Devin Booker was the youngest player selected in the 2015 NBA Draft. The 13th pick for the Phoenix Suns was seen as a somewhat risky gamble by some due to not only his age (only midway through his 18th year on the planet), but also either lacking in, or displaying average traits in many of the physical and athletic benchmarks of a prototypical NBA wing.
Add to that the fact that he never started a game for the Wildcats (despite being their third leading scorer), and you may get the impression that he was a relatively unproven as a second-unit player for the University of Kentucky during his freshman season, being a one-and-done for the Big Blue.
However, this was rarely brought up as a concern from the many scouts and bloggers who covered Booker as a prospect. Most agreed that despite his perceived physical and athletic limitations, he was one of the safer bets to have a productive NBA career.
His shooting, of course.
Devin Booker the NBA Prospect
Here's what our own Mike Lisboa had to say about Booker in his draft prospect preview last summer:
Right now, Booker is a one-trick pony on the offensive end. Fortunately, it is a damn fine trick. In college, he was a 41.1% 3-point shooter and 47.0% from the field overall. He has a quick and high release point that, coupled with his 6'6" frame, makes his jumpers difficult to defend. His shooting mechanics are near flawless.
As a freshman at Kentucky, he shot .411 from beyond the arc in his 141 total attempts; the second most attempts on the team. And unlike many other college shooters, his form is already just about as pure as it gets.
But that's not all. Here's what Mike Schmitz of DraftExpress.com had to say after breaking down video of Booker before last year's draft:
Booker is a very intelligent prospect, showing impressive maturity and fundamentals despite being the youngest player in this draft class. He moves off the ball well and passes the ball unselfishly, often making the extra pass along the perimeter and cutting smartly as the defense rotates. He's not a flashy or high-volume shot-creator for himself or others, but will certainly make teammates better with his ability to keep the defense honest and force opponents to account for where he is on the court at all times. He doesn't take bad shots, and rarely turns the ball over, averaging just one turnover per-40 minutes, with a 10% turnover percentage that ranks among the lowest rates in this draft.
This is especially high-praise for such a young player, especially one who relies mostly on his jump-shot to justify his spot in the rotation. While Booker accepts his role as a marksman, he isn't going to hurt the team as a high-volume shooter who takes bad shots in order to fill his quota. He plays within himself and usually makes the right play in order to do what's best for the team.
So what were the major concerns?
The flipside is that jumpshot is all he has going for him on the offensive end. His ball-handling ability is questionable. While he allayed some concerns about his athleticism by posting the fastest lane agility drill time at the NBA combine, he lacks the quick first step to get past his man or explosiveness to get to the rim. It's possible he develops some craftiness or other tools given his age, but right now his offense is all jumpshot all the time.
So while few would doubt his NBA-readiness in terms of his shooting, there were concerns that his relative lack of elite athleticism and an unproven ability to score inside the arc would limit his efficiency at the next level.
Devin Booker the NBA Player
As a rookie, he is averaging 11.4 points, 2.1 assists, and 2.2 rebounds per game. However, those numbers have increased since becoming a starter in 33 games, where he is now averaging 15.3 points, 3.0 assists, and 2.8 rebounds. He has also scored 30+ points in three games, something done by a rookie on the Suns by only Alvan Adams and Walter Davis previously.
Looking at Booker's season thus far, it would be difficult to conclude that his first season has been anything other than a resounding success.
Let's look at those attributes that made him a lottery pick last year, as well as those potential concerns, and see how they've translated to the court.
That Sweet Jumpshot
Definitely! Overall, Booker is currently shooting 38.4% from beyond the arc...a percentage that was even higher before he became the number one coring option (or number two, depending on coach Watson's mood) on the team. As a 19 year old rookie, he was selected to the Rising Stars Challenge, and also to compete against the league's best three-point shooters during the NBA All-Star weekend, coming in third place behind only Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. He may not be at the same level as the Splash Brothers just yet, but just being in the same conversation as a rookie is a tremendous accomplishment. Besides, he's already doing Curry-ish things on the court, as evidenced by this long-bomb and turn-around before watching it fall:
His High B-Ball I.Q.
Check! It's very rare for a rookie to work themselves into the rotation on the Suns so quickly. And even before the Suns were riddled with injuries and decided to shift their focus from the post-season to player-development (read: tank), Booker was getting substantial minutes off the bench almost from the beginning. Even before the first game of the season, ex-head coach Jeff Hornacek had this to say about Devin,
"The kid knows how to play...you don’t have to explain a lot of things to him. Most of the time defensively, he’s in the right spot. Offensively, he makes the little plays. Eighteen-year-olds sometimes get sped up and the game comes at them fast and the speed of these pro guys is a big adjustment for them. But when you watch him play, he’s in control. If there’s a pass to make, he makes it. If the shot is open, he’ll shoot it. He’s very advanced for his age so we believe he can contribute for us
Again, the high praise from his head coach illustrates exactly what the scouts had noticed and observed about Booker's game in his freshman season playing for Kentucky. He was a great shooter, sure...but he had the potential to be so much more than just that. Booker is now proving this to be the case, becoming not only a starter but also averaging the most minutes on the team post All-Star break.
The above illustrates why Booker has shown that he's more than just a shooter. As if being an NBA rookie leading the team in minutes isn't enough, Booker has been asked to fill in at the point guard position at times recently. And in the game against the Memphis Grizzlies this past Sunday, he tallied nine assists while splitting time between both guard positions. In addition, while he still loves the long-bomb, he has shown the versatility to score in many different ways. Just look at this beauty off the PnR with Chandler (Be sure to check here for many other gifs showing his versatility):
While it is certainly evident that he still needs to work on his defense, he has shown to be a very willing defender, often chasing down opponents and delivering hard fouls to prevent the easy basket. He may not have the skill set to ever be an elite defender, but if he can develop good defensive techniques and habits, I believe he can be more than serviceable in this regard.
The Suns have a quartet of promising young players in Alex Len, T.J. Warren, Devin Booker, and even Archie Goodwin who is finally starting to show some flashes this season. However, none of the other three have been as impressive as Devin Booker, which is especially impressive given that he is the youngest and least experienced of the group.
The one saving grace for Suns fans this season has been watching the development of the young talent, and although Alex Len has recently begun to challenge young Devin for being the primary reason that fans should be excited for the future, overall, Booker is still the main guy.
Devin still has to work on his defense, but he's at least showing the will and effort on that end of the court. As for his offense...with his work ethic, I.Q., and proven abilities already at such a young age, there is little doubt that Devin Booker will continue to develop into one of the premier shooters in the league, and possibly one of the top two-guards as well.
It's always darkest before the dawn, but Devin Booker will likely help bring about a beautiful Phoenix sunrise in the very near future.