The slights lobbed at him in previous seasons became repetitive, but did carry some truth to them.
His numbers were empty. His defense was lacking. His impact to winning negligible.
Devin Booker is playing the best basketball of his career thus far in 2019-20, still putting up huge marks but also chipping in with the little things that have made a huge impact for the Phoenix Suns, helping them get off to their best start at 5-2 since 2013-14.
On the campaign, the fifth-year pro is averaging 26.1 points, 3.6 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game, shooting an outrageous 53.5 percent from the floor, 50.0 percent from three and 90.3 percent from the foul stripe. Of course, his three-point shooting will take some sort of dip but even so: Booker appears to be hitting a new level in his efficiency, and it’s helping him approach legitimate stardom.
According to Win Shares, Booker is, thus far, the league’s 15th highest-rated player at +1.0 (eclipsing former league MVP James Harden, by the way, who sits at a +0.9 this year), while he’s also currently shattering his previous career-best marks in both Win Shares per 48 Minutes (0.194) and Box Plus/Minus (+3.2).
Simply put: Booker has gone from extremely productive but relatively unimpactful (at least compared to what his raw stats were saying) to a legitimate game-changing scorer, playmaker and defender.
Part of what’s helping Booker reach this new plane in his career is the fact that he looks as athletic as ever, which makes sense considering he’s 23 now and getting closer to his physical prime. Don’t get us wrong, he’s always had underrated bounce, but Booker wasn’t exactly throwing these down…
…with aplomb in previous seasons.
The numbers back that up, too. Around the rim, Booker is finishing a nasty 72.1 percent of his opportunities, a byproduct of his improved body and bounce. That mark – among qualified players – ranks 12th league-wide in accuracy, and, even more impressively, second among guards. Needless to say: Booker is a different beast if he’s finishing like that in the paint, particularly when you pair that newfound power near the basket with his sublime jump-shooting touch from the outside.
That’s going to be important, too, since Booker is currently hitting a simply unsustainable 75.0 percent of his three-pointers (and 56.8 percent of his field-goal attempts overall) that are considered open looks by the NBA’s primary stats page. Regression in that area is almost certainly coming, so the fact that Booker has gotten so much stronger around the basket will help keep his efficiency up even when it does.
Booker’s improved physicality has also translated on the less glamorous end of the floor, where the 23-year-old has blossomed into a real ball-stopper. Just watch here how goes over a screen, manages to stay glued to his man without fouling, uses his strength to disturb the ballhandler’s progress and still manages to get a decent contest on the final jumper, all in one play:
On top of the physical aspect of defense, Booker’s clearly more focused on that side of basketball this season, which will be huge for the Suns as long as he doesn’t lose that focus. (We don’t think he will.)
Of course, having much-improved teammates this season will also help keep Booker performing at such a high level. Thus far this season, 55.9 percent of Booker’s field goals have been assisted by teammates, the highest mark of his career.
Much has been made of the addition of Ricky Rubio to Phoenix’s backcourt and, to be certain, he has helped matters by taking a lot of the ballhandling and playmaking load off of his star teammate. Rubio is having a respectable campaign so far, averaging 8.5 assists nightly and boasting an assist rate of 36.0. But there’s another player who has provided a huge boost to Booker this year, and it’s not someone many expected to have a huge impact in 2019-20.
Backup (now starting) big man Aron Baynes has been massive for both the Suns and, specifically, the explosive 2-guard, setting monstrous screens that open up previously unavailable avenues for Phoenix’s ball-handlers and hitting his less-enormous teammates with timely looks that generate a lot of points for the Suns.
On the season, Baynes has assisted on eight of Booker’s field goals, the second-highest mark on the team, trailing only Rubio’s nine such dimes.
The Synergy marks reflect that as well. On the young campaign, Booker ranks 1st in the entire NBA in scoring out of dribble hand-off plays, per Synergy, scoring a preposterous 1.71 points per possession (PPP) on those looks. For reference, Booker scored just 0.75 PPP on those chances last season.
And Baynes’ screening has played a big part in that. With a scorer as talented as Booker, one that can get a bucket from anywhere on the floor, the amount of space that Baynes opens up on his picks has a huge positive impact on Phoenix’s offense. The video below exemplifies that well:
Three different dribble hand-off plays from Baynes to Booker lead to three different looks: The first, a wide-open three that the shooting guard drains, the second, a midrange pull-up that becomes available because Booker’s defender gets left behind on the pick and the third, an and-one layup after Baynes’ screen takes Booker’s defender out of the play, leaving the multifaceted scorer with a big man trying to stick him.
All in all, Booker is one of the league’s fastest-rising talents. (We could have said that in years prior, but that would have been individual praise for a player with massive numbers on very bad teams. Now that his impact is leading to noteworthy wins for a still-young squad, that statement means more.) And if the Suns continue on this pace and find themselves fighting for a playoff spot in the stacked Western Conference towards the end of the season, Booker will get All-NBA consideration; he’s at that level right now.
One of Booker’s teammates, Tyler Johnson, who used to play for the Miami Heat prior to Phoenix, had high praise for the burgeoning star (via The Athletic):
“You can just kind of tell it’s coming,” teammate Tyler Johnson said of the Booker takeover. “And I think the best part of watching it is knowing that he wants the ball at the end of the game to make something happen … I’ve been around a lot of really, really, really good players — Hall of Famers. As far as a pure scorer, I think (Booker is) probably the best I’ve played with. I didn’t get to watch D. Wade in his prime (during my Miami tenure). But, yeah, (Booker) can really do it.'”
He may not be Dwyane Wade quite yet, but Booker is forging his own impressive path, one that is legitimately becoming enthralling to behold as he becomes a real leader and an impactful force on both ends of the floor.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.