There was a moment in the middle of last season when the hype thinned on Ja Morant. This shift from breathless praise to mild concern wasn’t sustained, and as he’s shown this year, it wasn’t particularly well-founded either, but the path of even burgeoning superstars is parabolic. We can’t keep saying nice things about you forever. Young, athletic guards especially. They come into the league exciting and fearsome and discomfitingly reckless, and because rookies aren’t expected to do much more than delineate the broad outline of their potential, we celebrate what they do well and table their deficiencies for later discussion. And then later discussion is always a downer. In Morant’s case, there were worries that he might have Russell Westbrook Syndrome, that he might be an I got this guy who can’t shoot.
What’s funny about that since-squashed criticism is not exactly that Morant has posted career-best efficiency numbers from inside and outside the arc in his third year, an All-NBA lock if we called the season tomorrow, but that it’s built on a pretty absurd extrapolation of early data. The idea that a 21-year-old might not improve his shooting stroke, and that this lack of improvement might—what, exactly? Sink the Grizzlies in a Finals game? They finished eighth in the Western Conference last year. They’re putting together a fine 2021-22 campaign but youthful teams usually have to get knocked around in the playoffs a couple times before they’re truly ready to compete for a title. Ja Morant is still figuring out what he can do on a basketball court, in the body he’s growing into, and it’s going to take us a decade to figure out what he is—his enduring strengths and weaknesses, what he achieves and why, how far he take the Grizz or whoever he’s playing for. This doesn’t mean that discussing what he could become—where he has room to improve, the firmer limits we sense he’s jutting up against—is altogether foolish or uninteresting, but more than anything else it’s chatter to satisfy our anxieties about what we can’t know. Be careful of anybody who passes it off as analysis.
It is sort of hard to recall the last time people were delighted with De’Aaron Fox. But it definitely wasn’t a long time ago; he’s only 24. You can’t trust the Kings to be straight with you about anything, but their story goes that they felt so good about Fox’s rookie year that they passed on Luka Dončić in the 2018 draft, because they didn’t want to select somebody who would take the ball out of Fox’s hands. Two drafts later, they picked Tyrese Halliburton 12th overall, with the implicit instruction being that he and Fox would have to learn to share.
It’s Sacramento, where narratives crest and fall beneath the rest of the basketball world’s notice. We typically only catch the end of long-running developments. The club fires Luke Walton after a 6-and-11 start and most of the people who hear about it think wait, he didn’t get canned last summer? So De’Aaron Fox has in many of our distracted minds aged and time-traveled in an instant, from an ascendant floor general in let’s call it December 2019 to a lamented figure in January 2022. Surely, stuff has happened in the interregnum that’s informed his change in status. I watch more Kings games than any normal person does—about six per season, nine at the absolute most—and I would posit that Fox went down the wrong path, tried to become too much like Kyrie Irving when he’s better suited for what John Wall was aiming at before his body broke down. And now he’s this confused blend of bad shots, deflated confidence, and misapplied talent. Those assist numbers are way too low, and in year five he’s still streaky at best from deep. It barely needs to be said that the team and coaching staff around him have not helped.
The Kings are insisting that he’s not on the trading block, which is what you have to say when a player is on the trading block, or it makes so much sense to put them there that bloggers keep insisting that the player must be available. There’s sentiment in the wind that the once-promising Fox is stunting the now-promising Halliburton’s development. Fox for Ben Simmons? Fox for Domantas Sabonis? These are rumors with real heat behind them, or they’re simply fans and media entertaining themselves, but what they indicate is that he could use a change of scenery, and that the Kings might be better off without him, if they could get somebody useful in return.
De’Aaron Fox is only 24, and he’s already 24. If it’s silly to talk about how a second-year player like Ja Morant can’t shoot like it’s a fatal flaw, it’s also silly to talk about a 24-year-old in his fifth season learning to shoot like it’s something that’s going to happen—and that not being able to shoot so far hasn’t perhaps irreparably messed up other parts of his game. Our perceptions of players are often either rushed or catching up winded after the fact. There is so much in front of Fox, another ten years of professional ball, probably, and yet it feels at this particular time in his career that he’s going to play through all of it smacking slightly of disappointment, not quite lining up with our early expectations. This isn’t worth dwelling on, because it’s sad, and might not come true anyway. Maybe that change of scenery will arrive, and it’ll be panacean. In the meantime Fox is stuck in a prolonged funk that seems like it will go on forever, with ways out that strain the imagination.