Every star in the NBA ascends on his own terms, yet most make the journey in a familiar arc. There are only so many ways to the top. Some were blue-chip prospects made No. 1 picks given franchises of their own. Others have caught their own team by surprise after being hidden in plain sight. There are the mid-major success stories, the international imports, the high school phenoms who went underutilized on stacked college teams—the best of which join the NBA and tend to progress with a certain cadence. By now, we should know the path when we see it, as is the case now for De’Aaron Fox.
This week, Fox fulfilled what has become a standard in the new canon of American stardom in the sport: a striking turn for USA Basketball. Sports Illustrated’s own Jeremy Woo penciled in the young King for the final 12-man roster to compete in this month’s FIBA World Cup. Marc Stein of The New York Times, impressed with the way Fox had competed in Team USA’s practices in Las Vegas, suggested the same. What’s noteworthy is the way that Fox has put himself in legitimate contention for a roster spot he wasn’t initially considered for. That changed when player after player—and, of note: guard after guard—from the established pool turned down the chance to compete in China. With James Harden, Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Bradley Beal, DeMar DeRozan, and Eric Gordon no longer in play by their own choice, Fox was called up from the program’s select team. On his own merits, he now seems likely to make the final cut.
The revival of the USA Basketball program was predicated on the idea of taking international competition seriously. In reality, the mileage of these competitions vary. Team USA went to the Beijing Olympics in 2008 with one of the glitziest rosters ever assembled. Later this month, they’ll return to China with a group of very good players and hope to win it all regardless. This is a pattern. Ever since USA Basketball took steps to revitalize its program and professionalize its process after a shocking loss in the 2004 Olympics, this sort of off-year competition has been largely fulfilled by younger stars in the making. In 2010, Team USA sent Kevin Durant (then 21 years old), Russell Westbrook (21), Derrick Rose (21), and Stephen Curry (22) to Turkey. In 2014, Harden (24), Anthony Davis (21), DeMarcus Cousins (23), and Andre Drummond (21) joined a team that boasted Rudy Gay (28) as its oldest player.
Even if he makes the roster, Fox won’t be in a position to dominate the way that Durant did in 2010 or Harden and Davis did in 2014. He will, however, be in a position to grow; the expansion of USA Basketball as a program has been possible in part because of its value as a staging area. This is where James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh sketched out the architecture of a superteam. It’s been a launchpad—or at least a confirmation—for some of the best home-grown talent in the sport. It may not be quite the same without the program’s full complement of superstars in tow, but the national team remains a laboratory for high-level professionals to meet and compare notes. It is a kind of All-Star event, lighter on the All than usual, where the focus is actual basketball.
It’s in that environment that Fox is thriving. His career was already on the rise after a thrilling sophomore season. Year over year, Fox averaged 17.3 points per game off of 11.6, contributed 7.3 assists per game from 4.4, and posted 54.4% true shooting after 47.8%. The most tangible changes came in the way he interpreted the game while playing at speed. Some guards as fast as Fox are content to skim the action with basic drive-and-kick play. At 21 years old and entering his third NBA season, Fox is already experiencing the game differently. There is real promise in any player who sees their natural talent for its limitations. You can get by in the game by being quick. You can make it your own by being clever.
Fox is already on his way, which makes his arrival with USA Basketball a timely accelerant. “To come in and play with these players from around the league, play for Gregg Popovich and play for your country, it’s such a great experience for everybody—but particularly for a guy like De’Aaron, who I think has a chance to get to an All-Star level player,” said Team USA assistant coach Steve Kerr (via James Ham of NBC Sports). “This is going to be an important stepping stone.” One step is the nature of international competition, which is a different sort of basketball riddle than those Fox may be used to. Another is the chance to learn from players like Kemba Walker and Kyle Lowry, who remade themselves through their understanding of how the game works. A third could be the affirmation of the process itself. If Fox makes the roster in the end, that would mean something for a player once confined to the select team.
USA Basketball has never made a player’s career, but it can certainly further it. All it takes is the right young star at the right time, catching a well-earned opportunity in stride.