Suns draft coverage throughout May and June has largely focused on the need to cover up for Devin Booker’s weaknesses. It’s a realistic concern, and one that I’m guilty of as well, but watching the NBA playoffs has indeed alleviated some of it. Because if the Kyrie Irving Experience is any indication, Booker could have a whole different level of value when the Suns finally break through into the playoffs.
During the regular season, Irving was at the top of the league as an isolation scorer. He and Isaiah Thomas both scored 1.12 points per isolation possession, best in the league for players who finished at least 100 isos. However, even compared to Thomas, Irving finished in isolation nearly twice as often and sixth most in the entire league. No player in the league combined efficiency and frequency as well as Kyrie this year.
A little further down the list sat Devin Booker, who scored 0.94 points per iso on 241 such possessions. Unfortunately his effective field goal percentage (which takes into account the extra value of a 3-pointer) was about 10 percent lower than Irving. But for a player who was expected to be much more of a Kyle Korver marksman type coming into the league than a dominant iso scorer, those numbers are remarkable.
However, part of the learning curve for a young player developing into this type of go-to scorer is the balance between efficient isolation scoring and team success. It requires a preternatural chemistry with teammates and a realistic understanding of the player’s own skills. Very few master it at the highest levels. Yet when I watch Irving-- a player who looked helpless during this first few years in the league-- make a massive impact on the game’s biggest stage, I can’t help but be positive about Booker’s potential.
Booker is a better shooter than Irving with a better physical profile, but Irving is a much better finisher and a highly developed passer. Both are probably better in supporting roles offensively, but the impact they’re each capable of can be devastating. The playoffs, as The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor noted last week, are where isolation ball is most valuable. When defenses lock in and learn the opponent, when depth is less treasured, the ability to go get a bucket is paramount to success.
I’m intrigued by how Booker would fare in a playoff series. It’s hard to predict the makeup of the Suns’ roster by that point, but assuming that the Suns do pair Booker with a better defensive point guard, their defense looks promising. Dragan Bender will develop into a plus at that end, no matter what position he settles into long-term, and Marquese Chriss can be a difference-maker protecting the rim. Big men are most important to defense, which is another reason that the Cavaliers can survive with Irving on the court. All he (and Booker) really has to do is keep up with his man in space, put effort in when it matters, and do more good than harm.
That core of two-way players would be enough to insulate Booker. In the playoffs, his game would indeed flourish. Another factor contributing to his production would be the slower pace of the playoffs. It can be frustrating to watch Booker go to work when he picks the wrong spots and mismanages the team in the half court. But the slower pace of the playoffs would mean he would have multiple consecutive opportunities to read and break down a defense.
He turned the ball over at about the same rate as Goran Dragic and Mike Conley this season, a must for high-usage isolation players. His ability to make threes off the dribble (assuming his shooting eventually regresses back to expectation) puts him above players like this. Booker made 10 of 26 pull-up threes this year, according to NBA.com tracking data, but he was more comfortable trying that shot than last season. It’s an ability that will eventually serve him well as a go-to scorer, as evidenced by the success of players like Damian Lillard and James Harden in isolation. The threat of a pull-up three forces defenders to guard Booker all the way outside the line, giving him leverage as a driver.
A varied range of skills is important to become a great scorer. Booker keeps turnovers low, shoots from everywhere on the court, and excels one-on-one. And he’s only 20 years old.
We saw the damage that Irving did over the last three games of last year’s Finals, then again on Christmas Day against the Warriors, then again last month against the Boston Celtics in a historic 53-point performance. His style is tested and proven in big games. Booker hasn’t had the opportunity to play in many of those to this point, but the combination of skills and production he has put together, along with his potential to grow, make him a great candidate to follow Irving’s career path as a go-to playoff scorer. Now it’s just a matter of getting there.