De’Aaron Fox and winning with a point guard who can’t shoot

Lonzo Ball will forever take the crown of most controversial, but De’Aaron Fox might be the second most divisive prospect in this year’s draft class. Some feel passionately that he is a terrible shooter who is likely to suck at NBA offense like Michael Carter-Williams, Rajon Rondo, or Emmanuel Mudiay. Others are assured of the fact that Fox is a special player with star upside because of his athleticism.

Nearly all of the debate around Fox centers around how good or bad his offense will be. His defense matters too, but is far less controversial. He came into the year with a pretty great defensive reputation, but it became obvious quickly that reputation was overblown. He has Russell Westbrook-syndrome of being so active that he jumps himself out of position, and his skinny frame hurts him in a variety of situations.

Still, he has great quickness and good length for the position. He’s not going to be a plus, but he’s not going to be super damaging and as he gains strength and maturity he could be an approximately +0 guy.

His offense is a little trickier to figure out. Before we can properly analyze his offensive future, there are two myths going around about Fox that are worth dispelling.

  1. Point guards need to be able to shoot to succeed on the offensive end

There have been a string of recent point guard prospects whose big question mark was shooting who have been unmitigated disasters on the offensive end. Emmanuel Mudiay, Kris Dunn, Marcus Smart, Elfrid Payton, and Michael-Carter Williams are the most frequently cited examples against Fox. These are the most recent non-shooting point guards to enter the draft, but they are not the only ones ever.

It is simply a fallacy to suggest that point guards cannot succeed on offense in this day and age without a successful three-point shot. John Wall, Russell Westbrook, and Ricky Rubio have been consistently good (to great) offensive players without a good outside shot, and Kemba Walker, Rajon Rondo, and Derrick Rose are just some of many players who have delivered good offensive seasons without shooting well from beyond the arc.

If we compare the numbers between the former group of players and the latter the we see the difference in their offensive success does not come from different level of shooting ability.

Career numbers used if a specific year is not specified — “bad” on the left, “good” on the right

Yes, the percentages of the group on the left are slightly worse than those on the right. Yet, they are not significantly so (2–3%), and more importantly, the players on the left are at a much earlier stage in their shooting development than those on the right. Russell Westbrook only shot 28.9% from three across his first four seasons, John Wall 24.3% during his first three. The logical conclusion is that it is something other than their shooting ability that separates these players, and that point guards certainly can succeed offensively without a three-point shot.

Now, the obvious counterargument is that it is not fair to compare Fox to the above group. Westbrook, Wall, and Rose have size and power to their games that Fox does not, and Rondo and Rubio can pass in a way Fox cannot. That’s not wrong per say, but Fox is an elite athlete in his own right (quickness and leaping instead of speed and explosion), and his game and build are just as different from Payton/Smart/Dunn/MCW/Mudiay as they’re from the above cohort.

Fox isn’t necessarily going to succeed because of the success of Wall, etc, but he also isn’t necessarily going to fail because of the shortcomings of Mudiay, etc. The point is, it is very reasonable to suggest that Fox could be an elite offensive player while still shooting somewhere between 29–33% from three.

2. Fox is an outlier level-bad shooter with no chance of improvement

One response to the above point is that Fox is a completely outlier bad shooter and will never even be able to get to that 29–33% threshold. This argument makes even less sense. Yes, Fox shooting 24.6% on only 69 total attempts is really bad. He’s likely to be a bad shooter for his whole career. However, he has enough positive indicators that there’s real reason to believe his 3P% alone is worse than his true shooting ability due to variance. Or at the very least that he’s quite capable of improving to the 29–33% range.

For starters, Fox’s other shooting numbers are much more average than they are terrible. I don’t have access to synergy but there are still a few other numbers we can look at as indicators of his shooting ability.

2PTJ #s via hoop-math

Fox’s volume of two-point jumpers and three-pointers in EYBL are both larger than his three-point volume from this season, and both numbers are average, not bad (EYBL shooting numbers are generally lower). Fox’s free-throw shooting across both competitions is definitely below-average, but again, nowhere near outlier bad.

Thinking about things from a more traditional scouting perspective, Fox also comes out looking better. His form is a bit hitch-y but far more clean than someone like Josh Jackson’s, and his fluidity and (foolhardy) confidence shooting off-the-dribble is apparent. Also, there is a real argument to be made that many of Fox’s shooting woes stemmed from his lack of strength, and he should improve naturally with time. Kaiser Lindeman did a great job of outlining this argument in more detail here.

The only numbers that stand out as bad in Fox’s shooting profile are his three-point volume and percentage. He only made 17 threes on the season and he shot 24.6%. Yet still, we can find some extraordinarily positive examples just looking at guys with similar numbers.

Kyle Lowry made only 13 threes across two seasons of college play while shooting < 30% from three and <70% from the line his freshman year. Mike Conley made 21 threes at a 30.4% clip while shooting 69.4% from the line. As a freshman, Kemba Walker shot 27.1% from three and 71.5% on free throws while only making 13 threes. Significantly, these guys have all turned into excellent NBA three-point shooters, and there are many more examples in NCAA — NBA history.

Another reason for Fox’s low-volume that doesn’t get bandied around enough is Calipari’s antiquated approach to the game. Cal has encouraged many of his prospects in the past to eschew three-point shots in favor of the mid-range, and the same trend shows up in Fox’s numbers.

If Fox were to make a Lowry/Conley-esque leap in shooting ability it is hard to see him not being wildly successful on the offensive end. There are very few guards in the league that match his level of quickness, leaping ability, and size. When you add in smooth footwork and okay vision Fox could easily be one of the more dynamic guards in the league.

That he was so successful at getting to the rim and scoring despite defenses going under every single screen against him and playing off him speaks to his massive potential. The UCLA game in many ways showed off what type of player Fox could be with a respectable jumper. UCLA stupidly trailed him around screens, and he proceeded to torch them to the tune of 38 points.

It’s not a stretch to say Fox could be a +5 or better player on the offensive end with massive shooting improvement. Whether Fox’s ultimate upside is equal to, greater than, or slightly less than Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz’s offensive upside is hard to say because we haven’t seen enough of Fox with defenses guarding him like he can shoot. Fox is certainly a worse creator for his teammates than either guy, but his speed and finishing combo is the best of the group. The fact that it is even a discussion as to who has the highest offensive upside is a huge point in Fox’s favor, and suggests there’s a real argument for him at #3 overall.

Still, Fox’s shooting developing at an outlier rate cannot be expected. Upside is a huge part of draft rankings, but it is not the only part. It is also important to evaluate Fox’s offense if he only were to develop into the 29–33% range that is to be expected. So, with all that in mind, what is a realistic outcome for Fox’s offense?

Fox’s combination of quickness and leaping is nearly unheard of. Bigger guys like Wall and Westbrook have more speed and explosion but a little less quicks and ability to slither around the defense. Smaller guys with Fox’s ability to get into the lane like Kemba or Conley aren’t scorers at the rim like him.

To get an idea of how unique Fox’s combination of attacking and finishing skills are, I compared Fox’s unassisted half-court at rim field goal attempts per 40 and his FG% in such situations with every other point guard who has been drafted since 2012 (when the always great Hoop-Math’s database came into existence).

A brief note on methodology: Hoop-Math doesn’t present the data in the raw so I made the assumptions that a) all put-back field goals come in the half-court and b) players shoot 100% on assisted shots at the rim. Neither of these are likely completely true but they should do a much better job of painting a prospects unassisted creation than leaving them in.

All data is given for prospects last NCAA year other than C.J. McCollum who tore his ACL early into his senior year. Data for Elfrid Payton is no longer available for some reason. There is no significance to the column breakup.

There is a lot to take in here, but a few things are worth highlighting. First, no player in the entire dataset matches Fox in terms of both attempts and efficiency. That fact cannot be emphasized enough. Despite lacking a jump shot and defenses playing off of him at every opportunity, no NCAA point guard prospect in the last five years has been better than Fox at both finishing and getting to the basket.

Only two players across this time-frame outproduced Fox in terms of unassisted makes at the rim (if you multiply attempts by percent). Jawun Evans and Jordan Clarkson. In many ways this was the one signifier in Clarkson’s profile that he was an NBA player, and yet he still doesn’t come off as impressively as Fox. He was a senior nearly three years older than Fox when he put up those numbers, and his 2.24 attempts per 40 and 52.5% conversion rate as a sophomore at Tulsa are telling of Fox’s advantage.

Evans and his 32.7% usage rate are their own beast. He’s an intriguing prospect in his own right who deserves further evaluation. Regardless, if we compare Fox’s numbers to Evan’s freshman year numbers (in a more analogous usage situation) Fox again wins. Evans has slightly more attempts per 40 (3.84>3.65), but Fox with a massive edge in efficiency (57.7%>44.3%).

It is also worth briefly mentioning that Fox’s finishing has been discussed as a weakness in the past. I’m not sure where this notion came from, but it is not backed up by any data. My guess is that people are biased due to a combination of Fox getting to the rim so much that he misses more, and that his body tends to flail around and look out of control even when he does finish shots.

The point is, Fox is a unique prospect. If Hoop-Math data went back beyond 2012 there likely would be more similar seasons, but it is certainly unfair to compare Fox to any point guard to come out in the last five years. Moreover, the thought of how destructive he could be as an attacker and finisher if defenses actually respected his jumper is frightening.

After thinking long and hard, there are two NBA players who made sense to compare to Fox as reference points. One is Tony Parker, who I must again thank Kaiser Lindeman for bringing to my mind, and the other is Dennis Schroeder. Neither are perfect examples. No one ever is. Both are smaller and less good vertical athletes. The key is that both hit the intersection of being primarily interior scorers, relying on their speed and quickness more than anything else, and struggling as decision makers.

Since neither played in the NCAA it is difficult to compare their numbers to Fox. That never stopped me from trying though. Conveniently enough, all three have pre-NBA data available from levels of competition that actually match up pretty well.

Fox’s NCAA numbers, Parker’s numbers in the French Pro A league, and Schroeders numbers in the German BBL can all be compared, as can Fox’s EYBL numbers against Parker and Schroeder’s FIBA u-18 numbers. Using the invaluable resource that is Layne Vashro’s work on relative league competition, we can see that the SEC and the first divisions of the French and German leagues are shockingly similar.

Vashro’s work on the competition level of the French league only extends back to 2003. It might have been a touch worse when Parker played in 2001, but the similarity in competition should still hold. According to Vashro, these numbers,

are a measure of what statistical production in each league says about NBA potential.

Vashro did not calculate a competition score for NIKE EYBL, but since EYBL play is the top 18-and-under American competition and FIBA u-18 is the top 18-and-under European competition it seems fair to compare across. EYBL competition should be thought of as slightly more high-level, particularly in comparison to Parker’s numbers from 2000 when European competition was less strong.

Statistical comparisons should never be thought of as the end of a prospect discussion. Everyone’s team context plays a different role in influencing their numbers, and players tools and mentality affect the way they translate and improve. Nonetheless, this comparison seems useful in ascertaining what type of player Fox could be.

Anyway, on to the numbers. The first three rows should be compared amongst each other but not against the bottom three, and vise-versa.

I understand a table like this can be hard to read. What’s worth looking at? Schroeder’s fluky 40% shooting from three inflated his pro-numbers, but Fox and Parker are in a clear tier of their own when it comes to creating for themselves. Parker beats Fox in efficiency in pro vs. NCAA, but Fox has a big edge in volume. Looking at PTS/40 and TS%, Fox scores with a little more volume than Parker while being almost as efficient.

Basically, Fox seems much closer to Tony Parker as an interior scorer than Schroeder, and was even better than Parker at finding these shots. This makes sense scouting-wise. Fox doesn’t quite have Parker’s touch and creativity around the rim, but his superior physical tools allow him to make up the difference via volume.

As shooters, variance’s effect reigns supreme. Schroeder is the worst in younger competition but the best in pro/NCAA, and Fox and Parker’s numbers both jump around quite a bit. Fox’s three-point volume and efficiency in NCAA play stand out as bad, but his free throw shooting and past three-point success fit right into the overall cohort. To dive even deeper, I took the liberty of summing shooting numbers across NCAA and EYBL play for Fox, and summing Parker’s numbers in not only league and FIBA tournament play but also in his league’s domestic cup and FIBA qualifying rounds.

Across what is roughly two years of competition for both players, Fox shot 48/167 (28.7%) from three and 236/324 (72.8%) from the line. Parker was 64/217 (29.5%) from beyond the arc and 168/223 (75.3%) at the stripe. Honestly startlingly similar in terms of both sample size and efficiency.

The rest of the data is also interesting. Parker’s one clear advantage across both levels of competition is assist to turnover ratio. Parker had decision making questions himself, but Fox lies somewhere between him and Schroeder in that department. It’s hard to extrapolate too much from their differing steal production at different competition levels, but Parker’s pro production is probably most impressive. Fox’s size and vertical leaping show up in him lapping both Parker and Schroeder in blocks and rebounds.

So, on the whole, this is a very positive exercise for Fox’s future prospects. Schroeder has turned himself into a decent offensive point guard, and Fox has a noticeable edge in almost every category other than perimeter shooting. Parker and Fox come out about the same. Fox with a slight advantage in volume and defense, Parker a slight edge in efficiency and creation for others.

Given Fox’s statistical production, his physical tools, and his aesthetic appeal to traditional scouting he looks like an awfully strong prospect. Tony Parker’s unique strengths and weaknesses were maximized by Greg Popovich’s brilliant coaching, but De’Aaron Fox seems to have just as unique a profile of strengths that could allow him to thrive in the league. It is even worth considering if his room for improvement in decision making and superior physical tools give him more upside than Parker. He certainly has more upside if his shot develops better than Parker’s.

The most likely scenario is still that Fox’s career falls somewhere between Schroeder and Parker. However, even without much shooting development it is plausible Fox could be a high-impact offensive stud in the mold of Tony Parker. Given shooting development, it is easy to envision Fox as a top-10 player in the NBA.

An expected outcome of “somewhere between Schroeder and Parker” is pretty darn wide, but gives him a significantly lower median than some of the other top prospects.

Even in a good non-shooting outcome for Fox, he is a tricky player to build around. Another superstar’s skills are not maximized if they are trying to create while Fox’s man sags into help. It will take good coaching (like Popovich’s) to minimize Fox’s “damage,” and he might not be a great fit for teams like Philly who already have other potential high usage stars.

Fox’s ceiling matches anyone though, and makes him a legitimate option in the 3–6 range in this year’s draft.