After two-plus months of puzzling and inconsistent play, Devin Booker is finding his stride, combining his innate skillset with the lessons he’s learned over two NBA seasons. With nightly scoring explosions and a healthy dose of swagger, the month of January has become a reaffirming display of the value of player development on Planet Orange.
Much of the inconsistency on Booker’s part was, at face value, about being asked to do different kinds of things than he was comfortable with. Last season, even with the intriguing addition of ball skills to his arsenal late in the year, Booker was at his best using that upside from a traditional shooting guard role.
This year, aside from some smart trickery at the top of the key involving Tyson Chandler, coach Earl Watson has asked Booker to be everyone from Kobe Bryant to DeMar DeRozan, with varying success. Rarely has he let Booker be himself. Two observations from that experiment, before we go any further:
- It’s not always a bad thing to stretch a young player who can handle it. That stuff pays off down the road.
- I still believe much of the reason for putting the ball in his hands so often is to relieve the playmaking burden of Eric Bledsoe-- something the Suns still want to do.
Though Booker had no choice in the matter (roster makeup and coaching oddities are to blame), he spent most of the first half of this season trying to create shots out of vast nothingness, using strength not yet developed and foresight not yet built to shoulder a huge load on offense. Over the past three weeks, Booker has flipped conventional wisdom upside-down by translating those skills smoothly into the prototypical three-point specialist role most assumed he’d seize.
His stats in the month of January (seven games):
.504/.500/.829 shooting split
Booker’s been doing it both ways: Through the triple-threat midrange game that Watson has forced on him this season, as well as by pulling up from behind the arc at all angles, efficiently. That three-point shooting percentage, up over 50% this month, is on 5.4 attempts per game, an above-average volume. On the other hand, he’s 13/26 on pull-up two-point shots, the bread and butter of Watson’s ideal Booker.
However, it hasn’t quite just been a matter of making the shots he had previously been missing-- all those reps left their mark on his game for the better. Plays like these demonstrate the confidence and understanding he had lacked until recently:
On Saturday night in Mexico City, Booker punished the Spurs for leaving veteran Manu Ginobili on him most of the night, attacking relentlessly and beating the team defensive strategies the opponent clearly hoped would contain him. It might have been his best performance of the season; Booker launched and made threes with no abandon, threw his weight around in transition, and finished the Spurs off in the fourth quarter with six free throws. Even putting Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green on him late the game couldn’t contain him.
Overall, his ability to get to the line has been a big catalyst for his uptick in scoring lately. He’s averaged nearly two additional free throw attempts per game in January (up to 5.9 per game), and notched a season high with 12 attempts against San Antonio. This is another area where intelligence and savvy, gained through repetition, show up:
Booker also ranks in the 75th percentile of NBA players (minimum 20 possessions) as an isolation scorer, making 48 percent of those shots and rarely turning the ball over. For Suns fans, that learning curve has been a painful one to watch, because there’s nothing fun about a player finding the angles and paths that suit his body best. But it’s clearly working.
None of this is an endorsement of the way Watson and his staff have designed this offense. With talented offensive players dotting the roster and the ability to handle a quick pace, this unit has the potential to be very good. It is not. However, things have looked better recently, and Booker has the system to thank in large part as well:
It took half a season, but the Suns and Devin Booker have found what works, mixing two ideologies into one player’s style and finding success. If it continues, even our wildest dreams may yet come true.
All stats in this piece are current through 1/18 and courtesy of NBA.com/stats unless otherwise noted.