As I have written about plenty when revolving around Devin Booker, I think he’s on a crash-course to being a superstar. At only 21 years old, he’s already displaying elite traits and the numbers back up myself alongside many others claims.
The route the Suns end up taking on Booker will ultimately decide how they construct their roster. As Kevin O’Connor’s awesome article over on The Ringer explains, James Harden now isn’t a far-off comparison for Booker at this stage of his career. With Kevin putting Harden’s name finally out into orbit for Booker, it makes an awful lot of sense to possibly head toward such a team building construction layout if he’s comfortable with it.
At this stage of his career, Booker is already running much more pick-and-roll looks at higher frequencies than he has over his previous two under Earl Watson. Not including Friday’s numbers, Booker has averaged over 8 possessions per game in PnR career-spanning, which places him alongside names who have historically been ball-dominant. With Booker’s current rate, he’s next to names such as Harden, Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker, Russell Westbrook, and DeMar DeRozan.
As DeRozan has also taken the playmaking leap this year, Booker has as well. These two names are likely to be discussed in the “Harden” roles moving forward in their respective fan bases, and for good reason.
Like Harden, he started off his first four to five seasons at shooting guard, but with his improved playmaking and the right system perfectly constructed for him by Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, he began to thrive as the lead.
Harden’s assist numbers are eye-popping to look at, but his progressions year-to-year before he broke through foreshadowed this. Once he eclipsed over 30 minutes per game his final season in Oklahoma City, he averaged 3.7 assists. Then, in Houston, it ballooned up to 5.8 with a 7-minute per game uptick. From there Harden’s numbers rose to above 7 and then over 11 last season as Mike D’Antoni showed how a plan comes together perfectly.
D’Antoni and Morey surrounded Harden with plus shooters, some sharpshooters like Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, which gave him optimum floor spacing. This allowed The Beard to go to work from all three levels without much issue.
Another note on Booker, as O’Connor pointed out, is his increase in getting to the free throw line. Booker’s free throw rate currently has him next to historically ball-dominant guards once again.
For guards that have played over 1000 minutes this season, here are the leaders in free throw rate:
1. Harden -.497
2. DeRozan -.448
3. Jimmy Butler -.411
4. Lou Williams -.381
5. Ben Simmons -.367
6. Lillard -.345
7. Booker -.338
8. Westbrook -.330
9. Walker - .327
And even over his last 20 or so contests, Booker ranks closer to where Simmons lies on that board. At age 21, Booker is already a top eight, possibly top five player at drawing contact and having a chance to get two free points. (Note: When including players that have played under 1000 minutes, Stephen Curry and John Wall rank ahead of him, too.)
That’s even another sign that the Harden route could be the path taken by McDonough and Co. if they want to optimize Booker’s scoring and playmaking output. If constructed right, there’s no reason to believe that he couldn’t match or eclipse Harden’s numbers long-term.
Either way, for Booker, he has started to see a lot more doubles and traps since his return from a left adductor injury on Dec. 26. Since New Year’s Eve against Philadelphia when Brett Brown pulled the first exotic looks Booker’s ways, he is still averaging 26 points on 42-46-92 shooting splits.
The two numbers to focus on over his last four are his assists and turnovers. Booker has seen his per-game assist totals move up to 5.5 while his turnovers also have jumped to 5.5.
With Tyler Ulis and Isaiah Canaan the only other options, it’s a safe bet we will see a lot more of Booker at point guard over the final 41. In Canaan’s absence last night, Booker filled in at the point with mixed results but Nuggets head coach Mike Malone continued an onslaught of on-ball pressure sent at Booker, especially off of PnR looks.
Knowing the film junkie he is, Booker will in time know how to attack these looks and make the right reads. The turnovers are also up in large part with how Phoenix’s roster is currently set up.
There’s absolutely no consistent spacing whatsoever outside of Daniels. Not good.
Unless McDonough decides Walker is the piece between now and February, it’s likely Phoenix stands pat at the deadline. This means even more experimentation with the Point Book lineup in the future.
At this point, why not explore more of it? He’s proven capable of it and we’ve now reached a point where now 21-4-5 on 8-17 shooting is a “bad” night in some people’s eyes for Booker.
That bodes well for the guard out of Kentucky and this team overall if management picks a path and constructs it correctly.
Below, I’m going to layout how the Suns can build a long-term title contender around Booker. Whether they choose to find a backcourt partner or roll with Booker in a Harden role in the near future, these decisions will have to be near consensus come this summer.
The draft offers options such as Luka Doncic, Trae Young, and Collin Sexton but it also offers bigs and wings (free agency, too) who could fill in some gaps and help expand Booker’s all-around craft.
Now, let's see if McDonough will follow this layout because, in my eyes, this path makes a whole bunch of sense if they want Phoenix to be a force throughout the 2020s.
Trade Options: Kemba Walker, C.J. McCollum/Damian Lillard
If the Suns believe either of these three names could coincide alongside Booker in a secondary role, then this could be who to watch for.
Kemba’s name is now starting to get hot in terms of trade rumors as Charlotte’s season has started to sink. In the Walker era, Charlotte has failed to build a contender resulting in some horrid drafting and lack of cap flexibility. Sending Walker out of town could jolt the rebuild while he’s at a peak value.
Like Kyrie Irving could have been, pairing another ball-dominant point guard alongside Booker gives me pause but it opens up space for him in the end. That’s what is needed most for him at the moment.
Walker is only 27 and still has 18 months left on his current contract. That could be enough time to convince him to stay alongside Booker if they see progress next season, while in the process giving Phoenix more ammunition to recruit a star free agent like Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler in 2019 like the plan seems to be.
For Lillard and McCollum, I threw them in here as well because I think Portland, much like Charlotte, will be the next team destined to reboot. General manager Neil Olshey can’t just keep running it back over with 45 wins and a first-round exit with a Lillard/McCollum backcourt. I imagine by next year’s trade deadline or the summer following one of those could be on the way out to try and build more around just one of them.
Would the Trail Blazers choose a Lillard or McCollum path? That’s hard to say right now, but either one of those names could be a possible fit next to Booker, but the defense needs to be properly constructed around them for it to have any chance of working — a lot like how the Kemba/Booker backcourt would have to as well.
Outside of Kemba, keep an eye on those two in Portland, but as of now are those names the ones you cash in assets on? Walker will be a free agent anyways in 2019, but the Knicks and Pacers also could try to swing a deal in February or earlier for him which could signal some competition.
In this scenario, like I mentioned earlier, you are flanked by a Booker plus Walker/Lillard/McCollum backcourt when looking at adding that possible final veteran star piece to push the timeline forward. It certainly looks appealing on the surface if you are Butler, who has come out on record as complementary of Booker last season if Minnesota’s plans around Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns goes awry.
Draft Options: Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Collin Sexton
I have written on all three of these prospects so far, and I will more once my Big Board 2.0 releases near the end of this month. One quick spoiler for that: Trae Young has skyrocketed from No. 14 to No. 6, ahead of Sexton.
As far as best fit alongside Booker, Doncic and Young seem like great ones in terms of creation and offensive ability. Having a long-term pairing of Doncic/Young, Booker, Josh Jackson, Marquese Chriss, and Dragan Bender could be big-time if and when that clicked in sync.
All three of these names are win-now pieces, the three most likely 1s to immediately produce next season. All three also spread the floor for Booker, which will open up more for him to operate from anywhere on the court.
Next season, if the lottery balls fall right for Phoenix in the case of Doncic, the Suns could roll out either one of them and place them next to Booker. Brandon Knight will still have two years remaining on his contract at that point, which could be a possible stopgap option to build up his value prior to February 2019, if they choose the Young/Sexton route.
Without playing Knight, he will have no value which means having to ship him off including some valuable asset. For the Suns, that’s not a good idea at all right now so allowing Knight the opportunity to establish himself one more time definitely seems in the cards for 2018-2019 unless they buy his contract out.
This also means that Booker will have to wait around likely another offseason for a star unless LeBron or decides to forego Cleveland or Los Angeles to pair up with James Jones. Allowing a Booker plus (insert young drafted point guard’s name here) a year to grow together could help appeal to, again, a name in 2019’s free agent class.
As McDonough mentioned after acquiring Greg Monroe and the protected first rounder from Milwaukee that’s likely to convey in 2020, the offseason following this one could be the one where they are most aggressive. Tyson Chandler, Jared Dudley, and Daniels’ contracts will all be off the books, allowing the Suns to be major players for possibly two big names to pair with Booker.
Point Book (Harden) Plan: Attack free agency looking to maximize Booker’s ceiling
Even if they decide to draft a point guard or trade for an established one, this needs to be goal No. 1 immediately. Booker needs more of the following: spacing, spacing, and more spacing. A Booker-led team also will need a good supply of versatile, switchy-type wings who can cover plus shot creators.
I think up to this point, McDonough has tried to do this with Jackson, Bender, and Chriss. All three, if they reach their own ceilings, max out as versatile defenders who can switch multiple positions. That’s the prime thing to look for when building around a guard like Booker.
If he’s up for it, Booker could max out as a better Harden in his own role. Last season, Harden averaged 30 and 11. Booker is already putting up over 5 assists, which bodes well for when he’s where Harden is right now at age 28.
That’s scary to think about for other teams that Booker still is possibly 7 years from reaching his peak. He’s going to be very good, folks.
In whatever role Booker is in long-term, these free agent targets could help push Booker to another level next season.
Free agent options
With the focus on finding shooting and better defensive fits alongside a Booker built roster, here’s how it shook out.
Restricted Free Agent Targets: Marcus Smart, David Nwaba, Patrick McCaw, Doug McDermott
Sign me up for any of these if you are in McDonough’s shoes.
- Smart would be a prototypical fit alongside Booker as the main defender while giving Booker more space to work. However, Smart isn’t a good shooter. That’s the problem with the fit. He would bring a lot to the table defensively and as a combo guard who can attack the rim but lack perimeter shooting. The thing is, will general manager Danny Ainge want to pay Smart over Terry Rozier, who’s due a payday the summer following?
The former Oklahoma State Cowboy could be in line as a possible Sun if that’s how it falls.
- David Nwaba is a name that should be on Suns fans’ radars. He’s a 6-4 guard with a 7-plus foot wingspan who worked his way up with the Los Angeles Lakers’ G-League affiliate. Now, he’s with the Bulls and has proven to be a pest defensively on the wing. Alongside Booker, he offers a strong complement in terms of defense. His versatility being able to switch 1-3 opens things up, too. He would be a very strong addition to the Suns second unit, and McDonough should cough up some cash to get him out of Chicago. A Booker-Nwaba-Reed trio on the floor would be so much defensive versatility and spacing provided to Booker, even more, if Nwaba learns how to consistently shoot from behind the arc.
- Patrick McCaw would be an ideal fit in Phoenix, too, but I think someone is going to break the bank to pry him out of Golden State. At age 22, McCaw has been groomed to be a prime 3-and-D type and would fit seamlessly on the wing to help space things out. Like Nwaba, he would bolster the bench while also adding shooting Nwaba can’t.
- Thinking more and more on this, McDermott is almost the perfect fit for what the Suns need, right? He’s another sharpshooter who would create space for Booker. Like Daniels, if you sag off he will drain them over and over. I’m not opposed to offering McDermott a good amount of cash to help Phoenix receive shooting it so desperately desires. Alongside Booker, he would provide unique spacing lineups, too if they wanted to run a Point Book lineup at times around Booker-Reed/Daniels-McDermott-Chriss-Bender. That right there is a young and properly constructed lineup that could be utilized a lot like Harden in Houston if Bender and Chriss continue to take strides forward from the perimeter.
Veteran Options: Rajon Rondo, Channing Frye, Omri Casspi, Jamal Crawford
- Rajon Rondo could be a possible one-year stopgap option at point guard if they wanted to do so, but like Smart, he can’t shoot. He would be a playmaker who would allow Booker some better looks but he hasn’t been the same defender since his Boston days. As a stopgap, it makes some sense, but I would rather draft or trade for one than sign Rondo. The Suns this offseason will likely be looking for long-term backcourt options, not short-term, but the fit is there on the surface if they so desire.
- A Channing Frye return? In possibly one final contract before he retires, why not bring the former Arizona Wildcat back on a one-year deal to help space the floor? Also, he would be a great veteran to have alongside Chriss and Bender if Phoenix moved on from Chandler this year before his contract ran out. Probably would be cheap, too, so I’m all for this option to help space it out even more for Booker.
- If McDermott ends up being too much money, Casspi could be had from Golden State. He’s a plus shooter and weak defender, but he could provide 15-20 minutes if need be in some Point Book type of lineups. As you can tell outside of the elite crop in 2018, this free agency class is rather a dearth of young shooters being available. Casspi on a one to a two-year deal could make some sense if they wanted to add more shooting alongside Jackson and T.J. Warren.
- I was really thinking about putting Lou Williams in here instead, but I doubt he leaves the Clippers at this point. If so, someone is going to pay him starters money and that’s not worth it for the Suns. Anywhom, Crawford instead makes more sense financially and in the short-term. He’s being wasted up in Minnesota, so chances are he opts out. He wanted to go to a team and help change them into playoff contenders. That sure sounds like the Suns next year, maybe, in his eyes so on a two-year deal I could see this occurring. Crawford would provide the second unit a scoring punch alongside some spacing.
Note: In this exercise, I also thought about putting in Avery Bradley and Luke Babbitt as well. Two names that could help in areas of need (defense and shooting). However, McDermott is the best option for me over Babbitt and Bradley could be in line to stay in Detroit and also want to be a starter. There could be dialogue if it crosses that path this summer, but I doubt it with Davon Reed already here. (If you can’t tell I’m a big fan of Reed’s potential in Phoenix.)
Big Fish Targets: DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, Clint Capela
- Outside of LeBron and Co. at the top of the 2018 class, this definitely isn’t the year to splurge on a star outside of one or two names. It starts with Cousins, though. I’m still skeptical if he will end up joining the Suns after what happened with his friend Eric Bledsoe, but if he’s intrigued by the idea of playing with fellow Kentucky Wildcat Devin Booker, it has to be explored aggressively. Cousins is the perfect fit alongside Booker in terms of sharing the scoring load. Warren would then comfortably slide into the No. 3, allowing Jackson, Chriss, and Bender to focus and continue to make strides. Once they hit, you then have five players on the roster who are prime candidates to drop 15 any given night. Cousins also allows the Suns more flexibility with stars in 2019. Names such as Butler and Leonard would definitely take a meeting if Booker and Boogie are together. A trio of Kemba-Booker-Cousins would be dynamic, too, but even a Point Book long-term lineup could be deadly. A lot of avenues could be driven down with a Cousins-Booker duo, and you wonder if Booker is recruiting him or not.
- DeAndre Jordan would become the consolation prize, but as a rim protector, you can’t go wrong with him. The Clippers could be in line to trade him in February so he could be had much earlier, but his fit all depends on what happens at point guard. If it’s Booker in a Harden role or any of the options I mentioned above, Jordan won’t space the floor. Jordan will also be 30 next year already, so you wonder if the timeline even makes sense to pursue him if they can’t draft a Deandre Ayton or Mohamed Bamba.
- Keep an eye on this one, I’m telling you. If Houston plans to pursue LeBron this summer, Clint Capela could be pried out of there. I know new ownership mentioned they would pay the luxury tax deep into the red, but would they accept $20 million a year for Capela? The Suns can and should offer that, if possible, to him. Capela’s fit age-wise goes right in line with what McDonough has said about building this roster previously. The Booker-Capela PnRs would be a thing of beauty. Capela is a restricted free agent, but he’s well worth his price tag if used properly.
Finally, when examining these options, that’s how you build a contender around your franchise pillar in Devin Booker by the 2020 playoff deadline owner Robert Sarver supposedly said to season ticket holders last season.
Keeping their own pick in 2018 is vital. They need to hit on that to add alongside Booker and Co., but it needs to be immediate talent. No more projects. That is why trading some assets to obtain a pick in the top six could be in the cards if they end up somewhere between No. 7 - No. 9.
All of these options should be exacerbated by McDonough in the near future. Whether it is trading for a Kemba veteran, drafting their backcourt partner for Booker in Young, or riding the new-age Harden wave with him, this has to go correctly. Whichever one of these paths they take sets up the all-important summer of 2019 for the Suns.
Whether it’s Option A, Option B, or Option C I laid out for you in detail above, Phoenix would be armed with talent led by a young up-and-coming star in Booker. Names that headline the 2019 class are as follows: Kemba Walker, Kevin Love, Klay Thompson, Hassan Whiteside, Jimmy Butler, and Kawhi Leonard.
All of them would listen to the Suns, I believe. Unless Kawhi re-ups in San Antonio, I see each and every one of them opting out that year. (If Kawhi does opt out, I think he would hear out the Booker-led Suns pitch). For each of those, Phoenix sits in a spot where they haven’t been in years: the desired spot. I think all of those meetings would be rather convincing if all goes to plan with either of these laid out options.
A lot like Kyrie in Cleveland, Booker can make this place a destination if he continues his rapid ascent. Stars are already taking notice around the league. The goal of #TheTimeline is to create a sustainable contender throughout the next decade and Booker allows them this possibility.
By the start of the 2019-2020 season, could we see a Booker-Jackson-Leonard-Chriss-Love starting five? That’s certainly possible, alongside a multitude of others. With Booker, his rise to a desirable player to play with gives Phoenix the much-needed flexibility to now make contending moves.
With Booker already averaging 25-4-4 with top-notch efficiency in Year 3, it’s nearing go time to put the plan into action and construct a title contender while maximizing what your star has to offer.
What option should the Suns take to build around Devin Booker?
This poll is closed
Trade for established star point guard
Draft point guard of the future in 2018
Begin James Harden-like primary ball handler transition for Booker surrounding him with shooters