This Suns season has, in many ways, been about turning expectations a little sideways and simplifying the approach to player development. One surprising way that has shown up on the court has been in Devin Booker’s defense.
Throughout the year, coach Jay Triano has emphasized the higher expectations that the coaching staff has placed on Booker this season on the defensive end. In the past, he was able to hide on that end because Eric Bledsoe and P.J. Tucker often guarded the opposing team’s top option. Of course Tucker was traded last February and Bledsoe this November -- that left Booker as not only a more exposed defender but the team’s leader.
Elite young NBA players generally don’t take possessions off on defense, and as the best player on the court, they can’t be hidden by their teams on that end either. Booker’s learning curve had to be sharp, and he has exceeded expectations.
A big problem early on was his inability to fight through screens effectively guarding the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. Last season, the Suns tied Portland for the most points per possession given up to opposing pick-and-roll ball-handlers in the league, at 0.91. Though Bledsoe suffered a down year, Booker’s screenability was a big reason as well.
It appeared as if Booker didn’t have the burst or balance to dance around strong screeners, as with Trevor Ariza and Andrew Bogut above. He gave up far too many open shots.
But that wasn’t always the case, and Booker showed enough flashes when locked in to inspire at least some optimism. It’s probably what Triano and his staff saw on film that helped them believe Booker was capable of more consistent production defensively. The key seems to be giving the third-year guard a more simple and stable gameplan, especially in the pick-and-roll.
Last year, Booker would often simply chase the ball-handler slowly and give up once he lost contact with him.
This year, he’s guarding it slightly differently, literally jumping ahead of the screen before the ball-handler “accepts” it. In the clip below, Tony Parker crosses over through the screen, but Booker is able to keep a hand on him the entire him with the step ahead of the screen coming a half-second earlier, before Kyle Anderson has made contact. Not only is this helping Booker stay in the play, just the mere consistency of doing it the same way every time has made a massive impact.
The Suns remain fourth in the league in terms of defensive efficiency against pick-and-roll ball-handlers, allowing a nearly identical 0.90 points per possession. But since Booker’s return seven games ago, the starters have been much better as a defensive unit, and the Suns allow 5.4 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the court.
He has remained impactful creating turnovers here and there, but the chasedown blocks and soaring steals will lessen as he takes on an even greater offensive load as a ball-handler. Simplifying his reads and staying physical will be a bigger key to Booker helping the Suns’ defense.
So far this year, he’s shown himself to be up to that task, and it has helped the Suns over-achieve despite roster turnover leaving less talent around him.