Devin Booker must look forward to the start of a new year more than almost anyone.
January of last year saw him burst onto the NBA scene as a full-time starter for the injury-depleted Phoenix Suns, averaging 17.3 points over 14 games after just 6.4 points in his 29 games prior.
But this January has seen him outdo even that, with Booker going from averaging 18.8 points on 40.4-percent shooting and 32.3-percent shooting from behind the 3-point arc through Dec. 31 to averaging 27.6 points on 50.4-percent shooting from the field and 50-percent shooting from 3 this month. That scoring average currently ranks eighth in the NBA for January and would be the second highest average for the month by a Sun ever, surpassed only by the 28.4 points Tom Chambers averaged during January in 1988-89.
And that’s just the beginning of Booker’s January. Here are a few more of his accomplishments this month:
- Scored the third-most points in a 4th quarter in NBA history with his 28 points on Jan. 12. It was also the most points scored by a Sun in any quarter ever, besting Stephon Marbury’s mark of 26 back on Nov. 29, 2002.
- Youngest player since 1963-64 to log consecutive games with 39 or more points.
- Joined Paul Westphal and Tom Chambers as the only Suns to ever have consecutive games with 39 or more points.
- Tied with Tom Chambers and Cedric Ceballos for most games with 39 or more points by a Sun in January.
- Set new career high for consecutive games with 20 or more points (six games).
- Established new NBA regular-season scoring record for games played in Mexico with his 39 points, surpassing Michael Finley’s old record of 35 points set on Dec. 6, 1997.
- Set new franchise record for most points in a regular-season game played outside the United States and Canada with his 39 points, surpassing Tom Chambers’ 38 points in Tokyo, Japan.
And best of all (at least for those outside the lose-at-all-costs sect), his successes have correlated to success by the team, with Phoenix going 3-4 in January while playing the defending-champion Cleveland Cavaliers close and dropping only one game by double figures.
Booker started the season slow; there’s no denying that. Between a toe injury that hampered him in the early going and difficulty figuring out where he fit into an offense returning its top scorers from last season — you know, those guys who weren’t around to take his shots before — he looked lost as he adjusted to a role different from the one he owned last season.
But the tear he has gone on to start 2017 has reminded everyone why they were so excited about Booker. This is future All Star Booker. This is future max contract Booker. This is Booker at his alpha best, poised to take the next step in his development, and everyone — even Eric Bledsoe — will be forced to acquiesce when he does so.
The Suns don’t need deferential Booker, unsure of whether to look for his shot or space the floor or create for a teammate. They need the Booker with the surging confidence from last season. To put it in terms comics fans will understand, they don’t need Jean Grey. They need Phoenix…only without, you know, the rampaging.
That’s what they’ve gotten in January.
However, Booker’s terrific play this month does come with a blemish — turnovers. Booker is averaging 4.0 turnovers in January as opposed to 2.5 turnovers through Dec. 31. That 4.0 average ranks sixth highest in the NBA for January, behind only James Harden, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Jeff Teague, and Stephen Curry. Unlike those five names ahead of him, though, Booker is averaging 2.3 assists per game while they all average six or more. That gives him an assist-to-turnover ratio of 0.57 for January, which is tied with Cody Zeller, DeMarre Carroll, Nerlens Noel, and Tarik Black.
Booker is responsible for the two highest turnover games by a Sun this month and three of the highest six. To some degree, an increase in his turnovers is to be expected since his usage has increased in January, but a 60 percent increase in his turnovers is not, especially when the team as a whole has seen an eight percent decrease in its turnovers over the same span.
Having a low assist-to-turnover ratio (even below 1:1) as Booker does is not necessarily a bad thing for a shooting guard; Klay Thompson and J.J. Redick both have ratios in that range this season. But they are primarily catch-and-shoot players who aren’t tasked with doing much else with the basketball and therefore possess turnover averages of around 1.5 per game.
Then there are the shooting guards like James Harden, DeMar DeRozan, and Bradley Beal. They have higher usages, make more decisions, and as a result, accumulate more turnovers per game. However, they also collect more assists and have solid assist-to-turnover ratios.
Booker’s abilities on the offensive end of the court suggest he will be more of the latter than the former, and his usage for January (29.9) backs this up, meaning he will need to either find a way to rein in some of his carelessness with the basketball or do a better job creating scoring opportunities for his teammates.
Of the six guards with usage percentages above 30 this season, only two have assist-to-turnover ratios below 2:1 (Westbrook, 1.92; DeRozan; 1.59). None of them are close to being as young as Booker, however, which means he has time to round into being that efficient high-usage player.
While we all wait for that next jump in his evolution as a player, though, let’s remember that Booker is already etching his name into record books at 20 years old. Instead of harping on what he isn’t good at yet (did someone say defense?), let’s at least take some time to appreciate what he’s already good at.
It’s actually pretty awesome.