There aren’t many prolific three-level scorers in this league, let alone ones who sneakily take away bits and pieces from their idols, but Devin Booker is a rare case.
We’ve seen when he catches fire, it’s some of the most exciting basketball to watch. Everything he hits is going in and he knows nobody on the court can stop him.
That’s the killer mentality stars such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and many others possessed. Booker still obviously has a long way to go to reach that plateau of greatness, but he has incrementally taken steps alongside his full-on offensive breakout.
His newest teammate and hopeful pillar from this past draft, Josh Jackson, is already drawing high praise for his running mate on the wing.
Jackson has a point though and it, unfortunately, isn’t talked about enough due to how little people outside of Phoenix pay attention to these Suns.
Outside of the elite crop of players — LeBron, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, and Kawhi Leonard — Booker is right there as far as self-creation into his rhythmic flow on offense.
“The best thing that he does, though, is create space to get his shot off. I don’t think he would be as good if he wasn’t as good at creating space as he is," Josh Jackson said to me about Booker earlier this month on Locked On Suns. “Devin, I think he’s one of the few guys in this league that can pretty much get any shot that he wants at any time.”
Jackson is correct there. Even with career highs across the board for usage and being the first, second, and third option to scheme against he is still maintaining an above-average efficiency level.
For someone with the dedication to be great like other superstars, who also tirelessly put in work alongside his brother and trainer this past summer in Paradise Valley and even China when he was doing Nike promotional tours, Booker seems on the cusp of taking another leap in Year 4.
Even though the Suns are planning to offer Booker his 5-year max extension right when July 1 arrives, that won’t deter Booker from adding even more to his repertoire.
When I spoke with him last month about his trends and modern evolution of the game, he realizes that Curry and Harden are changing the mold. It’s becoming a perimeter-based NBA, which is a far cry from even a decade ago, but Booker has a secret weapon in his bag of tricks.
Jackson grew up a huge LeBron fan himself but when I threw out the Kobe tag for Booker he immediately started to grin. He sees that Mamba Mentality oozing through him.
The No. 4 pick in this past year’s draft wants to add elements to his game like Booker, but he’s often flashing back to seeing Bryant when the franchise’s 21-year-old star gets the look he likes.
“Oh, yeah, I definitely see it," Jackson said when I mentioned the comparison often thrown Booker’s way. “You can see it in his game. His post-up game, the way he shoots the ball, and just how competitive he is.”
When Jackson mentioned his post game, which is an underutilized part of Booker’s offense that hasn’t really shown up a lot over the past few months due to a myriad of reasons, that got me thinking back to when Booker met Bryant during his final game in Phoenix.
Be Legendary was a motto that’s stuck with Booker from one of his basketball idols, but he also emulates him when he’s down low on mismatches.
During his first three seasons, Booker not only has been one of the best post-up scorers for any guards but immediately jumped into elite company.
Take a look at his points per possession (PPP), the frequency of attempts, possessions, and overall percentile below.
2015-2016: 1.11 PPP / 3.4 FREQ% / 37 possessions / 95.5 percentile (No. 1 for guards)
2016-2017: 1.01 PPP / 5.4 FREQ% / 100 possessions / 83.7 percentile (No. 3 for guards)
2017-2018: 0.97 PPP / 5.6 FREQ% / 75 possessions / 72.2 percentile (No. 6 for guards)
Over his entire career, Booker is right on par with other above-average post-up scorers such as DeMar DeRozan, Jimmy Butler, and Khris Middleton. Booker also joined the likes of LeBron, Kawhi, and Westbrook for overall consistency down there, but they have overall higher average percentiles and much more activity in the trenches.
If the Suns are able to properly construct a retooled roster around Booker’s strengths this summer, Booker might be able to show off his Kobe-like footwork on a more regular basis.
It should be noted that guards overall frequency to get post-ups ran for them is usually in the lower percentages, but Booker’s is rather high for a perimeter-oriented attack.
That’s the beauty of his offense. He’s become a weapon to the point you have to guard him tight on nearly every spot on the floor with others eyeing him. If not, he’s going to pull up right in your face and drain the shot and talk his talk on the way back.
After a few possessions in a row, that will take its toll on a helpless mismatch for Booker but the elements of fluidity seen in his already advanced post-up arsenal are so impressive.
Take a look at this quick video included from last season and a moment he went ruthless on Lonzo Ball back in October that could be a flash of what’s to come hopefully often.
Booker gets switched here onto Shelvin Mack instead of Joe Ingles and he immediately goes to work. Not only does he know how to create space with his hands on defenders, he also knows how to shed them.
He’s fully aware of Mack allowing him room to the left and slides right by.
Next, Booker goes into his signature shooting stroke but instead of releasing at his peak like usual, he waits until his nearly to the ground to deter it from Rudy Gobert’s branches of arms. As we all know his wingspan is the fulcrum to Utah’s successful defensive foundation.
Gobert ends up not even jumping, but it’s simple movements like this that make you wonder why Booker’s post-up frequency isn’t even higher than it already is.
This here is just picture-perfect decision-making on the then crispy-new rookie version of Ball. He got the switch and mismatch he needed, then unlike the last clip, he puts his shoulder through Ball until he folded up near the rim for a contested, but easier layup attempt.
Three straight bumps and Booker backed Ball right next to the basket. Very reminiscent of other scorers who made a living down there when need be.
His frame isn’t fully developed yet, but Booker has underrated strength. People in the organization believe that’s one of the many reasons why he’s able to transform himself into an offensive juggernaut and explode on occasion.
As has been my plan of action all season long, Booker needs to be built around in a similar manner to Harden. Not only does he need high-quality shooters for more spacing but lanky 3-and-D defenders who fit a profile similar to Davon Reed and Jackson.
There’s plenty of ways to attack this offseason, but Booker is ready to expand his game to new horizons. Not only should an uptick in overall production be expected with better talent around him, but he should have a system that allows him freedom like a Harden or Bryant.
Booker possesses modern blends to his attack, but he has many throwback moves that still do plenty of damage when pulled out.
Sure, the NBA nowadays is allowing offenses to move even deeper down the court to begin sets and swings but unique gifts in a player shouldn’t be parked for that reason.
Much like Kobe, Booker has the chance of becoming a gifted three-level scorer with power and savviness to create for himself amongst the giants.
There’s a reason why Booker went and pulled Kobe’s exact move on him during his final matchup against him. He’s the one capable of pulling it off regularly and becoming the new torchbearer of guards who can carry elite effectiveness from closer range.
I included a quick montage of Booker’s post moves last season alongside a 30-minute study on Bryant’s post-up dominance below. It’s hard not to notice how eerily similar some of those moves are if you watch them both, and Booker will continue to blossom as he enters his second contract.
Suns general manager Ryan McDonough needs to build a roster that fits snugly alongside his franchise star’s qualities that make him already one of the most dangerous covers in the league. Both sides seem ready to finally flip the script and culture of this current process.
If he chooses the right path between now and when training camp opens back up in Flagstaff this fall, they could be reaping heavy rewards with a new and improved Booker who will advance with a better nucleus of win-now pieces.