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De’Aaron Fox Is Putting Massive Pressure On NBA Execs

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Not since the 2005 class that featured Chris Paul and Deron Williams has an NBA draft been so top-heavy with elite point guard prospects as this year’s. Pending the luck of the ping pong balls at the NBA Draft Lottery (Tuesday at 8 pm EST), an enormous weight will descend upon the shoulders of the executives who will make the final decision on which prospects come off the board first. Complicating matters is the tantalizing potential of De’Aaron Fox, the Kentucky point guard who dominated the more highly-rated Lonzo Ball in the NCAA Tournament and whose stock is rumored to be rising.

Think about it — let’s say the Philadelphia 76ers win the second pick while the Boston Celtics receive the third pick from the Brooklyn Nets’ ill-fated trade. Let’s also stipulate that Markelle Fultz is selected by the team that wins the first overall pick. Philly is a team that’s desperate for an impact player at the point guard position, even with Ben Simmons set to absorb minutes at the point once he’s healthy. Get the pick right and the 76ers add a foundational piece to Simmons and superstar-in-waiting Joel Embiid. Philadelphia would cement itself as one of the NBA’s most exciting and watchable young teams for years to come.

Get it wrong and a much darker fate awaits … that of the Atlanta Hawks. With a hole at point guard the size of the Grand Canyon, Atlanta gambled on the “superstar potential” of Marvin Williams with the second pick in 2005, only to see Paul become a generational talent and Deron Williams the eventual centerpiece of a trade that returned major assets for the Utah Jazz. If you’re the 76ers, do you go with Ball, the player who has spent most of the college season as a consensus top-two pick? Or do you gamble on Fox, whose jump shot is famously-shaky but who dominated Ball on the brightest of stages with a NCAA Tournament freshman record 39 points?

Imagine if the 76ers take Ball and he doesn’t live up to the hype while Fox goes third to Boston and helps the Celtics reach an NBA Finals. That’s the kind of pressure Fox’s wildcard status has introduced into the always-volatile calculus of the NBA draft. And that’s probably why Fox said Philly was the one organization that asked in his team interview how he saw himself integrating with the 76ers’ existing roster.

“They wanted to see how I fit with Ben and Joel,” Fox told the assembled media at the NBA Draft Combine. “They haven’t really had a point guard in a few years. That could be the missing piece to what they need.”

It could indeed, and that’s why any team that has a shot at drafting Fox had better get that decision right. His 39 points while limiting Ball to 10 is only a one-game sample, but what a sample. In interviews, Fox came off extremely professional and prepared. He didn’t shy away from questions about his ability to hit shots from the NBA’s deeper three-point line or play away from the ball.

“I am comfortable moving off the ball but I have to show people I can do it,” said Fox. “No one really thinks I can do it because I struggled shooting in college. I started shooting it well at the end of the year and I feel like, if I’m knocking down shots, I’m very comfortable off the ball.”

Fox was also undeterred by the prospect of playing in the Triangle offense if he’s drafted by the Knicks and spoke glowingly of the prospect of teaming with Kristaps Porzingis.

“Everyone says it’s hard to learn,” Fox said of the Triangle. “But if I go in there and have to play in it, I’ll learn quickly. Porzingis, he’s amazing. I really paid attention to the NBA this year just because I know I’m about to go into this business. I have to stop watching more as a casual fan and have to think about it as a business aspect. If I’m able to play with him, I feel like we can do something special.”

While top prospects such as Fultz and Ball have skipped the Combine, Fox told NBA TV that he always looked forward to the opportunity of participating and meeting with NBA teams.

“It was always a dream of mine to come to the NBA Combine,” Fox said. “I have been watching it for many years. It just gives them more of a peek at my personality. You really don’t get that chance too many times.”

Fox made it clear in that interview that he’s hoping for a situation where he can play right away, rather than develop over time.

“Wherever I land, I want to make an immediate impact,” Fox told NBA TV. “No matter who picks me, once I step on the court, once I get there, I just want to be effective when I touch the court.”

The playmaker’s media savvy was again on full display in a live interview with ESPN, in which he described the sort of in-depth answers he’s been giving teams.

“When they ask me what my best aspect is, I don’t say speed, I say playmaking,” said Fox. “I mean that offensively and defensively. Say a play breaks down offensively. I’m able to beat my man and create a shot for myself or a teammate. And then defensively — just getting under people, speeding people that don’t want to be sped up, playing in the passing lanes, getting my hands on loose balls — that’s what I mean by defensive playmaking.”

Taking part in the NBA Draft Combine was obviously the right move for Fox, and his polished performance in interviews makes the conundrum that much tougher for any team that contemplates passing over him on draft night. The stakes couldn’t be any higher, and the drama doesn’t get any better.

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About Buddy Grizzard

Buddy Grizzard

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.