NBA Playoffs.
“The way he creates for his teammates, if I can get to that level of playmaking, I’ll be great,” Fox said of Wall. “If I’m able to surpass that, then so be it.”
Calipari won’t settle the debate over whether Fox or Wall was the fastest as a college freshman, but he does have some insight into how their games differ, at least for now.
“All I would tell you is they’re both really fast,” Calipari said. “John Wall uses his speed as a weapon. Wasn’t as good with the ball, scoring-wise, at that age, but John’s thing was, ‘I am getting to that rim and I am going to dunk on you.’ This kid (Fox) didn’t use it as a weapon. My whole thing all season: ‘Sprint for layups.’ And when he did, it was like, oh, my God.
“He doesn’t view it as a weapon — yet. When he views it as a weapon, it’s a wrap.”
The 2017 NBA Draft lottery will take place Tuesday night at 8 p.m. on ESPN, with (in descending order) the Celtics, Suns, Lakers, 76ers, Magic, Timberwolves, Knicks and Kings having the best odds of winning the No. 1 overall pick. They’ve all met with Fox, while the Mavericks, Hornets, Pistons, Nuggets and Heat are also in the lottery (top 14 picks).
Where he goes next will remain a mystery for a while longer, but where he’s been helped prepare him, Fox said. Kentucky as an NBA training ground is more than Calipari’s recruiting pitch.
“I learned a lot,” Fox said. “Coach Cal really runs his system like an NBA team, everything we learned from the way we run our offense to the terminology that he uses. And he just shows us that we have to fight, because we’re going into a man’s world.”
One where Magic Johnson is watching and so far, he has to like what he sees.