“Devin Booker, I think he’s starting to figure out who he is,” Lowry told Bright Side last week. “He’s going to be a superstar in this league.”
Booker, who entered the NBA at just 18 years old, has been one of the most prolific young playmaking scorers in league history in his three-plus seasons, including most points ever scored by a 20 year old (70, Boston), second-most 30/5 games ever before turning 22, and already has a handful of last-second scores to tie or take the lead at the end of the fourth quarter.
But in that time, he’s also had four different head coaches, 50+ different teammates and suffered through a 27% winning percentage.
He’s tired of all the change and tired of losing so much. When asked, he will tell you that it’s time for him and his teammates and his coaches to make progress happen on the court with whatever personnel they are given.
“I feel like this was our season to make that jump,” Booker told Bright Side late last week. “And me personally, that’s a lot of responsibility for me.”
A jump to what? Playoffs? No way. Respectability? Maybe. 28-32 wins? Max.
So far in Booker’s ‘jump’ season, the Suns are off to a 2-7 start. While Booker has personally led the charge to win the only games in which the Suns have had a chance to win in the fourth quarter, he’s also missed three of the seven losses with a hamstring strain and couldn’t stop his team from being blown out in four others.
Booker knows it’s a long process. The majority of his teammates are his age or even younger, which is not a recipe for winning in the NBA.
“Not many teams who have a lot of young players on the court are having success,” Booker said. “You know, Philly did it. Obviously they’re in the Eastern Conference. That’s a lot different than the West, but they created something that a lot of the NBA saw and they’re trying to follow.”
The Suns have tried to follow the Philly model, almost to a fault.
Both teams have tanked hard for several high draft picks, and missed as often as they hit.
- Philly swung and missed on a #6 overall pick (Nerlens Noel) and #3 overall (Jahlil Okafor) before hitting big on a #3 (Joel Embiid) and #1 overall (Ben Simmons)
- Phoenix swung and missed on a #5 overall pick (Alex Len) and #4 overall (Dragan Bender) and #8 overall pick (Marquese Chriss) while hitting big on a #13 (Devin Booker) and a #1 (Deandre Ayton)
Both are seeing disappointing (so far) results from high picks in the 2017 Draft: Philly with #1 overall Markelle Fultz and the Suns with #4 overall Josh Jackson.
Both found some important role players among their many misses later in the draft, the Sixers with Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell while the Suns found T.J. Warren and potentially Mikal Bridges.
Now it’s time for the Phoenix Suns to mirror the Sixers’ success.
But not the 50-win success of 2017-18.
Let’s focus on their 28-win success of 2016-17.
After suffering through seasons of 19, 18 and 10 wins, the Sixers began to climb back in 2016-17. They were buoyed by a half-season of excitement with Embiid
and Simmons on the floor together on the way to a rising tide of 28 wins in 2016-17.
In that 28-win season of 2016-17 — an 18-win improvement over the year before — the Sixers added playable veterans to round out their rotation with some maturity. Role players Gerald Henderson (72 games), Ersan Ilyasova (52) and Sergio Rodriguez (68 games) were the voices of maturity who helped an otherwise very young rotation taste a bit of success.
This year’s Phoenix Suns could come close to that 2016-17 model of the Sixers, one year before they climbed over that hump into playoff contention.
They even mirror each other in the front office, both teams suffering from “loser fever” with dramatic and head-scratching mid-season firings of the General Manager who’d laid the foundation of a winning team because the owner got sick and tired of hearing the same pleas for patience.
The big, huge, chasm-threatening difference between those Sixers and these Suns though, is in the coaching staff.
The Sixers had the right coach — and the SAME coach — all along. Brett Brown is the only NBA coach any of their draft picks has ever had. He’s been widely considered one of the league’s best coaches his whole tenure, even while his first FOUR seasons had a combined 20% winning percentage and failed to develop high picks Noel and Okafor, eventually giving them away for peanuts and a cold hot dog.
The Suns, on the other hand, have never had as good a coach as Brown.
Devin Booker has four coaches in four seasons, twice watching his coach get fired mid-season. None of his previous three coaches are head coaches anywhere else today, and two are even out of the league entirely at this time.
Maybe now they have the right coach. Igor Kokoskov is widely considered a very good coach who deserved a head coaching gig for the last several years. He’s been an NBA assistant for 19 years and international competition head coach for ten of those off-seasons, and finally is getting a chance to lay his own foundation with the Suns.
But it’s Igor’s first go-round as an NBA head coach, and he’s going to need some patience from his front office.
His team is only 2-7 out of the gate, but his team’s talent level is no better than that record would imply. His best player missed all of training camp, preseason and three of those nine games. His second best player is only 18 months out of high school. His third best player is, well, that’s debatable isn’t it?
Booker wants the Philly model to work. On roster-building paper, the Suns have followed the blueprint.
Now they just need a good coach to begin the ascent up Winning Mountain this year with 28-32 wins as a reasonable “everything breaks right” goal.
And then next summer, maybe they add that missing piece or three to make the jump into playoff contention.