De’Aaron Fox’s improved 3-point shooting on display against Victor Wembanyama, Spurs

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With just seconds remaining in the first half, De’Aaron Fox sized up Keldon Johnson, stepped back to his right, rose and cashed in his 500th career 3-pointer. It was his third 3 of the half and knotted up the Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs at 62 heading into the break.

Fox did something similar on the Kings’ penultimate possession of the first half when Jeremy Sochan went under a Sasha Vezenkov screen and Fox made him pay.

In previous seasons, going under screens set for Fox was acceptable and even encouraged. But this season, the 2023 All-NBA selection is shooting 38 percent from behind the arc, and his newfound 3-ball efficiency is opening up the floor for him to get even better looks.

“That’s the difference with Fox,” longtime former coach Doc Rivers said on the ESPN broadcast. “If you remember his first three or four years, ‘Go under, go under’ (the screen). But you can’t go under anymore on him.”

Fox is a 32.3 percent shooter from deep on 3.9 attempts per game for his career. It’s early, but the aforementioned 38 percent, 8.3 attempts and 3.2 makes from distance per game would be career-high marks for the All-Star. He led Sacramento to its fifth-straight win Friday, posting a season-high 43 points — one away from tying his career high — to go along with eight rebounds, seven assists, a block and a steal on 5-of-11 shooting from 3 en route to a 129-120 victory over San Antonio.

Last season, Fox had four games making five or more 3-pointers. He’s only played six games this season and has already notched two such games.

Fox is working on his fifth consecutive season scoring at least 20 points per contest, so putting the ball in the bucket is something to which anyone who’s followed his game should be accustomed. The ease with which Fox has been scoring isn’t new. What could be surprising, though, is his willingness and ability to punish defenders with his long-range jumper both off the dribble and in catch-and-shoot situations. That is unless you’re his coach.

“He’s worked extremely hard on that,” Kings coach Mike Brown said after the win. “Being able to shoot the ball like that, score from the other two levels as strong as he is — quick, athletic, intelligent, there’s nothing that will surprise me.

“The only thing that surprises me is every list I see on these MVP things, I don’t see (Fox’s) name on it at all. … Now that amazes me. That surprises me, that I don’t see his name mentioned on that list at all. Even when you start talking about lead guards, his name’s not mentioned. I don’t have an answer for that one, but I know it’s wrong.”

Sacramento overcame an 18-point first-quarter deficit to outscore the Spurs 100-88 over the final three quarters to improve to 7-4 overall, 5-1 with Fox and 2-0 in the In-Season Tournament. The Kings fared decently without their franchise player in the lineup while he was sidelined with a right ankle sprain, but to Brown’s point, Fox’s impact can’t be overstated.

The Kings are averaging 127 points, 29.5 assists and 17 made 3s per game on 49.6 percent shooting overall and 38.2 percent from distance when Fox is playing. Without Fox, Sacramento averaged 102.6 points, 25.2 assists and 12 made 3s per game on 42.3 percent shooting overall and 30 percent from long range.

Domantas Sabonis — who had an efficient 27-point, 14-rebound, seven-assist outing Friday — was a constant for the team during Fox’s absence. Fox went as far as to call Sabonis the “heartbeat” of the Kings postgame. While Sabonis is in the midst of another impressive campaign, averaging 19.8 points, 12.9 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game, there’s certainly an argument to be made on Fox’s behalf to claim that title.

“He’s a great player, man,” Sacramento guard Chris Duarte said of Fox. “You guys see it day in and day out. He’s a guy who we need scoring the ball the way he does.”

Fox scored his most points of any quarter Friday in the fourth — surprise, surprise. His 14-point fourth quarter featured two more 3s. The first was an in-and-out stepback over the outstretched arms of Victor Wembanyama with 10 minutes, 41 seconds remaining. Many have tried and failed to shoot over the 8-foot wingspan of the 2023 No. 1 overall pick, but Fox created just enough separation to get off a clean look to tie the score at 98.

His final 3-pointer of the night was a catch-and-shoot 23-footer right in front of San Antonio’s bench to give the Kings a 110-107 lead with 7:15 left.

By this point, Sochan had seen enough of Fox’s 3s fall to know not to go under screens anymore. That opened up the midrange, where Fox thrives. His final two field goals came in the paint on a one-legged floater and a leaning lefty layup over Zach Collins, whom Malik Monk forced to have a Kodak moment earlier in the evening.

Fourth quarters like these have become routine for the reigning NBA Clutch Player of the Year. Fox is leading the NBA in fourth-quarter points per game (9.8) entering Saturday.

“My teammates look at me to be more aggressive down the stretch,” Fox said. “I try to be that aggressive all game, but I think I said it before — the fourth quarter just feels a little different.”

Sacramento will continue its six-game road trip Sunday against the Dallas Mavericks before a two-game miniseries in New Orleans against the Pelicans on Monday and Wednesday. The Minnesota Timberwolves will host the Kings next Friday on their last pit stop before returning to Golden 1 Center.

(Photo: Scott Wachter / USA Today)

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