Shining lights: De’Aaron Fox, Domantas Sabonis working to build a brighter Kings future

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The first time he saw it, De’Aaron Fox had to pull over his car on 5th Street. Either the Earth was blitzing open, or something from out of this world was raying down, because the brightest burst of purple the 24-year-old had ever seen, thousands of feet of towering glow, was beaming above the Golden 1 Center in downtown Sacramento and straight into outer space. Kings owner Vivek Ranadive wants aliens to see the purple blast — made from four, 1,000-watt RGB lasers — affixed to his stadium’s roof. He wants everyone to see it, the proudest proclamation for each victory of his 10-9 team being firmly entrenched in the postseason hunt. Seven straight wins and seven straight beams came in November, Sacramento’s longest undefeated stretch since 2004.

It is perhaps the most inventive gimmick in professional sports — and also maybe the boldest. Each Sacramento win — particularly at home — has become outright glorious. But this franchise, which has seen far more losses over 16 seasons stranded outside the playoffs, must also bear the brunt of its beam’s spectacular absence, mind you, whenever it fails to outlast its foe. The Kings have dropped three straight contests since that seven-game spurt.

It is a gamble, but also a gamble on fun, and who wouldn’t want a roll of the dice if that’s what’s waiting in the pot? It’s a gamble on Foxy, as everyone around the Kings calls their starting point guard. A gamble that the kid who wanted to stay in Sacramento can solidify as a sturdy pillar of the organization. And it’s a gamble that Domantas Sabonis, the 6-foot-11 big man from Lithuania, the son of one of the game’s greatest, can flourish as Fox’s long-term partner better than anyone else Sacramento could have acquired before the 2021 NBA trade deadline — when it sent promising guard Tyrese Haliburton to Indiana in return.

Because across the league, how eras are defined, how playoff appearances arrive, how executives’ and coaches’ job statuses remain secure, it all boils down to the symbiotic dance of teams’ supernovas. The Kings’ fate boils down to Fox and Sabonis functioning as opposite charges of a powerful battery.

“Fox is unselfish, I’m unselfish. I love to play in the pick-and-roll, he loves to play in the pick-and-roll. We want to show people that we can win, and win consistently, apart from everything that goes on in the NBA,” Sabonis told Yahoo Sports. “I think that’s the most important thing, is to show that we can turn this franchise around.”

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 20: De'Aaron Fox #5 and Domantas Sabonis #10 of the Sacramento Kings celebrate after a three-point basket in the fourth quarter against the Detroit Pistons at Golden 1 Center on November 20, 2022 in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
De'Aaron Fox, left, and Domantas Sabonis are trying to lay a foundation in Sacramento. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images) (Lachlan Cunningham via Getty Images)

They did not choose this shared destination, though. Fox and Sabonis didn’t lock arms and flee to Sacramento by free agency or by trade request. The Kings have wagered on a strategy league personnel credit to Daryl Morey’s regime of number crunchers in Houston. Get one All-Star, then another — any other — so long as he’s an All-Star talent, and you have yourself the building blocks of a contender. That’s what the Rockets did with Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming. And then James Harden and Dwight Howard, and then Harden and Chris Paul, and then Harden and Russell Westbrook.

It’s what Sam Hinkie, Houston’s former vice president, attempted to do in Philadelphia by searching for All-Stars in the draft lottery, and Morey himself has now continued in Philadelphia by teaming Joel Embiid alongside … none other than Harden. Gersson Rosas, another former Rockets lieutenant, paired Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota with D’Angelo Russell in his stint with the Timberwolves. Sacramento general manager Monte McNair, who spent 13 years in the Rockets’ braintrust, has built his version of this church with these Kings, joining Foxy — Sacramento’s No. 5 pick in the 2017 NBA draft — and Domas at the hip. It’s the fastest player in the league and a two-time All-Star, both lefties in their mid-twenties, with years to build pick-and-roll chemistry before their primes begin in earnest.

Kings brass says Fox is playing the best ball of his career, averaging 25.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and 6.1 assists while shooting 38.5% from deep. Sabonis? He’s averaging near triple-doubles on the daily. Sacramento, in its first year under head coach Mike Brown, trails only Boston and Phoenix with the third-best offense in the NBA. Two of their losses have come from dubious late-game whistles.

“I was in Denver with Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic, and this is on that level,” Kings forward Trey Lyles told Yahoo Sports. “This is definitely on that level.”

It’s maximizing these imperfect marriages that often separates a banner unfurling in the rafters from the teams with unfulfilled hopes. Or for Sacramento, even a prolonged period of postseason success. These tandems, and sometimes trios, have proven as combustible as they are potent. There are so few All-Stars who are even walking this planet, let alone those proven to win in the playoffs, let alone those amenable to living in the same market. And there are fewer who are even attainable during an executive’s reign and also an ideal stylistic running mate for another All-Star talent in the same uniform.

The Kings’ two centerpieces hail from vastly different backgrounds. Sacramento’s point guard is a football player’s son. Fox’s father, Aaron, suited up for Fort Hays State University in Kansas and saw his second child directing traffic at the line of scrimmage, in the great state of Texas, at just 7 years old.

The gridiron gravitas is still elemental in Fox’s game. He is a blur with the basketball, shifting and slicing at vicious angles. NBA defenders fail to keep him in front of their shuffling feet like flailing tacklers stumble to track a speedster in open turf. Even the flick of his wrist aimed at the rim could be Fox tossing the laces over a defender into the end zone. After he hovers patiently above Sabonis’ screens, he surveys his opponents before he pounces, as if he’s a running back waiting to pounce through a crack in his offensive line.

“When we would guard him [vs. Indiana], we’d want to send their point guard left because we don’t want Domas to roll left,” Fox told Yahoo Sports. “But I’m left-handed [too.] So I told him, a lot of times teams want to try to force me to go right. I told him I’m fine going right, because now you’re rolling left, and it’s dangerous.

“They go over, they go under, they blitz him,” Sabonis explained. “So I gotta be more aware of what I’m doing. I usually hold the screen an extra second, so it gives him all the time and space to do what he needs. If he wants to pull up, he has an extra second to get his footwork right. I always tell him, ‘I’m gonna set a screen and I’m gonna get you open. Do what you gotta do. If you get stuck, and you need SOS, I’m gonna be in the right spot at the right time and drop it off, I’ll finish, I’ll make the next play.’”

Few centers can ever access that prism, but the Kings’ center was born with it. He was born in Portland while his father, Arvydas Sabonis, starred for the Trail Blazers at the elbows and the blocks by spraying assists over his shoulder and behind his back and around his head.

With the ball between his palms, the younger Sabonis is like a lighthouse out on the perimeter. He stands tall among the storm of activity on the floor, spotting runways for cutters on all sides, navigating shooters on handoffs so they can rocket around his broad shoulders. Throw it in front of Domas and lead him to the hoop, and he gets to those bruising bumps with his right shoulder, plus a dizzying array of shot fakes and spin moves.

From Sabonis’ first game with Sacramento, a 132-119 victory over Minnesota, Fox could feel the weight of his burden melting. “Just the way that he passed the ball and he wants to see his teammates succeed,” Fox said, “it was kind of like a match made in heaven.” You can spot the big man cheering his teammates’ buckets more emphatically than his own, whipping underhanded fist pumps like he’s Tiger Woods on a finishing green. “If the ball is moving, all five guys on the court are like, ‘OK, that’s good sh**, let’s go,’” Sabonis said.

When the Kings first landed the All-Star center, and then throughout the offseason, Sacramento leadership divulged their choices in this adventure to Fox and Sabonis over several meetings. The Kings have surrounded this big-small pairing with two-way marksmen in Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk, two flamethrowers from distance who can also get to the basket. Rookie forward Keegan Murray is providing another spacing element to Sacramento’s burgeoning duo. “They built the team around us, with a lot of shooters, a lot of guys who can switch, that can guard,” Sabonis said.

Fox and Monk starred together at the University of Kentucky. That synergy, the same Wildcat blue coursing through their veins, made for a simple task in Fox recruiting his college teammate to Northern California from Hollywood in free agency. “I knew we could pay him more than the Lakers could pay him,” Fox smiled. “It was easy. It definitely was easy. Us playing together again, and I told him what the city would be like if we were winning.” He couldn’t have known a cut on Monk’s face would lead half the stadium to mimic the Band-Aid across his cheek.

Their long standing connection was obvious from early pick-up runs, well before training camp began, when Fox and Monk slung passes as if they were playing a different game and speaking another language. Kings players are now regularly organizing group dinners. They attribute a lot of Sacramento’s early success to countless summer gatherings, almost recreating that collegiate spirit all in one. “When you’re winning,” one assistant general manager told Yahoo Sports, “guys tend to buy in when they’re not even realizing it.”

New signings and mainstays alike flocked to Las Vegas in July to watch the team’s Summer League outfit and connect away from the floor. Sabonis hosted a handful of teammates — Fox, Davion Mitchell, Richaun Holmes, among others — in late June for a tour around Napa Valley, bopping around wineries and restaurants, learning the vineyard’s histories as well as their own, and found ample time to run fives at the local high school.

“Once the season ends, you don’t see a lot of players for six months until training camp. We’re trying to do something different. It’s the beginning,” Sabonis told Yahoo Sports. “Maybe eventually, if you’re doing really good and it’s consistent, maybe it’s different. But this is a whole new team. Even after [that trip], we had five or six new players.”

Sabonis has planted his flag here, actively sewing the Kings’ new tradition of triumph while making a home in wine country, just a short trip from wife Shashana’s family in Los Angeles. They are building their own household, nursing a newborn who came into their lives in March. He returns to Napa following games, that purple beam glowing in Sabonis’ rearview for almost an hour. “It’s awesome to get home and just …” — here, he exhaled — “... relax your brain. There’s so much basketball in the NBA. It’s such a long season, film, coaches, training staff, here all day. When you get home, you just want to take your mind off things. I’ve realized that time means a lot.”

Fox has his own acre-plus of solitude far closer to the facility, where he and his wife, Recee, are expecting their first child, a boy, in February. Sacramento is the only city they have ever known in this roundball universe. They have always felt a cohesion with these sleepier streets. “It’s not L.A., Miami. But we don’t do those things anyway,” Fox said. The couple doesn’t drink, not even a drop of red at the wineries over the summer. He prefers his late nights poring over video games.

The parallels are clear. The two men tasked with uplifting this franchise, and sharing that mantle, are lockstep in their life cycles outside of the facility. They are figuring out how to be husbands and fathers just as they figure out how to lord over Cowbell Kingdom in unison. “Those are things that we like to talk about and continue to get to know each other,” Fox said. “Those are things that help more than people realize.”

See, there are really three entities in any strong union between equals: Both individuals, and then also the collective partnership. They are three separate plants, all watered by the same can. Some days, some weeks, one person needs a little more care, one All-Star needs a few more shots to find his rhythm. The other has to sustain with a little less, all while remembering the partnership requires its necessary fill as well. The pick-and-roll combo must launch Sacramento’s laser through the night sky, but everyone else has to eat, too. We do things for them, for ourselves, but also for the collaborative us.

And if a true playoff window opens, there’s no telling how galactic this franchise will celebrate. But Foxy and Domas will be at the forefront of it all.