The other night I escorted myself over to Tempe Marketplace in order to secure an overbearingly-sized burrito from Chipotle. As I made my way back to my car, I could see a rather large poster designed to get my attention. The image grew clearer the closer I got, and I soon depicted it to be a Suns poster. But rather than having Eric Bledsoe as the centerpiece (the norm when it comes to any Suns promotion that I have ever come across), Devin Booker was the subject. The poster called for me to come out to watch Devin Booker and the Suns with some exciting ticket packages still available.
I will forever remember this moment as the time I felt a shift in the hierarchy of the “face of the franchise.”
I will admit that I have been more reluctant to hand the keys over to Booker as the man more than others. Not because I like to poo-poo his talents (he is really freaking fun to watch), but more because he is still growing into himself. Manning the burden of franchise cornerstone while the league’s stalwarts (what up Wade and Bron) stake claim to your greatness would wear on anybody’s psyche. I don’t want that for Book, but apparently the Suns’ marketing department is already pushing that narrative.
Last night Booker shot an abysmal 8 for 25 from the floor, but those stats will be masked by the outlandish (and warranted in my opinion) 44 attempts Russell Westbrook threw up himself. Poor shooting nights come around every once in awhile for even the best of players, but the thing that is more concerning to me is what Booker cannot do on the defensive end as of now.
To his credit, Booker is not a defensive minus for a lack of trying. There is no lack of effort, more of a lack of feel. Teams will pick on Book by slithering their way past him for well-timed back cuts that hit him like an Apollo Creed jab before he has time to recover.
My favorite thing about this sequence is the sudden rise of Tyler Ulis off the bench when he sees Victor Oladipo begin his rampage down the baseline, and the subsequent bunny hop of disgust after the lay in. Poor Booker was so fixated on the pick-and-roll action spearheaded by Westbrook (can’t blame him) that he lost check on the whereabouts of his man.
Bear in mind, Westbrook is a wizard as a driver, and Oladipo is roadrunner-like with his quicks, so this an elite level situation to be thrust into defensively. With that said, these kind of lapses are not foreign to Booker and are a part of his development. His insertion into the starting lineup means that he will be going against starting talent on a more consistent basis, and an ascension to superstar status is reliant on a willingness to be tuned in during all facets of the game.
(I apologize for going all “insert sports network here” talking head on you there. Whoops.)
Later in the game, Booker again got picked on during a crucial possession in OT:
Unlike the first example, Booker was in a fine position to make a play on the ball, he just fell victim to a holy pass from a supernova. Booker is stationed about ten feet off of Andre Roberson — the antithesis of a Splash Brother — to seemingly cut off his ability to bolt the baseline for rim run. Oklahoma City does a great job of pulling Tyson Chandler out of the lane by using Steven Adams in the pick-and-roll, leaving Booker and T.J. Warren as the last lines of defense. Warren cannot leave Kyle Singler in the corner because of his decently consistent jumper, placing Booker in a precarious position of deciding whether to help Chandler, or keep tabs on his man.
Booker ends up doing a little bit of both, allowing Westbrook to knife a pass through a sea of legs and arms. There are only a handful (if that) of players that can make this pass.
And the thing is: Booker was incredibly close to making a play on the ball and jump starting a fastbreak that could have been a big step towards securing a win.
Swipe that arm a little lower, man!
Unfortunately for Booker, teams are likely to encourage their springy wings to dart along the baseline whenever the opportunity presents itself. Sure, I am only highlighted two possessions out of the 100+ that occurred, but I have a feeling that abolishing backdoor cuts is a focus of the coaching staff. Ulis’ reaction said it all to me.
And that is what we have to remember as followers of the Suns; for all of his greatness and swagger, Booker is still a young player within the earliest stages of his development. There are going to be a few bumps in the road here and there — a few kinks to be ironed out before he can fully become the man on the poster whisking me to the arena.