Former Kentucky star De’Aaron Fox will be the first to tell you he loved his time in Lexington and playing for John Calipari. Averaging 16.7 points, 4.6 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 1.5 steals per contest, the 6-foot-3 guard quickly established himself as one of the best players in college basketball during the 2016-17 season, solidifying his status as a top-five pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.
In particular, he loved the freedom he had under Calipari to run the show and play in a system that closely resembles the NBA. It prepared him for the league and allowed him to develop into one of the top up-and-coming guards in the NBA, signing a five-year, $163 million maximum extension with the Sacramento Kings back in November.
He envisioned this success as a five-star prospect out of high school and knew going to Kentucky could help make that happen.
“My final (list) was Kentucky, Louisville, Kansas, LSU and Arizona. Funny thing, I knew (where I wanted to go),” Fox said in an appearance on ALL THE SMOKE with Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson. “I feel like most kids just waste time saying they want to take visits, visit these campuses, do all this, but I knew where I was going the whole time. I was like, “So I’m about to go spend the colleges’ money, go have a good time, spend time with my parents, take whoever I want to go on these official visits. But the whole time I knew I was going to Kentucky.”
From the start, he knew he would be able to come in, play a significant number of minutes, show off his talents, help the team win games and go on to the NBA after just one year. The other schools on his list couldn’t offer that.
“(Being a one-and-done) was the main reason. But second reason, it was just the place I knew I wanted to play,” Fox said. “Louisville had just gotten in trouble for the stripper s***, so my mom was like, “You’re not going there.” Went to LSU (on a visit) because I wanted to go to Baton Rouge for a weekend. Kansas, Bill Self ain’t playing no freshmen over juniors and seniors, they had Devonte’ Graham and Frank Mason at the time. I knew I wasn’t going to play there. Kentucky was the only real choice, I knew I was going to play. Kentucky was the place I knew I was going to start, knew I was going to play.”
And as expected, it was an experience Fox loved and is still grateful for to this day.
“Man, it was great. I love Cal. I still talk to Cal to this day. He lets you rock,” Fox said. “That’s why he wants guards like John [Wall] and myself and [Brandon] Knight, Tyler Ulis. The way that he coaches, it’s like absolute freedom. He’ll put X’s and O’s but at the end of the day, everything’s going to end up in a pick and roll or isolation. That’s what the NBA is too.”
Fox’s team won games – 32 of them to be exact – but the former Wildcat feels that wasn’t Calipari’s focus during his short time with the program. In his eyes, the UK head coach builds his rosters with NBA talent and knows the wins will come as a result. The focus is on player development.
“When he’s able to get those guys, you find success,” Fox said. “Cal couldn’t give a damn about winning college basketball games. If he’s getting guys who he knows he can end up developing into NBA players, you’re automatically going to win 30 games a year just from that alone. That’s what I loved.
“You came in, you had to earn everything. He made you work. At the end of the day, I was a top-five pick, Bam (Adebayo) and Malik (Monk) were lottery picks. That’s all you can ask for. We lost in the Elite Eight, obviously we were mad as hell, but that wasn’t going to make me stay.”
As we’ve heard Calipari say time and time again throughout his time at Kentucky, Fox and the 2016-17 team’s other stars were told after the team’s heartbreaking loss to North Carolina in the Elite Eight that they would not be back the following year whether they wanted to return or not.
They had helped UK win games, made a deep run in the tournament, and established themselves as sure-fire lottery picks. Their time in Lexington was over.
“We lost on a buzzer-beater,” Fox said. “Cal brings us in about 20 minutes after, he said, “All of y’all are gone.” Brought us all in there, said, “You’re done, you’re not coming back. If you need us, you have our numbers, we’ll help you with whatever, but you’re not playing another college basketball game.”‘
For Fox’s complete comments on his time at Kentucky, along with the rest of the hour-long podcast with Barnes and Jackson, watch ALL THE SMOKE below: