At 20-years-old, with a 70-point game under his belt and praise from LeBron James as a future All-Star player, Devin Booker is starting to look the part of a franchise player for many and someone the Phoenix Suns can plan their franchise around for the next decade. To an extent, there’s no reason to overanalyze the problem and think that Booker will be anything but, at the very least, a great scorer who can do multiple useful things from running off screens for three-pointers, handling the ball in pick-and-roll situations and getting to the foul line a ton.
This season, Booker is averaging 21.6 points per game, making him just the sixth player in NBA history to average over 21 points at 20 years of age or younger – the others being Kyrie Irving, LeBron, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Shaquille O’Neal.
That’s a pretty encouraging statistic, and Booker has shown nice development from his rookie season when he averaged 13.8 points. Both this year and last, Booker’s shooting efficiency has been right around league average, though his three-point percentage is slightly up from 34.3 to 36.4 percent. He has improved steadily as a passer (though the numbers don’t quite show it yet), and some of the passes he makes out of the pick-and-roll are borderline excellent and the types of assists NBA teams need from their lead ballhandler.
Devin Booker to Marquese Chriss on the backside lob
51.1 percent of Booker’s field goal attempts have come between three feet and the three-point line, which is a slightly unhealthy number and has pushed Booker’s field goal percentage to the low 40’s in his career. But even as only a slightly above-average three-point shooter efficiency-wise, Booker’s ability to actually get many shots off from long-range is useful and, combined with the ability to get to the free throw line, has kept Booker’s shooting efficiency overall at an acceptable level. The Suns’ offense is filled with weird spacing mistakes and actions that don’t put players on the move and in positions to succeed, and in a sharper offense with better players around him Booker’s shooting percentages could potentially skyrocket as his shot selection improves.
One of the most exciting parts about Booker when projecting into the future is his free-throw shooting. He’s currently ranked 26th in free throws attempted at 5.2 per game, and in a year or two as Booker matures and gains strength, it’s easy to imagine Booker becoming one of those players who lives at the free throw line at around 10 attempts per game.
Booker’s jump shot looks really smooth, with a high and quick release to get clean looks over defenders. Surprisingly, Booker has only been a 40 percent shooter from mid-range and 35 percent from deep, but the more important and encouraging signs come from the types of shots he is able to make – from turnarounds in the post to tough jump shots several feet behind three-point line. This season, Booker has taken 211 shots from 25-feet or further, making 31.7 percent of them.
The path to becoming a star on the offensive end is relatively straightforward for Booker, and developing into a great player in the areas he’s already pretty good at could easily propel him to a 28-points-per-game scorer on great efficiency with a variety of ways to punish defenders. Creating off-the-dribble jumpers one-on-one, punishing smaller players in the post, getting to the basket against switches, creating in the pick-and-roll… Booker has shown the ability to do everything, and each of those skills could improve quickly considering Booker’s age and how much of the offense he’s already responsible for.
Despite the praise about Booker’s offense and the potential to grow going forward, his horrific defense makes him a net-minus on the court. He is one of the worst defensive wings in the NBA right now, and it’s not difficult to put together a James Harden-level compilation of all the lazy mistakes he makes on that end. Unlike Harden, however, Booker hasn’t shown the ability to be good in even short stretches when engaged.
The first and most glaring problem Booker has is defending drives, and more than likely on a defensive play you’ll find him standing completely straight when guarding the ballhandler. Throw in a pick somewhere in the vicinity and Booker shows zero intensity getting over it and challenging the play.
Elfrid Payton drives past Devin Booker in transition for lay-up. Booker doesn’t box out Nikola Vucevic who finishes the tip dunk
The play above shows some of the worst defensive errors in terms of effort and awareness an NBA player is likely to make on the court. Terrible footwork by Booker to allow a clean drive for Elfrid Payton to the middle, and since the big man is forced to pick up Payton to contest the drive, Booker’s immediate reaction should be to box out Nikola Vucevic, which he doesn’t do at all either.
Booker is averaging 3.2 rebounds per game, and playing on average 35 minutes a night, that’s just not enough for a 6-foot-6 two-guard. Considering Booker should be great running the offense in transition and attacking off transition picks, it would help Booker and the Suns offensively as well if he improved his awareness boxing out and going for rebounds.
In addition to the lackadaisical man-to-man defense, Booker often misses assignments in transition and misses nearly every baseline back-cut from the corner. Weird issues of spacing out and not helping or completely forgetting to stay cover his shooter happen every game for Booker.
Booker forgets he is guarding Jae Crowder off-the-ball on the wing
It’s tough to play good defense with a heavy load on offense, particularly for a young player, but Booker has to get to the point where he’s not terrible to help the Suns turn into a winning team. For the time being at least, Booker isn’t good enough offensively to cover for being a huge net-minus on defense.
The good news is, that should be a manageable task, and the NBA is filled with players who aren’t great athletes and physical one-on-one stoppers who produce on defense thanks to a combination of effort and awareness on where to be and when to rotate. Tyler Johnson for Miami is one of the best perimeter defenders in basketball, and Booker probably has similar tools to become a good defender. It’s unlikely Booker will ever be great, but defense is also hard to project since it’s mostly effort mixed in with some awareness.
The Suns have had only one winning season in the last six years after the Steve Nash-era, and, headed for the mid-20’s in wins this season, the team has a long way to becoming a winner anytime soon.
Apart from Booker, Phoenix doesn’t have another player on their roster who is guaranteed to be a quality starter. Dragan Bender hasn’t played much in his rookie year. Alex Len is in his fourth season and a long ways off from being a good player. Tyler Ulis is a short point guard and shooting under 40 percent from the field. Marquese Chriss is the definition ‘showing flashes’ with monstrous dunks and occasional three-point range, but at this point it’s too early to say what type of player he’ll become. TJ Warren is a capable scorer but a bad three-point shooter and Eric Bledsoe is already 27-years-old and likely not a part of the next good team Phoenix is able to put together.
Going forward, it’s hard to say how Phoenix will develop and who among its young core become quality players that actually help an NBA team win. The Suns will have at least a couple of more bites at the apple since they will finish with a bottom three record this season, won’t be good next year and have Miami’s unprotected first-rounders coming to them in 2019 (protected Top 7 in 2018) and 2021.
You can find Mika Honkasalo on Twitter @mhonkasalo.