Devin Booker: Winning Player

— November 17th 2017

Loved and loathed in equal measure, the Phoenix Suns’ Devin Booker has divided fans and analysts alike. Has the young shooting guard made things clearer in year 3?

By Paul Headley

Only on the internet in 2017 could a player get crucified for scoring 70 points.

I know it wasn’t the cleanest high-scoring game, but who cares? I’ve seen players get better responses for dropping 70 in China. I realize the “stans” were out in full force, hammering the word superstar on a guy who wasn’t contributing enough wins to be near the term, but being able to drop that many points in an NBA game deserves some love.

Devin Booker is divisive. There is a certain type of player NBA hipsters love to loath, and Devin Booker has fit the mold like a glove the past two seasons. Bucket-getter on a bad team? Oh yes. Rabid fans hanging on every fade-away? You bet. Underwhelming advanced stats? Sure. For NBA hipsters, saying something positive about a player of his ilk would be like admitting you like a band that sells a lot of records. Perish the thought.

I fall in the middle of the two extremes. He wasn’t making winning contributions, but teenagers counted on for volume scoring seldom do. I saw the skill set, and a very clear path to becoming a phenomenal offensive weapon. The former Kentucky Wildcat is still a work in progress, but he’s further along than his critics like to admit.

Maturation

Booker has posted career highs across the board so far this season. He’s scoring 1.1 points per game more (on fewer shot attempts), and his advanced stats have shown considerable improvement. Booker’s increased assist and rebound percentages highlight how he’s contributing beyond his devastating isolation and post-up scoring.

from Basketball-Reference.com

Most importantly, at least for those of us who were demanding tangible proof of winning basketball, his on-off numbers have sky-rocketed. The team is eight points per 100 possessions better with him on the court this season, and he’s jumped to 14th among shooting guards in ESPN’s real plus minus rankings.

The departure of Eric Bledsoe left a playmaking void in the Suns’ offense. Booker has taken on the burden admirably, mixing up scoring and playmaking more effectively than at any point in his short career. The shift was geared as much to helping some struggling teammates as it was getting the most out of an ever-evolving skill set. Booker’s improvements, as well as his criminally undervalued basketball IQ, have not gone unnoticed by his teammates. Per NBA.com:

“I think he knows there’s so much attention and if he doesn’t make the passes, the double-team will come harder,” Jared Dudley said about his teammate. “For his age, his IQ is very high, the game is slowing down for him…Not only does he have the green light, he has a confidence when he chooses his spots.”

Lead Guard

Life as your team’s only real offensive threat attracts a lot of attention. Booker is getting better at reading how the defense is playing him, then swinging the ball to best exploit space.

Defenders play him to score out of the pick-and-roll more often than not (which he’s doing at a league average rate, 50th percentile), but it’s becoming more difficult by the week to stop him doing something productive. Sag off to contain a drive and he can bury a pull-up three. Watch this 4th quarter dagger against the Jazz:

Booker pull-up – Streamable

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Booker is shooting 41.2 percent on pull-up threes so far this season (3.4 attempts per game), up from 35 percent last season. It’s a very dangerous weapon when deployed correctly.

Icing and trapping is similarly problematic. Booker is a good ball-handler, and he’s got all sorts of tricks up his sleeve to create space and get around guys. He has a lovely hesitation dribble he uses to freeze defenders for just a second, then bursts as they get flat-footed. Watch him feed TJ Warren for an easy deuce:

Booker hesi off screen – Streamable

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Booker is just as dangerous outside of the pick-and-roll.

At six-foot-six, Booker is taller than most opposition guards. Trapping isn’t as effective on guys his size, and he’s composed enough to make great finds under duress.

Booker feed to corner shooter – Streamable

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Booker’s defense still lags way behind his offense, but the good news is he’s at least competing on a nightly basis. Some players just don’t see the game as well on both ends of the floor, but that shouldn’t stop him from eventually getting to average (even below average might suffice, given where his offense is going). His increased board work has helped a lot, and he’s getting his hands on the ball more:

Booker steal – Streamable

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Good habits and desire are as important on defense as athleticism and strength. Booker might never be a good defender, but it’s fallacy to think he can’t be.

Conclusions

The Suns paltry 5–10 record might not reflect it, but Devin Booker is a winning basketball player this year. His flirtation with being a lead playmaker is not a Zach LaVine “dear god, how did we end up here?” scenario. Booker will never be James Harden, but a team like the Denver Nuggets would kill for any one of their guards to have the type of point guard chops Booker is bringing to the table every night.

The NBA is a skill-based league. Diversity is key. Developing Booker’s playmaking will make him a much more dangerous player long-term, especially if the Suns can figure out a more permanent fixture at the one. The Suns start to the season was chaotic, but they’ve got some intriguing pieces scattered around their roster. The Suns have multiple playmakers, shooters and athletes that could someday be a fully-functional and winning team. For now, don’t let 70-point games obscure what should be apparent. Devin Booker is awesome.

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