When was the last time the Phoenix Suns had a transcendent star? Outside of two-time MVP Steve Nash, Devin Booker is seemingly next up in this position following his coming out party on ESPN in the Suns’ season opener.
Wednesday’s game against Dallas was the first competitive action for Booker in just over seven months. And there definitely was no rust, even with a tape job on his ring and pinky fingers following surgery on his fifth metacarpophalangeal joint, as he racked up a line of 35 points, 4 rebounds, and 7 assists like it was nothing.
According to Basketball-Reference, Booker was only the twelfth player in NBA history to tally together those numbers in the first game of the season: Oscar Robertson (3x), Dave Bing, Isiah Thomas, James Worthy, Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan, Paul Pierce, Sam Cassell, LeBron James, James Harden, Stephen Curry, and the Suns’ soon to be 22-year-old star.
The thing is, Booker put up 19 of those 35 points in the fourth quarter, including 17 in the final 5 minutes and 14 straight at one point. This truly was the first instance of Booker pretty much saying, “Nah, I got this guys,” in front of the Talking Stick Resort Arena crowd as the Mavericks brought it to a 4-point deficit with 5 minutes left. You could also point to Booker’s 39-point outburst last season against Oklahoma City, but this was definitely a different feeling.
We’ve had two separate occasions of Booker becoming the maniacal closer who has that look in his eye, but both occurred on the road during their East Coast swing (Boston - 2016-17, Philadelphia - 2017-18). It finally happened in Phoenix, and to have it occur in the first game of the season under a new regime was symbolic for sure.
Symbolism can also be found in the push Nike is putting behind it’s budding young star during Wednesday’s nationally televised audience on ESPN. Nike debuted a commercial featuring a cartoon Booker in his childhood sitting in a barber chair as he gets his signature fade cut with the lines on the sides. By the way, it played over five times during the 2.5 hour broadcast.
New Devin Booker x Nike ad pic.twitter.com/cz16b9WWJx— FootBasket.com (@FootBasketcom) October 18, 2018
Not only is Booker readying himself to take the All-Star leap in his fourth season following the signing of his 5-year, $158 million max contract, but the clothing apparel giant that’s worth over $100 billion is ready to back Booker as their next big face of their brand. These Nike athletes have been rewarded with their own signature shoe over the years, with Booker likely next in line sometime soon: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Paul George.
As you all know, those four players are transcendent stars in today’s NBA. Not only are they known by almost every casual fan possible, but they are the superstars who control the narrative with their presence on and off the court. Booker, who still is only 21 until the end of this month, has a chance to enter that upper echelon way before he even enters his peak physical prime.
Outside of the off-court push in Booker’s direction, former General Manager Ryan McDonough told their best player they were going to make it easier on him next season. During some stretches, Booker was seeing two or three bodies on him almost every time he crossed the half court line. The only consistent threat alongside Booker on offense was T.J. Warren.
Fast-forward six months and McDonough is fired with no reason given, but he stuck to his promise. He hired a new head coach, Igor Kokoskov, who would build an offense predicated around spacing and passing. Then, the Suns drafted the big man threat Booker has desperately needed in Deandre Ayton. Add in the 3-and-D molds of Trevor Ariza (free agency on a 1-year, $15 million deal) and Mikal Bridges (draft night trade - Zhaire Smith and unprotected 2021 pick via Miami to Philadelphia), now Booker is cooking with gas.
Phoenix completely overhauled their roster to build entirely around Booker’s strengths as a scorer, but also help blossom his budding playmaking ability to end up shifting toward trajectories like James Harden. It’s an idea I’ve vouched for since early last season, and it seems, in time, the Suns will plan on exploring it even further.
Booker averaged nearly 25-5-5 with little talent around him, and no exotic coaching schemes to get him easy buckets, during his third year. All the sudden, he now has a nucleus of talent around him he’s never had before. They have the shooting, passing, and all-around versatility needed to showcase how special Booker truly is. And most importantly, they have the right coach to realize it.
Kokoskov’s offense tends to hit the start button on the proverbial blender once they enter into their half court sets. Putting defenses in the blender was on full display Wednesday, with four of their five starters have six or more assists. Booker is definitely the one who controls the machine, though.
Look at how massive this lane was for Booker to drive for an easy layup. All created by not only Ayton dragging Jordan out of the paint, but having plus spot-up shooters surrounding him. Pick your poison for spread PnRs and drive-and-kicks. pic.twitter.com/YuRdggcCia— Evan Sidery (@esidery) October 18, 2018
As you see in the play above, Kokoskov has Booker running around the perimeter plenty. On this one, Booker and Ayton play the two-man game with dangerous spread pick-and-roll potential. On top of that, Ariza and Anderson are slithering to their corner hot spots where Booker could find them if the big collapses on to him.
The one who’s essentially being blended to bits on this possession is DeAndre Jordan. After Ayton displayed his mid-range jumper on him with close contests earlier in the game, Jordan couldn’t sag off the No. 1 pick because it’s an easy decision for Booker. Instead of leaving Ayton, Jordan is left dumbfounded with cement feet as Booker blows by him for an easy layup. Also, don’t forget about the spacing elements now added in. That lane to the rim might be some of the widest we’ve seen Booker operate within since his rookie season.
Kokoskov is having Booker truly pick the poison used against defenses. It’s a beautiful brand of basketball not seen in the Valley since Nash was hoisting up MVP trophies.
This misdirection from Kokoškov to set up Booker is a thing of beauty. pic.twitter.com/c4YMGqsLsh— Evan Sidery (@esidery) October 18, 2018
The next play I wanted to show off is how Phoenix continuously put Wesley Matthews in the blender. Whether it was off picks or screens, Booker was having Matthews chase him around all night, making him look well past his prime in the process.
It all begins with Isaiah Canaan pressing ‘Start’ on the blender, passing the ball to Ryan Anderson down in the post. Then, Ayton comes out and sets an initial rub screen on Matthews. Booker hesitates and bolts back the other direction, having Matthews run right into another screen from Ayton. Booker now has a clean look at the rim to drain another three-pointer.
The Suns’ star is buying completely into the new scheme, and his offensive game might be trending more towards what we see out of the likes of Harden and Stephen Curry. Last season, Booker attempted 44% of his shots from mid-range (via Cleaning The Glass). On Wednesday, Booker only took three attempts outside of the restricted area and three-point line. That is a very good sign, and I’ve said before how Booker could still produce huge numbers at the same efficiency with more attempts from deep.
Already, Booker is one of the five best pure scorers in this league even at his age. His package continues to evolve, and his one-game sample size shot chart says it all. If this trend continues, Booker is going to reach an entirely new level not seen yet on the offensive end.
Booker is being set up to have a monstrous season during his first season in Kokoskov’s motion-heavy scheme. My prediction of 27-5-7 isn’t looking too bad at the moment, since it seems even more realistic after seeing how he will be used.
This thunderous return to the lineup by Booker on Wednesday in front of a nationally televised audience was a message. Booker has kicked the door in on the national discussion, and he’s going to keep kicking down anymore that get in his way.
Get ready, casual basketball fans. You will be hearing tons more about Booker in the near future. The push from all angles has arrived, and you better buy up all that stock while you can before he’s a regular on ESPN for highlights/discussion.
Suns fans, get used to an entirely new feeling. This franchise, and the state of Arizona, may have not had anyone like this before. National exposure is on the rise, and it’s coming at warp speed with Booker manning the controls.