Gone are the days of two-time league MVP Steve Nash and multi-time All-Stars Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion.
But that’s not the worst of it. How about this: Until this stretch of five straight empty seasons, the Phoenix Suns franchise had not gone more than one season without an All-Star in it’s 44-year existence from 1968-2012.
And this is the era that I chose to cover. Oof.
When will the Suns’ next All-Star come to town?
Or, is he already here, in the infant form of 20-year old Devin Booker?
Since bursting onto the scene a year ago as a surprisingly talented offensive player, and touted by many of the NBA’s best players as “the next big thing”, young shooting guard Devin Booker faces his first round of doubts in his second season.
Despite being the youngest player ever to record 16 straight 20+ point games this season, and one of only five players ever (the others being current or future Hall of Famers) to average 21+ points per game at age 20, plus a handful of other notable teenage firsts, doubts about Booker’s ultimate ceiling are legitimate.
First, let’s put this into perspective. This is NOT a “let’s bash Devin Booker” story. This is simply a dive into indicators and warning signs of his potential to be one of those rare All-Star players.
On the plus side, most NBA insiders and pros would consider Booker a potential future All-Star. That part is not in question. While some skeptics might top him out as a one-dimensional type whose ceiling approximates a Kevin Martin (multi-time 20+ point per game scorer, but not a foundational player or perennial All-Star), most others simply label him as a likely All-Star profile whose ultimate ceiling is not yet focus.
Let’s try to put Booker into perspective. It’s folly to compare Booker to this year’s All-Star guards because Booker is not anywhere near his prime.
So let’s compare second seasons.
Looking at recent Western Conference All-Star guards, you can see how Booker stacks up in each of those players’ second NBA season.
(I excluded Chris Paul from this comparison because he’s a totally different player and because he’s not going to be in the competition for All-Star games when Booker rises.)
One thing to note is that there is not a lot of turnover amongst the guards named to each All-Star game. Looking only at Western Conference guards Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, you can see that Booker is actually the highest scorer of all of them when they were in their second NBA season.
You can also see that Booker is the youngest, and his non-scoring numbers are among the worst in the group. But you could make the case that Booker will be better when he’s 21 and 22 than he is today.
So I changed my search to look at ANY players who eventually made the All-Star game that joined the league young enough to be just 20 years old in their second NBA season.
The list is extremely short. I had to toss in Bradley Beal who is on the cusp, non-guard Kevin Durant and 19-year old Kobe Bryant just to get a 6-man list.
Booker is the third-highest scorer among 20-year old, second-year players who eventually reached All-Star caliber. But again, his non-scoring numbers somewhat pale in comparison to the others. He is at the bottom in rebounds, steals and blocks per game and second-worst in field goal percentage.
Even among his five 20-year old 21-points-per-game contemporaries, regardless of position, Booker does not quite stack up to those sure-fire and potential Hall of Fame players.
Booker has by far the fewest “Win Shares” among the six at that age, even though they all played on bad teams, and it’s not just a function of games played. He is also 5th or 6th in most other raw statistical categories.
But that does that mean? Is that a knock on Booker? No.
We are talking about Booker being one of only a handful of a gazillion NBA players in history, no matter how you slice the pie.
Booker is special. He just might not be Space Jam material.
He’s not a 7-2” behemoth who can break back boards on in-game dunks. He’s not a 6’8” 240 pound athletic freak with innate basketball IQ who may end up the best player ever. Nor is he an outsized small forward with a power game and a sweet shooting stroke all in one. Or a point guard with the ball in his hands on every single play.
Booker has traditional size for an NBA shooting guard (6-6”), but is not an otherworldly athlete like LeBron James and is not outsized for his NBA position like Kevin Durant or Shaquille O’Neal.
Some people scoff at the “youngest ever to...” talk, claiming that the only reason Booker compares favorably in NBA annals is because he was lucky enough to be born in the fall, just after age-controlled cutoff dates for school enrollments. A player born in the summer or spring doesn’t even get a chance to begin his NBA career at 18 years old, no matter how good he is.
Most NBA players aren’t lucky enough to even still BE just 20 years old in the second year of their NBA career.
In fact, there has only been... well, okay there’s been a lot. According to bball-ref, there have been 385 NBA players in history to be 20 or younger in their second NBA season.
Booker is currently the 5th highest scorer ever for someone 20 or younger in their first or second season.
Is Devin Booker an All-Star in the making?
Team Wins: NO
This is obvious. If Booker can put up similar or better numbers on a 40+ win team, he’s a lot more likely to get in there. Just look at Damian Lillard. On a really bad team, Lillard never would have made an All-Star team (sorry Blazers fans, but you’re seeing that this year).
But Booker cannot entirely control this, so let’s focus on the player himself.
Personality and Image: Yes
Some portion of getting named to an All-Star game is being well-liked and internationally recognized. Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Kobe Bryant... the list goes on. You need to get voted on by fans and respected by the league’s coaches to be named to the All-Star game. Booker certainly is on the right track there, and is the first Suns player since Nash and Amare to approach that realm.
The league likes him. He’s been included in All-Star Weekend in both of his seasons, including the Rising Stars Challenge (twice), Talent Challenge, Skills Challenge and Three-Point Shootout. He’s also already been in some national commercials with other young talents, and was named to the Select Team of young players who worked out with Team USA prior to the Olympics last summer.
Opposing coaches regularly talk about Booker’s bright future, demeanor and “presence” as the primary player his team needs to contain on any given night. Outbursts like Booker’s 27-points in 7:13 against one of the league’s best defenses (Jazz) a couple weeks ago are the stuff that keeps coaches on their toes and adjusting their game plans.
Fans love scorers. Players love scorers. If scoring is all you need to make the All-Star Game, then Devin Booker is already on the right track.
Of course, it’s NOT the only thing you need, but it’s a great start. I’d compare it to dating. While the most absolutely required attribute in a partner is personality, I admit that I only look for that winning personality among the pool of prospects who fit the aesthetics profile first.
The same can be said for scoring (Draymond Green being the exception). The All-Star Game is one big talent show. Draymond Green and Tim Duncan get overlooked in a game like that, while Amare Stoudemire, Kobe Bryant and other big-time scorers can be the stars of the show. The NBA loves a show.
We are not talking about All-NBA teams here. We are talking about the All-Star Game. Totally different.
Aesthetics on the court: Yes
You also have to look the part to get the fans’ adoration. While Booker and Brandon Knight, for example (sorry Brandon), both post about the same numbers on a per-36 basis, 99% of fans would prefer to watch Devin Booker take those shots because he’s prettier.
In the words of philosopher Forrest Gump, that’s all I got to say about that.
Any other skill besides scoring: NO
This is where Booker falls short. As I showed above, Booker does not stack up anywhere but scoring at this point in his career and some of that is being the #1 scoring option on a really bad team.
He doesn’t dish scoring passes nearly enough, doesn’t rebound hardly at all, doesn’t defend well, doesn’t steal the ball, rarely blocks shots (except spectacular ones on the break once a month or so).
But does that matter? Maybe, maybe not. He’s not far off being respectable on the non-scoring totals. If he can increase his nightly average of assists and rebounds from 3 each to 4-5 each, and can become a “heady” defender, all this worry goes away.
But at this point, Booker’s advanced statistics are ugly. According to things like BPM, RPM, VORP, WARP, and others, Booker even comes out as a net-negative player. Some of that is due to being on an awful team, but some of that is on Booker himself.
Secondary high grade skill?
If Booker is going to develop another high-grade skill, I think it could be his passing. Booker has shown great court vision in his first two years.
Once he gets his body under control and developed, he could become more of a facilitator on the wing. In fact, he didn’t even look badly out of place as a 19-year old point guard on occasion last year when all the guards went down to injury.
If Devin Booker can develop his scoring-pass game, get his assists up to 5+ per game, while keeping his own scoring at high level, and assuming the Suns rise into the 40+ win range again, he will more likely have a multi-time All-Star career.
But without that, unless he raises the water level on all the secondary skills as a whole, Booker might just be a high-scoring guard not quite good enough to play on Sunday of All-Star Weekend like the other 99% of the league.