It wasn’t that long ago that many – sometimes rightfully – questioned Devin Booker and whether he was an empty-stats player or one who made an actual impact on winning.
Looking back, the questions may have been unfair, especially considering Booker’s first campaign with the Phoenix Suns came when he was merely 19 years of age and the teams around him prior to this year were usually rather poorly put-together. Even so, despite Booker’s personal successes early on in his career, the Suns didn’t win more than 24 games in any campaign before 2019-20 since drafting the Michigan native.
Booker’s poor luck with Phoenix has been so bad, in fact, that in a research project we recently did, we found out that the talented scorer actually has the 19th-worst winning percentage in league history. As of July 31, he had won just 30.2 percent of his games with the Suns.
This season, however, has been different for Booker – and that’s especially been true since Phoenix’s stint in the bubble began, where the team has gone 3-0 and pulled within three games of the Memphis Grizzlies for the West’s final playoff spot.
In that stretch, Booker has been nothing short of spectacular, averaging 30.7 points, 4.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists while posting fiery 47.0/45.0/87.5 shooting splits. He’s being aggressive, refusing to settle for deep jumpers – but bombing away when he has to – and attacking the basket with aplomb.
His run of recent excellence was capped with this unreal game-winner against the Los Angeles Clippers…
…where Booker faked a pass, drove it left on four-time All-Defensive team member Paul George, one of the best wing stoppers in the game, into Kawhi Leonard, one of basketball’s best help defenders, spun back away from Leonard and nailed a falling fadeaway jumper over a picture-perfect contest by George.
Nothing but net.
Booker was so dominant in his outing against the Clippers, an elite team in their own right, that late in the contest, Los Angeles head coach Doc Rivers even started sending double-teams at the young 2-guard to try and get the ball out of his hands. Even that failed to slow Booker down.
Players around the Association immediately reacted to the enormous shot on Twitter, including fellow All-Stars, Bradley Beal and Trae Young:
It should say something that players have always seemed to have a higher opinion of Booker than many basketball analysts do, and that’s because they see how rarified Booker’s game is, with an unreal ability to score from all three levels with such smoothness.
While the media may see Booker’s place in various catch-all advanced metrics – and, granted, some of them are not very pretty, including his 57th-overall ranking in Box Plus/Minus and 53rd-overall ranking in Win Shares per 48 Minutes – players see a guy that can score from 30-feet away, or by stopping on a dime for neat pull-up jumpers or one who can put his shoulder into defenders and clear them out for gracefully brutish finishes down low:
Booker being surrounded by some average to above-average teammates at every position for the first time in his career seems to be giving the Kentucky product a sense of confidence on the court he hasn’t been able to have in years prior.
Phoenix’s best five-man lineup this season (minimum: 20 minutes together) features Booker, two guys who weren’t on the team last season in Ricky Rubio and Aron Baynes, a third who joined midway through last season in Kelly Oubre, and second-year forward Mikal Bridges.
There’s also Deandre Ayton, the former No. 1 overall pick who, despite an up-and-down start to his career, is really starting to come into his own lately too. In the bubble, Ayton is posting a 16.7/9.0/2.3 stat line while shooting 50 percent from three. If the big Bahamian can continue to space the floor and keep up this recent level of intensity, he could give Booker a very solid pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop partner, one with All-Star potential down the road.
Booker having teammates he can trust when he needs to get rid of the ball has really helped his efficiency and led to him seemingly take the next step in his development. We shouldn’t undersell Rubio’s importance to Booker’s progression, either, as his calming presence at point has given the Suns an invaluable floor general who can set up his explosive backcourt mate.
At the end of the day, this isn’t the first time that Booker has performed at a high level. He was an All-Star this season, after all. But it is the first time we’ve seen him do it this late in a campaign, where the outcomes are so much more important and a playoff berth hangs in the balance. It’d be Phoenix’s first playoff appearance in 10 years.
So one could easily argue that these are by far the biggest games in Booker’s still-young NBA career. And the good news for Phoenix fans? He’s passing the test with flying colors.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.