It has been a tumultuous week for the Phoenix Suns. Were it not for a fourth-quarter comeback on Monday night in Chicago, one could say disastrous. Yet even after dropping 8 of 9 games -- many in demoralizing fashion -- they still find themselves tied for Portland for 9th place in the West.
Rather than rehash the ghastly road trip that mercifully ended with an answered prayer from Mirza Teletovic, let's talk about Devin Booker.
When the Suns drafted Booker with the 13th pick in the 2015 Draft, little was known about the youngster other than his picture-perfect jumpshot. As the sixth man on a star-studded Kentucky team, he was confined to his role as a perimeter shooting threat to make defenses pay for swarming the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns. Since arriving in Phoenix, he has shown a wide repertoire of skills to complement his lights-out shooting (15-21 from 3 -- not a typo).
Despite being the youngest player in the NBA, he has every offensive skill one could reasonably ask for from the shooting guard position. Let's have a look at some of Armani's suave skills on the court, courtesy of the excellent highlight videos from @DownToBuck and @DawkinsMTA.
Solid three-point shooting will usually keep any player employed somewhere, but the way Booker moves away from the ball to create points for himself is just one of his abilities that separate him from the pack.
Against the Pistons, Booker sets an elbow screen for P.J. Tucker in what looks like a broken play. Tucker passes up the shot -- he is outside his comfort zone above the break -- and instead tries to take Stanley Johnson off the dribble on the switch. Andre Drummond neglects to abandon his post in the paint, and the key here is how quickly Booker realizes this. With no one guarding him, he quickly scrambles all the way out to behind the 3-point line and creates an easy passing lane for Tucker. His textbook shooting stroke takes it from there.
Booker also possesses considerable size and strength at shooting guard for such a young buck. The Suns spread the floor with a small-ball lineup against New Orleans, leaving no one to protect the paint. Booker sees the precious real estate inside, then notices that former Suns' waterbug Ish Smith is the only thing standing in his way. He doesn't so much cut here as he just muscles through the little guy, and Ish has little chance at contesting the shot from the larger Booker.
Against the Bulls, Jon Leuer intercepts a bad pass from Derrick Rose and starts a "fast" break. As two Bulls defenders fill the lane, Booker makes the right read and zeroes in on the corner. By the time Rose finally picks up a defender, Booker has made the extra pass to a wide open Teletovic for a triplet.
Now here is something that I don't think anyone expected to translate to the NBA so soon. Booker's reputation as a shooter preceded him, and since day one, opposing teams have scrambled to keep him covered on the perimeter. Rather than force up bad jumpshots, Booker has shown the ability to put the ball on the floor and take it all the way to the rack, often finishing through contact.
Booker is currently shooting 16/23 at the rim (.696), and coupled with his 15/21 mark from deep, it appears the only way to slow him down is by forcing him into midrange spots.
Here, he is bringing the ball up in early offense against Alonzo Gee, who is trying to ICE the pick-and-roll with Tyson Chandler. Chandler reacts by slipping the screen, freezing Omer Asik, who doesn't want to give up the lob. Gee is hung out to dry, and Booker shakes free with a quick crossover and layup. Asik is still too occupied with Chandler's presence in the lane to contest.
Get well soon, Tyson.
Besides the serviceable handles, Booker has also shown some surprising blow-by speed in the halfcourt. Just moments after his layup over the vertically-challenged Asik, he receives the ball deep on the wing with Eric Gordon covering. Tucker sets a pick and the Pelicans switch, with Jrue Holiday now covering the rookie.
What Booker does here is all the evidence one would need to be convinced that he is much more than 'just a shooter'. After the switch, he finds himself at the top of the key with plenty of room to fire from deep. However, Holiday's defensive stance on the play can best be described as 'Gumby-legged'. Cognizant of Booker's shooting prowess, he clumsily puts his back foot forward in anticipation of contesting the jumper.
Booker puts Holiday on ice skates with a hesitation dribble and attacks too quickly for Anthony Davis to get the drop on him, leaving no one to even bother the layup attempt.
Alright, cool. But what happens when someone is home to contest the shot?
That's where Booker's size and strength come into play again. The next clip starts with a simple screen on the ball from Teletovic, but check out how closely Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is sticking to Booker, and also how closely Tolliver is sticking to Teletovic. This dual-shooter pick-and-roll leaves both defenders stuck at the perimeter and opens up a decent driving lane inside.
Booker leaves Caldwell-Pope hung up on the screen and gets in the lane after a couple hard dribbles, but Aron Baynes is in a good position to protect the rim. Booker shows no hesitation and attacks the big man with a full head of steam, rising up high enough to leave Baynes with no chance of getting a hand on the ball.
A 19-year old isn't supposed to be so decisive about taking the ball inside. Defenders are pressuring him on the perimeter and forcing him to put the ball on the floor, and he isn't supposed to be making them pay this early in his career.
Booker's debut season should have been about flashes of potential mixed with the usual spazzy rookie stuff that we have come to expect. Instead, it's becoming fair to wonder how this Suns team can afford to keep him off the floor, and what might happen when he is given a larger role in the offense.
For all of his shooting efficiency, Booker is only using 15.8% of the Suns' possessions when he is on the floor. For a point of reference, Jon Leuer is at 17.6% and he's not exactly the type to play heroball.
Booker is still raw on defense -- though the tools are there -- and defenses are bound to find a weakness once the scouting report fills out. But so far, Booker has stayed one step ahead of every assumption made about him, and has such an innate feel for the game it's hard to see him stagnating anytime soon.
Factoring in the size, skills and energy that he has displayed in his first 19 games, it looks like the Suns might have bagged the steal of the 2015 Draft.
On The Horizon
Wednesday, December 9 vs Orlando
Friday, December 11 vs Portland
Sunday, December 13 vs Minnesota
The Suns finally return to the friendly confines of The Stick and will face a trio of competitive but beatable opponents.
Orlando has won five of their last six games as Victor Oladipo has flourished as a sixth man and Evan Fournier is enjoying a breakout season. Under the frownage of Scott Skiles, the Magicals are now 8th in the NBA in Defensive Rating (101.8). They boast a bevy of hard-working youngsters and the Suns will have to work hard to nail down a W in this one.
The Trail Blazers have thrown a mix of strikes and gutters throughout the season and will be looking to bag a win in Phoenix after already dropping a pair to the Suns during the first week of the season. Finally, the week ends with our first look at Karl-Anthony Towns, or as Suns fans call him, Devin Booker's former teammate.
The Wolves have dropped four straight games -- three of them at home -- and sit at 8-12 on the season.