The Phoenix Suns have lost four straight games since the last time I wrote this Player of the Week column. Granted, the group of teams (San Antonio, Houston, Minnesota, and Oklahoma City) is about as difficult a stretch as there is in the Western Conference, but more than a third of the way through the year, you’d hope the team would have coalesced enough to nab a surprise victory every once in awhile.
In some ways, it’s been a worst case-scenario: Only one rookie (Marquese Chriss) is seeing consistent playing time, and the mixture of other players, dominated too greatly by veterans, isn’t talented or cohesive enough to win consistently. This week, even with the return of T.J. Warren, returns to Earth by Tyson Chandler and Eric Bledsoe spoiled what might otherwise have been a celebratory win streak.
Still, sure, there are reasons for optimism. Mainly: the bench continues to do well, and Devin Booker (despite underwhelming counting statistics) has somehow cemented himself as the Suns’ most consistent player. He hasn’t had any stretches as great as Eric Bledsoe’s early-December run, nor has he generally been as exciting in any one game as Tyson Chandler or even Brandon Knight (though that 38-pointer against the Pelicans stands out).
But game to game, I’ve found myself knowing Booker would be good for 20 points and good control as a secondary ball-handler. Yes, sure, the defense, play-making, and shooting efficiency haven’t come like we’d generally hope to see from a second-year star, but most second-year stars aren’t 20 years old. Similarly, most 20-year-olds aren’t playing 33.1 minutes per game.
Because I’m afforded the ability to shove a one-week sample size in your faces, push back against the opinions you previously had of a player, and say voila, my job is easier than yours is when you try to make sense of what I’m writing. Regardless, Devin Booker’s last week (in 33.5 minutes per game) shows definite progress against a difficult slate of teams:
.469 effective field goal percentage on a 33.5 usage rate
What I see when I look at that line is a young off-guard becoming more comfortable sharing play-making responsibilities with his point guard(s). I’ve always been struck by Booker’s patience; it’s what I think stands out to legends around the league when they hail him as their second coming. It also is what allows the Suns to give Eric Bledsoe what they’ve decided is necessary for him: a second ball-handler.
Booker, though, is not a point guard. At his best this year, he’s been effective by attacking the holes a defense gives him in a split second. Watch here how he waits for Montrezl Harrell to hesitate before breezing by him and finding room for a pull-up jumper:
And again here, bullying Harrell some more by using his eyes like a quarterback’s to mask his intentions:
Those aren’t plays most 20-year-olds can make, simply because players that young haven’t seen enough variety in opposing defenses to make the right play so consistently.
I wrote in the first of these columns about how T.J. Warren was at his best in an up-tempo system like the Suns’ and how he was already getting the hang of tip-toeing around at a sprint to find open lanes. Booker’s steadiness is a big reason Warren and all of the Suns are so effective in transition (third in points off turnovers, second in fastbreak points):
In many ways, the Suns have engineered their offense precisely around Booker’s skillset. Every guy on the floor (at least in the starting lineup) can pass and shoot, and each is matchup problem for defenses. Earl Watson and his staff simplify things a great deal to take advantage of those matchup problems:
Devin Booker is shooting 56% from three feet and in this season, and 45% (up from 41% last year) between three and ten feet, per Basketball-Reference. In the set above, the offense simply takes advantage of the respect the defense must show for Devin Booker as soon as he makes it past half court.
Up top, the threat of a simple Chandler-Booker pick-and-roll draws Gorgui Dieng (who overplays this, admittedly) out behind the arc. Then Zach LaVine has to follow Booker to have a hope of contesting a shot if Booker chose to pull-up along the way. He doesn’t, but his presence running open down the lane draws the entire defense inward, as a Tom Thibodeau defense always will.
The Wolves dare Booker to find the right man (P.J. Tucker in the weakside corner), he does, and Tucker, shooting 44% from the right corner this year per NBA Miner, makes an easy open shot.
Again, a simple set that uses Booker’s magic to perfection:
Whether the ball begins in Booker’s hands or one of the bigs’, it’s generally going to find its way into a good shot attempt because of the attention paid to a shooter like Booker in the halfcourt. Though his season numbers aren’t up to what they were last year (still only 32.6% on threes), the defense is still respecting him. Combine that with a better ability to get to his spots from midrange, and he’s already a very difficult player to guard.
The credit, however, is not all Booker’s. He is afforded tremendous spacing by the power forwards he plays with, from Tucker to Chriss to Jared Dudley. The finishing abilities of Chandler and Alex Len draw defenses inward on the roll or outward on dribble hand-offs, while Eric Bledsoe (31% from three this year) and Brandon Knight (33%) keep the attention of their defender in the same way. When Watson goes to Booker as a ball-handler, the defense runs out of good options.
He is also developing great chemistry with Chandler in basic spaced-out pick-and-roll situations, where the elite abilities of each on either end of the tango is a nightmare in its own right. The Suns are 4.6 points better per 100 possessions offensively when Chandler and Booker share the floor (per nbawowy.com), though Booker’s shooting numbers are basically identical to his season averages. They have fun:
And we should too. If we can draw any good news out of this poor stretch of team play, it’s the slow build back to consistent, exciting performances by Devin Booker.