PHOENIX SUNS

Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox has upside despite being an imperfect floor general

May 25, 2017, 7:00 AM | Updated: 3:56 pm

De'Aaron Fox, center, from Kentucky, listens to a question at the NBA draft basketball combine Frid...

De'Aaron Fox, center, from Kentucky, listens to a question at the NBA draft basketball combine Friday, May 12, 2017, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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Suns general manager Ryan McDonough spent a good chunk of his post-lottery interview on May 16 praising starting point guard Eric Bledsoe.

He also expressed optimism that landing the No. 4 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft will net a talented player. There was almost relief in his voice that Phoenix might not be pressed to take a point guard like Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball. With regards to Bledsoe’s future with the club and speculation a selection of a point guard might lead to his eventual departure, McDonough made sure to point out the Suns already have a darn good starting point guard.

“This may bring some clarity to that debate or that dilemma. That’s not saying we won’t draft a guard — we may,” McDonough said.

“I do want to reiterate how well Eric played last year. Hopefully, that (lottery result) ends some of that speculation about him.”

Wishful thinking.

While the best player available could be one of wings Josh Jackson, Jayson Tatum or Jonathan Isaac, point guards Dennis Smith Jr. — Kellan Olson wrote a profile on him this week — and Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox will force the Suns to leave no stone unturned in the evaluation process.

Many of Fox’s strengths and weaknesses read as the inverse to Ball’s own.

Where Ball’s best attributes come on offense, Fox can impact the game most on defense.

While Ball thrives at the rim and beyond the arc in the halfcourt, Fox’s best offense comes in the mid-range.

In transition, Ball pushes the ball with the pass. Fox does so with the dribble.

On both ends, Fox’s speed is his greatest strength, and the 6-foot-3, 170-pound guard uses it in bursts in between energy-saving, methodical — almost lazy looking — jogging about. It’s that change of speed that makes him so hard to defend.

Fox has a unique way of controlling the tempo that can catch defenders off guard in transition, and he also has the handles and shake to break down defenses in the halfcourt, like he does here against Ball.

Fox set offenses, kept the ball moving for his talented UK squad and, while not a flashy passer, knew how to set up his teammates.

He has the temperament and the tempo of an NBA floor general, but he lacked refinement in the pick-and-roll game. When he faced better athletes and better defenses that could contain his speed, he often found himself in jams, leading to turnovers.

If the easy passing angle wasn’t created by his athleticism, he at times struggled to react. Much of that — in both transition and pick-and-roll — had to do with Fox forcing the issue and going too fast rather than letting passing lanes open themselves. It was a lack of patience, somewhat similarly to Bledsoe’s own that he’s mastered through the past year or so for the Suns.

It’s likely Fox improves as a decision-maker through experience.

While his thin frame could be concerning when it comes to finishing at the rim, Fox’s floater game will alleviate concerns that his less-than-impressive 6-foot-6.5 wingspan and inability to take contact would render him useless when he frees himself off a pick-and-roll.

Strength and age might solve his at-the-rim finishing abilities — and concerns he will be picked upon on switches against bigger players.

The most troubling thing, then, is his jumper that saw him hit 25 percent of his threes.

Fox shrugged that off as having an off year — he did shoot around 35 percent in a couple of his high school seasons — and his confidence doesn’t appear shot on the jumper. Mechanically, however, Fox’s elbow looks like a catapult and works like one with a rigid release.

Worse than that, he offers inconsistent timing on when he releases his shot. Sometimes he’ll take a set shot, while other times he won’t release the ball until he reaches a downward motion on his jumper. However, 36-percent shooting on two-point jumpers wasn’t as bad as one would think (teammate Malik Monk, a sniper from deep, shot just 2-percent better on jumpers).

But in college, opposing defenses laid off Fox from three-point range, eating up driving lanes by sagging off him.

Will the deeper three-point line allow more space for him in the NBA? Maybe it’ll open driving lanes in terms of help defense, but it’s hard to argue that his on-ball defenders will give him any more respect unless he can hit a long-range shot.

Fox’s erratic play showed up on defense as well, where he flashed elite on-ball defense at times but at others displayed a lack of focus.

But when he was locked in, he was on. Late in the year, he improved in terms of effort and effectiveness defensively.

Fox built his stock playing with a high-profile team of high-profile teammates. His biggest accomplishments came winning two battles with a high-profile opponent in Ball.

A 20-point, nine-assist performance on Dec. 3 and then a 39-point, four-assist outburst against UCLA in the NCAA Tournament also saw Fox hold Ball to a combined 9-of-22 shooting and a 15-to-10 assist-to-turnover ratio. But take it with a grain of salt: Ball has his own issues that were magnified in both games.

Adding to the context, UCLA had questionable coverages on Fox, going over screens instead of under and allowing him to get to his short floater game too often.

And if we’re taking two-game sets so seriously, Fox didn’t fare as well against veteran guards in Kansas’ Frank Mason (21 points, four assists on 50 percent shooting) and Florida’s Kasey Hill (21 points, six assists on 50 percent shooting).

He might be a longer-term project compared to other top-10 picks.

As far as character profiling, Fox checks all the boxes. He’s charismatic and thoughtful in interviews. In a locker room setting, his personality would seemingly make him a low maintenance but vocal leader.

Fox letting his emotions show after Kentucky fell in the NCAA Tournament put that on display.

A handful of other players in this draft class have higher ceilings with elite playmaking or scoring skills. But if Fox becomes a relatively reliable shooter, he has the elite athleticism and the makeup as a point guard to playing winning, two-way basketball in the right system that doesn’t require a high-usage point guard.

Is that worth being selected as the fourth overall pick. For the Suns, it that worth irking Bledsoe?

With so many different options for the Suns in the 2017 NBA Draft, the fourth pick, Fox or otherwise, will say a lot about the identity Phoenix wants to build around Devin Booker and company.

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Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox has upside despite being an imperfect floor general