Two of Kentucky’s several freshman stars -- Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox (pictured) -- have played consistent basketball.
They have played a significant part in their team’s early success during the 2016-17 campaign, helping the Wildcats to a 4-0 mark and this week’s No. 1 national ranking.
And both Monk and Fox even got the SEC Freshman of the Week honors in the past two weeks.
After I wrote a feature column on Monk last month, let’s take a look at Fox, the dynamic 6-3 point guard from Houston.
Going into Wednesday afternoon’s matchup with Cleveland State (SEC Network, 1:00 p.m.), Fox has scored in double figures in all four games and led UK in assists in every game so far. In addition, he made his first 21 free throws before missing the first one against Duquesne Sunday night.
Last month, ESPN’s Seth Greenberg, the former coach at Virginia Tech, praised high-motor speedster Fox when he watched an early season practice. “This guy is a blur,” tweeted Greenberg.
While broadcasting the Champions Classic doubleheader last week in New York for ESPN, Dick Vitale tweeted, “De’Aaron Fox is the real deal.”
UK radio network analyst and ex-Cat standout Mike Pratt also likes what he has seen from Fox so far. While the youngster certainly has room for improvement, Pratt commented Fox reminds him of John Wall, the former Kentucky star who was NBA’s No. 1 draft pick in 2010.
“His speed with ball is equal to John's and typically makes good decisions off the bounce,” Pratt told this columnist last week. “Both struggled early in the season with their jumper. That should develop as year goes on. Game will slow down for him and he will see different defensive looks as year goes on and will react accordingly. (Fox has) a skill that only game situations can develop.”
Fox said he is okay with the comparison to Wall, who is now with the Washington Wizards.
By the way, Fox is leading the SEC in assists with an average of 6.8 (27 assists in four games) going into Monday’s (Nov. 21) games.
But the Sporting News’ preseason All-American (second team) can switch roles, if necessary, with sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe, who is the Wildcats’ leading scorer with an 18-point average.
“It can be switched easily,” said Fox. “Anyone can lead in assists and anyone can definitely lead in scoring because we have so many different ways to score.”
Playing with experienced Briscoe in the backcourt has made the job easier for Fox, who is also learning to use speed, his No. 1 weapon, to his advantage.
“It makes it easier for me because I’m throwing it to another guy who can make plays,” Fox said. “I don’t always have to be the one to be a playmaker. He’s taught me how to do what (Coach) Cal wants correctly.”
Interestingly, Fox – whose mother played basketball at Arkansas-Little Rock -- wears his jersey number “0” because he feels like you should fear no one.
Before signing with Kentucky in November of 2015, the former McDonald’s All-American also considered Kansas, Louisville and LSU. Coach John Calipari is a big reason why he chose the Wildcats.
Fox said having Calipari as the coach who pushes for speed is a point guard’s dream.
“But it’s also kind of hard because you have to be in better shape in order to run 100 miles per hour all game. So, it’s kind of tough, but at the same time it’s something that you love to do. Everybody wants to have that type of coach.”
Against Duquesne on Sunday night, Fox played well, notching team-highs 16 points, 6 assists and 31 minutes. In addition, he also grabbed 7 rebounds and made 3 steals.
Calipari was pleased with Fox’s performance other than missing three freebies in eight tries. Not surprisingly, the coach still expects him and his rookie teammates to do much better.
“He’s doing good,” said Calipari after the game. “Six assists, one turnover. He had seven rebounds. And I thought he was just okay today. Think about that. Sixteen points -- how about he misses three free throws. I told him go back to the other hairdo. I don't know what you did, just go back to the other. “So, here's a kid that we're counting on a lot of stuff from. I think he's got to get more consistent shooting the ball. In my mind, especially when he pulls up from 15 feet, he just doesn't miss that. (But) he’s missing them lately.
“These guys, we're four games in, and you got to understand (when they were) in high school, they never worked like this. Look, it's not just the games. Every practice they're going at each other. They have never done that before. They were by far the best high school player on their team, they practiced when they felt like it. Doesn't mean they didn't work, but they practiced against a guy that couldn't guard them.
“Now, they're in this gym, and you're going against another guy that can play. And it's every day. We're not letting up as a staff. And we just got to get more consistency, more disciplined. I’m just saying it's a process that's going to take time.”
Well, after the next few months, you certainly can expect Fox – currently No. 6 in the latest 2017 NBA mock draft, according to NBAdraft.net – will be ready for pro basketball pretty soon along with some of his fellow teammates, expanding Calipari’s impressive NBA tree.
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I’ve been reading Calipari’s latest literary effort, titled “Success Is the Only Option: The Art of Coaching Extreme Talent" (Harper, $27.99).
While I’m not a huge fan of self-help or motivational books, Coach Cal’s new book (co-written with Michael Sokolove) is an enjoyable read, offering many UK tidbits as well as real-life lessons into leadership, team building and building a culture of achievement that are applicable beyond the basketball floor.
Since coaching a successful basketball squad is much like building a successful business, the 229-page hardcover also can be useful for business leaders who attempt to get maximum performance from their best employees. Just like Calipari’s numerous top-ranked teams which were laden with future NBA superstars at Kentucky over the years.
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After UK’s Sunday night victory over Duquesne, a Catholic school in Calipari’s hometown of Pittsburgh, the Kentucky coach improved his stunning Rupp Arena mark to 122-4 for a winning percentage of 96.8. No, that’s not a misprint.
Veteran coach Jim Ferry of Duquesne was quite impressed with Calipari’s home record and the atmosphere of Rupp Arena.
“He lost four?” Ferry commented. “John’s a fantastic coach. He really is. For him to get these kids each year, the one-and-done, and to get them to play and have them buy in like they do, that doesn’t surprise me at all. I’ve been a head coach for 19 years and this is the best college atmosphere I’ve ever been involved in. An hour and a half before the game there were 2,000 people here. That’s something special you guys have here. It’s a great advantage. I don’t know if they are going to lose another game here this year.”
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.
Photo by Jamie H. Vaught