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Theoretical Analysis of Devin Booker On-Ball vs. Off-Ball

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A look at how the Phoenix Suns current roster construction and offensive scheme limits their ability to play Devin Booker on-ball

Philadelphia 76ers v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

When the Phoenix Suns selected Devin Booker with the 13th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft many believed the Kentucky shooting guard would strictly specialize as a spot-up shooter in the NBA.

Jay Bilas compared Booker on draft night to one of the premier shooters in the league saying, “He really is a young Klay Thompson.”

After two full seasons in the NBA, Booker has shown he has a lot more to his game than people thought, leaving the Suns management and coaching staff with more questions on how to build around their young superstar.

If the Suns want to turn into a playoff contender with Booker as the primary ball handler it is critical to create a roster with more shooters, hire a coach with the right scheme and pair Booker with a bigger guard.

Offensive Scheme

‘Thumb Up’

I went into much more detail on this set in this piece earlier if you are interested in learning more about it before continuing.

‘Thumb Up’ used to be a staple in Watsons’ offense, which is a direct influence from his days under Portland Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. Triano comes from the same coaching tree working as an assistant under Stotts but he has reduced the frequency of this set. The key to this set when looking at it from the Booker on-ball vs off-ball standpoint is understanding the importance of bigger guards that can score in wing isolation.

In this clip the pitch - back flare screen happens up top with Bledsoe coming off the flare screen. Throughout the pre-season and first couple games, I liked Watson’s idea of playing Booker on-ball more but I thought he forced it at times knowing the system is not built for smaller guards to play off-ball.

Watson recently mentioned in a Chris Broussard podcast interview how he wanted to play Booker on-ball more alongside Josh Jackson and TJ Warren. It’s the right idea to go with a bigger guard next to Booker compared to Bledsoe but that would have had little success as both Warren and Jackson are sub-par 3-point shooters.

The value of running Booker off the flare screen is not only his ability to score with ease in wing isolation but also his ability to post up smaller guards at that position. Booker’s advanced footwork in the post separates him from other All-Star level guards at the shooting guard position.

The Trail Blazers run a similar system with a bigger guard in CJ McCollum coming off the flare screen or when they had Allen Crabbe coming off the bench in prior years. The Suns need to find another option besides Booker at that size. Ideally, they can address it through the draft with a prospect such as Luka Doncic, who would be the perfect fit.

After impressing during Summer League and pre-season in this set, Josh Jackson has had his struggles to start his rookie year. Later in the same game against the Clippers, Beverly put his thumb up signaling the pitch-back flare screen to occur, Watson elects to have Booker at the 3 spot with Jackson coming off the flare screen.

In the pre-season, Watson used Jackson as a secondary option with James coming off the flare screen. This is the best spot to put Jackson in moving forward if they want Booker on-ball with either Warren, Reed, or Daniels coming off the flare screen.

Even though James does not get the ball, in this case, you can see how he is not a threat to score at that size and puts him in a bad position. I thought they ran into the same problem trying to play Brandon Knight as the backup shooting guard alongside Ulis in the second unit at times last year as well.

In general, the offense is at its best with simultaneous action. This is the best variation of ‘Thumb Up’ with Booker setting a back-screen simultaneous to the Warren pitch-back flare screen up top. If they play Booker at the point guard spot it would be Warren setting the back-screen and again it comes down to finding that piece who can come off the flare screen ... Josh Jackson?

‘Spain PnR’

Continuing with the theme of Booker setting a back-screen at the free-throw line newer action teams run in the NBA is called ‘Spain PnR’ named after the Spanish national team.

Last season the Suns had great success in this set with Booker setting the back-screen on the opposing teams big. At his size, the ability to post-up from the center of the floor gives him multiple options.

As Booker sees more double teams in the post it is best to give him touches from the center of the floor. This time they get an open 3 for Tyler Ulis.

Booker gives the Suns a secondary option after setting the back-screen, something that would go away with him on-ball. In this case, Ingles reads the set early and hugs Booker but that opens the driving lane for Bledsoe with miscommunication between Gobert and Ingles.

To start the season I was puzzled by Watson’s decision to run the action with Bledsoe setting the back-screen. The roster is currently not constructed to optimally play Booker on-ball but it makes little sense to force what is not there.

Like the earlier clip with ‘Thumb Up’ Beverly knows what’s coming. With Booker on-ball, the second option with a post-up at the free throw line does not exist. Instead, Booker is forced to make the lob pass that is taken away.

You can see the difference in this clip with Booker setting the back-screen on Brook Lopez. If the lob is not the available the ball-handler can go to the secondary option with Booker in the post. If teams elect to zone or double he has multiple options from the center of the floor oppose to when teams double Booker on the right or left block.

If the Suns were to play Booker on-ball more the rest of the year the only option that theoretically makes sense to use for the back-screen on the opposing big is Troy Daniels.

Daniels is shooting the three from this spot at 51.9% making him a solid option to use with Booker on-ball.

This is what the Suns need if they want to run Spain PnR with Booker on-ball, not what Watson was running with Bledsoe or James setting the back-screen. With teams hard hedging or trapping Booker in PnR action Daniels does not have even have the chance to back-screen Jonas Valanciunas. This is an action Triano could use in late game situations as well knowing teams are going to trap Booker.

Daniels also has the ability to come off a curl and put the ball and play-make which is important in certain counter situations. In this clip, watch how the entire Blazers coaching staff sniffs out Spain PnR calling out to their players. Pat Connaughton is not able to front Daniels in time allowing the back-screen to occur on Swanigan and Ulis is able to get to his spot.

The very next play to start the second quarter Connaughton elects to front Daniels to not allow the back-screen to occur. Triano and the Suns are one step ahead countering with Daniels coming off the curl, which leads to the Len dunk. Daniels may not have a post game but the high IQ coupled with his shooting ability makes him a possible fit with Booker on-ball.

‘Horns Down’

This is a set that Triano has ran almost every game and has had great success with. The idea is running a cross-screen under the basket into an elevator or double-pindown screen for Booker.

In this case, the rookie Kuzma does a poor job of initially reading the action and closing the elevator doors, in addition, he doesn’t close out on Booker but instead takes a step towards the basket.

If the Suns were to play Booker on-ball they would have to rely again on Troy Daniels or Davon Reed. At some point, the Suns have to look at adding more shooters either through the G-league, trade deadline, draft and free agency.

This time Booker elects to go around rather than through the elevator doors. Harden chases inside but has no contest for an open three for Booker.

Not only does Booker bring the elite shooting ability playing off-ball it is his high basketball IQ that makes him so special. If you study the games Booker has played against Boston he is one step ahead on how to counter the Celtics’ defensive schemes. The 70 point game was a clinic on how to run a counter Zipper set.

This time they flip the direction of the cross-screen. Horford does a good job of closing the elevator doors forcing Booker to go around. But watch how Booker attacks on the catch and knows exactly how to counter left, getting the re-screen from Chriss, taking Brown out of the action, which allows him to drive on Horford.

With Booker on the bench, Triano went to an interesting counteraction against the Raptors earlier this season. Kyle Lowry signals Horns Down to his teammates who clearly had it scouted out, so they counter into getting Warren isolated from the center of the floor.

Theoretically, this is a great example to further analyze what Booker on-ball would like in Triano’s offense. If they chose to go with a lineup of Warren and Jackson alongside Booker this set would have limited options as both Warren and Jackson are not able to come through the elevator doors.

Later in the same game, the question is answered as Booker signals Horns Down as the primary ball-handler. If you turn up the volume you can hear Booker yell, ‘Horns Down’. The only other option right now to come through the elevator doors is Daniels who was out of sync with Jackson on the cross-screen.

Jackson has been out of position frequently this season but I’m not exactly sure why Booker makes the read to attack the basket maybe thinking Jackson would seal the defender.

This time in the third quarter DeRozan fronts Daniels and he is not able to come through the elevator doors clean for an open 3. If Daniels can prove to make this step-back jumper he deserves more minutes next to Booker.

Overall, this is another set that shows Booker needs an shooter such as Troy Daniels to play next to him at the SG position to have success on-ball. Should #TheTimeline move forward with Daniels in this role next season?

‘Pistol Action’

The Houston Rockets have provided a blueprint for how to win with an elite guard on ball. The Rockets run a lot of ‘Pistol or 21’ action in early offense. With NBA teams looking to play with more speed this action has picked up in the last couple years; the Suns are no different.

The Rockets have a superstar guard on-ball in James Harden, but the key to their success is surrounding him with shooters and creating a system for him thrive in. This is a variation of the action with a strong side hand-off into a double drag screen.

Last season with Booker on-ball in Pistol action Watson had little success in part due to the design of the sets and the roster construction. This was a common Pistol action in Watson’s offense that essentially turned into a weave up top with the idea of generating space for the Chandler - Bledsoe PnR.

Later in the game they adjusted with Brandon Knight on-ball, running the Pistol Weave action to generate space for the Booker - Chriss PnR. I just don’t think that would work considering how much Booker relies on his In-Out going laterally, it would be best to empty the strong side corner.

Could the Suns have ran the same double drag action with Booker in Harden’s position that the Rockets have had so much success with? No, it all goes back to pairing Booker with an elite shooter such as Eric Gordon.

When playing elite defenders such as Andre Roberson, Watson designed the Pistol action to help Booker to get his spots or get switches against a team such as the Warriors.

This is the same double drag Pistol action the Rockets run with Harden and Gordon. It’s a good set allowing Booker to get a step on Roberson but you have to play him off-ball.

Similar to many other NBA teams the Suns look to get their best offensive option switched onto Stephen Curry when playing the Golden State Warriors. Pistol action with Booker off-ball allows this to happen.

Earlier in the same Curry and Thompson had miscommunication on the switch allowing Booker to get free for the three. The value of getting the switch is big when playing Booker off-ball it makes the most sense to put him there in the majority of Pistol sets the Suns run.

Early this season Watson installed a new Pistol set with a flare screen into a ball-screen, which is a common action in Europe that has picked up in the NBA. Triano has reduced the frequency of this action but it is yet another example of how Booker is optimally played off-ball.

Watson never played Booker at the spot of Jackson or Warren in this set. That would be the best spot, not as the one or the two.

The Suns made a smart move in trading for Troy Daniels in the off-season. This season they have been able to run this Pistol set to generate an open three for Daniels. Moving forward I would like to see Triano experiment with the double drag action and give Booker more minutes on-ball next to Daniels.

Theoretically, Troy Daniels and Davon Reed are the only players on the Suns roster that would give Booker a chance to show just how special of a play-maker he can be.

As the Suns continue the rebuilding process one of the most important keys to #TheTimeline is finding the piece to play next to Devin Booker. Ideally, the Suns should look to find an Eric Gordon clone to pair with Booker in a system that allows him to flourish on-ball.

Booker has all the tools to become an elite play-maker; The ability to keep defenders on his hip, high basketball IQ, and some of the best footwork in the NBA. If Booker were to play in a system similar to Harden in Houston he would be a legit MVP candidate in this league. It’s on the Suns front office to realize that potential and not limit his ability to show how special of a basketball player he is.