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Suns see James Harden as the prototype for Devin Booker

The parallels between the two are hard to deny, and the Suns plan to build around Booker in a similar manner.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

At the conclusion of his third season, Devin Booker left little doubt that he’s one of the best young pure scorers around the entire NBA. Heading in, people wanted to see Booker take jumps forward in playmaking and efficiency. Well, Booker passed that test with flying colors as his assist percentage increased by 8.1% (16.3% to 24.4%) while posting a career-high in true shooting percentage at 56.1%. And as we know from a pure box score perspective, Booker narrowly missed averaging 25 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists.

According to Basketball-Reference, Booker was one of only seven players to amass a stat line of 24.5-4.5-4.5 while carrying a TS% of 56% or higher last season. The other names joining him are ones that are known league-wide as some of the best overall players: LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, DeMarcus Cousins, and Booker. Thinning it down to only players who were age 21 or younger to average this puts Booker in a different stratosphere as Michael Jordan and LeBron were the only others who achieved those box score plus efficiency marks at that young of age.

As you can see, Booker is already fully established on one end of the floor as he approaches his max extension kicking in on July 1, 2019. Under new head coach Igor Kokoskov, if Booker can continue to take steps forward as a primary initiator while also getting to the free-throw line more often, Booker will again take another jump up in his development putting him right in line with some of today’s all-around guards.

One name Booker has been compared to often by the likes of me and other writers nationwide is James Harden. Once Harden was traded from Oklahoma City to Houston (at this point, it’s unbelievable to think OKC wanted to pay Serge Ibaka over Harden), he blossomed under Kevin McHale and then even further within Mike D’Antoni’s system. Unlike most, Booker has Harden’s ability to hit enough 3s on volume and use his underrated physical strength to get inside and draw contact.

Booker already has Harden’s style of play down, too. Through his third year, I noticed Booker would take way less long two-pointers and instead take an extra step or two back and go for the extra point from deep. With Booker’s supreme shooting ability, this makes plenty of sense for him to do.

Last season, Booker was joined by Harden and Damian Lillard as the only players who averaged over seven three-pointers and six free-throw attempts per game. That model leads to a very effective offensive blueprint, especially one that’s highly effective.

And if we want to put Booker’s offense into further perspective, he is the youngest player to rack up those numbers. Gilbert Arenas and Tracy McGrady were the only others to pull it off under the age of 25.

“I think, yeah, in terms of the efficiency that Harden plays with. How he scores so efficiently from the three-point line, at the rim and the free throw line. That should be the prototype for Devin offensively, in terms of offensive efficiency,” General Manager Ryan McDonough told me on Media Day. “Harden has become a guy too as he’s grown and matured his playmaking has developed. Maybe led the league or was one of the league leaders in assists two years ago before Chris Paul came in and alleviated some of the playmaking from him.”

McDonough and the Suns even sense some of those comparisons, and who could blame them? Since Harden exploded onto the season in Houston, no other guards have really been able to mimic his splendid scoring ways. However, it looks like Booker might be the closest resemblance to come around since Harden himself.

Even at Kokoskov’s introductory press conference in May, he spoke of how Booker will soon become one of the top scorers in this league. Kokoskov even mentioned more of a playmaking role than first implied for the soon to be 22-year-old at Media Day.

With the Suns’ current situation at point guard, Booker is going to see plenty of minutes this season experimenting as the primary ball handler a la Harden. In Kokoskov’s system, the ball whips around the perimeter until the ideal mismatch is uncovered, and Booker could spray it often using drive-and-dishes to his shooters surrounding him.

Helping Booker take the next step, Phoenix added in two of Harden’s former teammates, Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson, to help provide ample floor-spacing for not only himself but prized lottery selections Josh Jackson and Deandre Ayton.

“Yeah, that’s the guy. If you look at an offensive guard with similar size, I think at the same stage of their career, I think Devin is a little bit better of a shooter, spot-up shooter.” McDonough said. “Harden is very physically imposing. Devin’s gotten stronger, he’s only 21 years old, but if you look at Harden up-close he’s strong and physical and I think that helps getting to the basket drawing fouls. That’s a guy we certainly look at.”

Head-to-head through three seasons, Booker and Harden do have similar profiles. When glancing over it at the per 100 possession threshold, since Harden was a sixth man until he was dealt to Houston, they are narrowly separated on perimeter shots and free throws alongside other interesting metrics.

The biggest takeaways here are that Harden played with way more talented teammates than Booker ever has but still put up impressive No. 1 option-type numbers. Also, Booker is right on pace with Harden from a pure shooting standpoint (3PT%: Booker - 36.5%, Harden - 37%; FT%: Booker - 84.9%, Harden - 83.5%). Really, the main separation comes in from the advanced statistics as Harden has clear separation in TS%, 3PAr, and FTr.

If we want to compare Booker’s third season to Harden’s first in Houston, though, they are not far off one bit. Again, let’s use per 100 possessions to weed out the minutes discrepancy.

Right away, the big difference is free throws. Harden took his knack for foul-calling to an extremely successful level after his arrival in Houston as nearly five free-throw attempts separate he and Booker on average. The other important number here is how close both are based off field goal percentage, rebounds, and assists. Booker’s assist rate of 24.4% slightly trailed Harden’s output of 25.7%, while their rebounding numbers are nearly identical (Booker - 7 TRB%; Harden - 7.2 TRB%).

Back in the summer of 2013, Houston signed Dwight Howard to pair with their budding star guard after his debut season in the red and white. That relationship only lasted three years, though, as the Harden-Howard-McHale triumvirate never really saw eye-to-eye.

For the Suns, they saw Booker take the necessary steps forward and then rewarded him not only with a 5-year, $158 million max extension but added in plenty of shooting (Ariza, Anderson, Mikal Bridges and Elie Okobo) and then drafted their franchise-changing big man to pair with him.

If all goes well, that added spacing plus the pick your poison dynamic with Ayton off pick-and-rolls should serve Booker well as he gears up for his fourth season as a pro. Building around Booker, who has proven he can one day lead a playoff team as the No. 1 option, like Harden is the correct and smart route to go down.

Maybe not right now, but two to three years down the line, Phoenix’s front office is betting on Booker becoming the next version of Harden as an all-around primary initiator who can get his shot off from anywhere on the court at way above-average efficiency marks.

“Devin watches as much film and NBA basketball as anybody and tries to steal things, especially from the elite guards around the league,” McDonough said. “I think you’ll see some of that in the way Devin plays and develops, especially as he matures.”

The pieces are now in motion for Booker to capitalize off all the new additions around him, ascending into the NBA’s echelon of known commodities around the league. I’m not betting against Booker, who has continuously improved year after year, to not do so again as he’s now expected to take that bonafide leap to established player, probable Western Conference All-Star.

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