Some of the youngsters on the 2015/16 Phoenix Suns, namely 19-year-old shooter/playmaker Devin Booker and 22-year-old center Alex Len, have proved capable of pulling off the impossible at times this season -- they have made this injury-riddled bottom-3 team worth a viewing.
The recent road trip is case in point, as the pair each posted career scoring highs with Booker dropping 34 in Miami, followed by 31 from Len the following night in Orlando.
Since there is little left for the fans to do this season other than ogle over the play of the Suns' recent draft picks, here is a gif breakdown of each of the duo's scoring outbursts, courtesy of the saintly YouTubers DownToBuck and Dawk Ins.
Check out the full videos here:
Clip #1, Hard to the Rack: We'll start with Booker's ability as a ballhandler -- as well as some excellent space-clearing work by the Suns' bigs. Wade is forced to fight over the top of a textbook high screen by Len, and Hassan Whiteside should be stepping out to help contain Booker. Chris Bosh has turned this into a science during his tenure in Miami, but Whiteside instead just sort of bumbles about, allowing Booker to turn the corner with an avenue straight up the gut of Miami's defense.
Tyson Chandler puts the finishing touch on the play with a classic veteran move (which is code for doing something illegal and not getting caught), as he sticks Luol Deng on his hip and pushes him a good 3-4 feet out of position. Booker could have hit a wide open Ronnie Price in the corner when Josh Richardson is pulled toward the rim, but makes the better choice by finishing strong with the dunk.
Clip #2, Chandler PnR: The next clip epitomizes the impressive IQ Booker displays with the ball in his hands. The play couldn't be much more simple: Chandler, again mismatched with Deng, runs a quick handoff-and-screen with Booker, giving Book a wide-open look at a three. 90% of the shooters in the NBA would let it fly here, and they wouldn't be wrong to do so.
Instead, Book listens to the elder Chandler, who helpfully points out which side of the screen to use. Deng makes the right play to step up and contain Booker's penetration, which leaves it up to Amar'e Stoudemire to cut off the roll man, leading to a predictable result -- an And-1 for Chandler.
Booker's lob to Chandler looks so effortless, one can't help but wonder why it looks so difficult for many of the other Suns guards.
Clip #3, Messin' with Whiteside: One thing that has Suns fans raving about Booker is the way he plays like a cagey veteran at times, despite being the youngest player in the NBA. Such as this possession that starts with 40 seconds on the clock -- a prime two-for-one opportunity.
Booker attacks quickly and decisively, crossing Gerald Green straight into a Mirza Teletovic screen and suddenly finding himself 1v1 against the Whiteside. Ever the opportunist, Book squeezes maximum value out of this opportunity by pump-faking Whiteside, who shows as much restraint with pump fakes as a cat does with a laser pointer, into a ticky-tack foul and an And-1.
That's three points, one foul on Whiteside, and the two-for-one successfully executed.
Clip #4, Rippin' off Wade: More 'cagey vet' stuff here as Book rips a move right out of Wade's playbook against the man himself. When Booker declared for the draft, I don't think any teams knew that he could stick a former All-NBA defender on his hip and take a couple hard dribbles to freeze the interior defense before finishing with a drifting bankshot off one foot.
This is just filthy.
Clip #5, Escaping with a Bucket: Often with highlight videos, the bad defense sticks out as much or more as the good offense. So how does Booker respond to a well-defended possession?
Len sets a ball-screen at the three-point line, but young defensive ace Justise Winslow fights through it with relative ease as Booker is funneled towards the baseline. Stoudemire steps up to protect the lane and Joe Johnson abandons P.J. Tucker on the weakside to cut off the roll by Len. The Heat have all their bases covered. With no passing lanes, no driving lanes and Winslow closing in fast, Book pulls another move out of his surprisingly vast arsenal -- a hard stepback for a fallaway 15-footer which barely disturbs the net as it drops through.
Clip #1, Unnecessarily Tentative: In contrast to Booker, even in Len's highlight videos you'll see some of his bad habits and might wonder exactly how the defense could let him go off like that. The first clip illustrates as much, as Nikola Vucevic decides for reasons completely unknown to switch onto P.J. Tucker as he fumbles around a clumsy ballscreen from Len about 8 feet from the rim.
Evan Fournier, slow to react because there was really no reason for Len to be alone under the rim, is the only thing standing in the way of a dunk. In other words, this should be a dunk. Instead, Len has to gather whilst bringing the ball down below his waist -- actually taking the time to pump fake Fournier, who stands six inches shorter -- and Vucevic almost has time to recover before Len finally gets the ball through the cylinder.
Clip #2, Taking Control of the Midrange: It's a totally different case with Len when he is operating from the midrange, which is obviously closer to his comfort zone. This is nothing flashy, but it is sound and effective. Len sees a spot on the floor he is comfortable shooting from -- the top of the circle, specifically -- that Vucevic is going out of his way to ignore.
You can even see a split second where Vucevic glances at Len and says "meh," as he's much more content to stare at Devin Booker (aren't we all), who has picked up his dribble and is posing no threat whatsoever at the moment.
The confidence Len shows here is encouraging, as he decisively plants himself in shooting position and puts his hands up to make it clear that 'yes I would like the ball now please' before swishing it through. There have been comparisons to Zydrunas Ilgauskas thrown about during Len's career, and this is why.
Clip #3, Finding A Rhythm: Len again displays that he is slightly more comfortable just outside of the paint here (not that there's anything wrong with that), as he goes quickly to work after receiving the ball 10-12 feet out. One hard jab step gets Vucevic on his heels, and Len again calmly swishes a short jumper.
Clip #4, The Bank is Open: Here's the part where Vucevic came to the realization that, yeah, you have to give Len a little more attention from the midrange than you would a traffic cone. Begrudgingly, he plays up-close defense and even puts his hand in the air when Len receives this entry pass. But Len's confidence is brimming at this point as he faces up and measures a bankshot like he's done it a million times before.
Vucevic, faced with the same results even after exerting himself, can only flail his arms indignantly.
Clip #5, Attacking Inside: Now that Len is riding high, he starts to go to work in the post. Instead of trying to pump-fake guards like Evan Fournier, he's going right at 7-footers like Dewayne Dedmon. Not content to just face up anymore, Len simply lowers his shoulder into Dedmon to knock the big man on his heels before ripping the ball to the other side, getting Dedmon off his feet and drawing the shooting foul.
It would be nice to see Len finish with his left hand here instead of trying to contort his body back to his favorable right, but all complaints are nitpicks when the result is a pair of freethrows.
Clip #6, Bully Ball: Sorry Nik, we're not done with you yet.
Len obviously has little respect for Vucevic at this point, for good reason, and earlier in the game was taking jumpers after facing him up. This time, after a quick jab step and pump fake has Vuc dancing about on his tippy-toes, Len appears to get bored with the whole thing as he goes baseline and rams his way toward the rim.
Vucevic, having already lost the battle for the baseline, cuts his losses and wraps up the charging Len for an unintentional intentional foul. This really was not a good day for him.
Clip #7, Beastmode Engaged: In Nik's defense, Len is not an easy cover for many centers when his confidence and feistiness are at astronomical levels. Jason Smith had no better luck, as Len pretends to be setting a screen on him in the paint but -- surprise! -- he was actually establishing position for an entry pass.
The pass comes quickly, and while Len does put the ball on the floor, it serves a clear purpose as he drives Smith all the way under the rim before easily ripping the ball back to his right hand for a gimme lay-in. No wasted movements, no pump-fake nonsense, just one hard dribble and two easy points.
Exactly what we hope to see from Len on a more consistent basis.
Wrapping it up
From watching the performances of both these players, it isn't difficult to arrive at the conclusion of who will have more 30-point games over the course of their careers. While Len's offensive game thrives on his confidence and, quite frankly, the defense neglecting to account for him, Booker's offensive outbursts are marked more by undeniable skill and predatory offensive instincts.
That's not an indictment of Len by any means, but 31-point games from him will likely always be a luxury when they do occur. It's more important to the future of the Suns that he continues his strong play defensively and on the boards, where he is currently averaging a career-high 11.9 rebounds per 36 minutes.
His current role as a featured player on offense is quite obviously borne from his being one of the few healthy bodies on an otherwise decimated roster, and it makes abundant sense to see what he can do with increased possessions in a season that was already written off by New Year's.
Having said all that, Len will still only be 23 years old when the 2016/17 season tips off, and there are enough encouraging signs to keep the possibility open that he might be something of a late bloomer on the offensive end. The good news is, he has already established himself as a rotation-worthy center in the NBA, which can't even be said about a couple players drafted ahead of him in 2013. Health permitting, any big improvement from here will be gravy.
Or in his case, goulash.
As for Booker, the array of offensive skills he has developed in such a short time is simply startling. Take a look at the DraftExpress "Weaknesses" report of him and try to reconcile the player on that video to the one we're seeing now. There was no indication that the Suns were getting an all-around offensive player when they took the 18-year-old at 13th in the draft.
Call it scouting or luck. Frankly, I'm fine with both.