With their best player coming up lame in a December contest, players filed off the bench and onto the court to surround their teammate once play stopped. After a short period of time, it was determined he would need to leave the game and was helped to the locker room, with Tyson Chandler there to aid him in getting there.
It’s a familiar sight for fans of the Phoenix Suns, and not just because it happened a couple days ago to Devin Booker. This is the exact same scenario that played out for Eric Bledsoe in 2015 when he tore his left meniscus on Dec. 26 and missed the rest of the season. Back then, it paved the way for then-rookie Booker to enter the starting lineup, and he never looked back.
Booker’s injury, while not as serious as Bledsoe’s, opens the same door for Josh Jackson.
Head coach Jay Triano penciled Jackson’s name in at shooting guard against the Washington Wizards yesterday and appears inclined to do so for the duration of Booker’s absence. Game one of Jackson’s tenure as an everyday starter came with mixed results. He started off aggressive, scoring six points on 2-of-5 shooting (including a made 3) to go along with three assists, two rebounds, and one beautiful follow slam over an unsuspecting Marcin Gortat in the 1st quarter.
However, he had just four points and a rebound the rest of the way before fouling out with 3:04 left to play in a six-point game. Meanwhile, Bradley Beal, his defensive assignment for much of the game, had 34 points in Washington’s victory.
It was something of a stumble out of the blocks for Jackson, but Booker’s transition to starter wasn’t seamless, either. His first three games after being placed in the starting lineup, he averaged 10.3 points in nearly 31 minutes as Phoenix lost all three, including a 33-point drubbing by the San Antonio Spurs. His next five games saw him average 16.6 points, though. A few nights after that, he scored a then-career-high 32 points against the Indiana Pacers and was off to the races. By season’s end, there was little doubt about whose team the Phoenix Suns would soon become.
This was just Jackson’s second start this season at shooting guard, so a learning curve should be expected as he adjusts to playing heavy minutes outside his natural position. But the Suns aren’t about to ask the shooting-challenged rookie to do his best Ray Allen impersonation; they’re going to ask him to play within himself at the highest possible level.
He needs to not only accept the challenge but rise to meet it.
To this point in his young career, he has not. Jackson entered Thursday’s contest averaging 9.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.0 assists, and 2.0 turnovers in 21.5 minutes per game while shooting 39.2 percent from the field, 23.8 percent from 3, and 54.4 percent from the charity stripe. If voting were held today, he likely doesn’t make an All-Rookie team, as the likes of Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell, Kyle Kuzma, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, John Collins and others have sprinted to the front of the pack. But Booker didn’t look terribly promising, either, before getting into the lineup. Perhaps Jackson will soon show the same combination of desire and ability that Booker displayed following his promotion?
Great players don’t let opportunities like this slip. There is a reason the legend of Lou Gehrig and Wally Pipp, although embellished, resonates to this day. It’s because, in part, it perfectly encapsulates the notion that great players seize opportunity — just as Booker did two seasons ago.
Jackson’s situation is admittedly different than that of Booker. For one, his expanded chance to prove himself comes with an expiration date. Second, he has greater expectations on his shoulders than Booker ever did as a rookie. He was a No. 4 overall selection this past summer and was voted by general managers around the league as the 2017 rookie who will be the best player five years from now. Booker took the league by surprise in 2015-16, yes, but he has since proved his potential to be real. Jackson — as all players must eventually do — needs to prove the same.
Without Booker for the time being, the Suns need a running mate for T.J. Warren. That player will ideally turn out to be Jackson, but he has some work to do to get there. He needs to work on converting baskets at a higher clip, whether via jumpshot or layup. He must showcase his defensive abilities regularly, without fouling. And he has to stop trying to Leeroy Jenkins his way to the hoop. Jackson oozes potential, but he needs to use this opportunity to tap more deeply into that potential and show the league exactly what he’s capable of on a nightly basis. If he does, the Suns will have found the silver lining to Booker’s left adductor strain.
The thought of watching the Suns during this stretch without Booker might be as appealing as the thought of biting into a carob chip cookie, but there is still reason to tune in. This slate of December games will give observers the clearest picture yet whether Jackson can one day grow into a foundational piece for this franchise.