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Phoenix Suns Player Preview 2016-17: Just how great can Devin Booker be?

Devin Booker enters his second year with a new role and a heaping pile of expectations. Can he live up to them?

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Utah Jazz v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

There are a lot of questions about a lot of the pieces on the Phoenix Suns’ roster heading into the season. How will they fit? What will their roles be? How many minutes will they get?

There are no such questions about Devin Booker.

Through his first 32 games as a rookie, Booker’s minutes were inconsistent. He racked up a handful of DNPs as well as a handful of 20+ minute outings. However, on December 28, Book entered the the starting lineup for an injured Eric Bledsoe and never looked back. The accomplishments began piling up:

  • Fourth youngest player to score 1000 points in a season (LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant being the other three)
  • Six 30-point games (most by a rookie in 2015-16)
  • Highest scoring Suns rookie in 20 years (Michael Finley, 1995-96)
  • NBA All-Rookie First Team

The praise continued into the off-season as LeBron James called Devin Booker a future All-Star player. And just two days ago, a survey of NBA general managers named Devin Booker this season’s most likely breakout player. And perhaps the greatest accomplishment of all was replacing Brandon Knight in the starting line-up before the season even began.

There is no question about what Devin Booker’s role on this Suns’ team will be. Instead here are three questions about how this season plays out for him.

Can he sustain and improve upon his rookie year?

The absolute worst case for both fans and Booker himself is that he fails to match last year’s productivity, much less improve on it. The early returns on his preseason play indicate he will be at least as effective in 2016-17 as he was last season. He’s shooting a (probably unsustainable) 50% from the field, while his three-point percentage is comparable to last year’s (34% then to 33% now). And he’s leading the league in preseason points per game at 21.5. To which I say: LOL preseason.

Armani is going to be targeted by opposing defenses as the Suns’ number one option on offense. Eric Bledsoe will attract some attention as the established “star” of the team, but Booker will be the one that all five defenders will have one eye on. It’s going to be on Booker to rise to that challenge and on head coach Earl Watson to continue geting his young star good looks.

What’s up with that three-point percentage?

Booker’s one elite talent as a college player was his three point shot. He hit from distance at a 41% clip at the University of Kentucky. His stroke was NBA ready and it was for the first half of his rookie season. However, after the All-Star break, his three point percentage plummeted from 40% down to 28.7%. In a handful of preseason games, he’s only hitting a third of his long-distance tries.

Part of his late season fall-off can be attributed to hitting the “rookie wall” of a full 82 game season. Part of it can be attributed to facing increased defensive pressure as a result of cracking the starting lineup. But I can’t help but thing the coaching staff would like to see that number creep up towards 40% this season. Booker has shown he doesn’t need to be a dead-eye from deep to be effective on offense. He’s comfortable in the mid-range. He has good enough handles to get to the rim. And he’s a smart and capable passer. But if opposing defenses don’t have to respect his deep ball, all of those things get tougher to do.

What about his defense?

Rookies are bad at defense. There are exceptions to the rule, but generally, first year players fall somewhere on the defensive spectrum between “this was a lot easier when I played zone all the time” to “whoa, my guy is bigger/faster/stronger than anyone I’ve covered before”. They tend to get cooked on the reg. Booker was no exception, but he’s certainly got the build and lateral quickness to be an average to above-average defender. Whether or not he makes a leap in that department this year will be a function of coaching and effort. The team will be asking a lot of him on the offensive end. It could be a bridge too far to expect Devin to make great strides on the defensive end as well.

Can Booker emerge as the Phoenix Suns’ alpha dog without alienating veteran guards Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight?

This is the $140 millon question. With long term deals in place, how does an expanded role for Booker play in the locker room? He is rapidly becoming the face of the franchise. At least one NBA writer has declared that the Phoenix Suns are now Devin Booker’s team. From Jason Concepcion at The Ringer:

On one hand, Booker is a baby-faced killer in the Kobe mold. He can spot up, take defenders off the bounce, and score from all over the court. But Booker has flashed legitimate point guard chops when injuries to the back line elevated him to the lead guard spot...

Booker may not yet realize that Phoenix is his team — but it is.

DB has already unseated Knight as the starting two-guard. With his high basketball IQ and passing skills, could he do the same to Eric Bledsoe as the Phoenix Suns’ primary playmaker as well?

Last season was a terrible lesson to both the team and fans as to how devastating chemistry issues can be for a struggling team. And unlike previous seasons where there were legitimate questions about whose team the Suns were, this year it’s clear that Booker is being groomed for the throne, if he’s not already sitting on it. Whether or not the Suns’ three-headed backcourt can gracefully manage their changing roles and co-exist could be a major subplot to this season.

Frankly, I’m excited to see how Devin Booker approaches the coming year. He’s a lot of things the Suns haven’t had in the same player in a long time... maybe ever. Gifted. Smart. Fearless. Brash. If he can answer all these questions with confidence, it’s possible the franchise and fans will have an answer what the future of the Phoenix Suns looks like.

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