As the Suns look toward August without a major point guard acquisition, Brandon Knight is poised to enter the season as the starter across from Devin Booker in the backcourt.
After missing all of last season with a torn ACL in his left knee, Knight will open things up for Booker and the Suns. And really, there’s nowhere to go but up. The question is simply what the potential ceiling is for the Suns with Knight as the starting point guard, looking at his considerable injury and overall disappointing play as a Sun.
During the first two years of Booker’s career, the offense featured far too much turn-taking in isolation, quickly shredding Booker’s reputation in conversations about the best young players in the league.
With a real NBA point guard in place, Booker will be in position to move back off the ball, at least to start games.
It should help. Even with the lack of imagination Watson put into the offense, Bledsoe’s smart, instinctive style and shot-making ability worked well alongside Booker. The pair put together some spectacular scoring performances, even as the team struggled and Bledsoe was eventually benched so the Suns could fully tank.
The hope is that Knight, who has been a willing passer with good vision over the course of his career, as well as a better 3-point shooter will be a more ideal fit within coach Igor Kokoskov’s motion system. He may be an even better partner for Booker, who has improved by leaps and bounds since the last time these Knight joined him on the court.
Having less playmaking responsibility on offense and more talent in the backcourt will provide Booker the opportunity to commit to defensive improvement. While Knight’s presence should make this team more competitive, it’s tough to imagine a good Suns team without Booker committing to defense.
Knight measured a short 6-7 wingspan at the 2011 NBA draft combine, but was part of several scary swarming defenses in Milwaukee. The Bucks finished fourth in defensive rating in 2015, and their performance was even better in the 52 games Knight wore green that year. His quickness and physicality translate well guarding ball-handlers when he plays hard on that end.
Milwaukee’s style asked its players to follow the ball and squeeze every opening. Knight played on one of the better defensive rosters in the league that year, but his success shows he belongs on the Suns’ growing list of intriguing switch defenders. If they go that route to protect and maximize the young bigs, Knight would be solid at the point of attack.
But as we project forward, let’s also look backward to see how we got to this point with both Booker and Knight.
During the 2015-16 season, with Ronnie Price (who you forgot was so reliable as a backup) around and Knight closer to the height of his powers, Booker mostly filled his natural role as a spot-up shooter, transition attacker and driver off of closeouts.
Plays like this show the kind of spacing coach Jeff Hornacek got out of three-guard lineups with Booker, Knight and Eric Bledsoe:
Knight has always been very smooth with the ball in his hands, but due to his own injuries and roster turnover around him, his time in Phoenix has been marred by inefficiency. When the floor is spaced and the ball is in Knight’s hands, he can make things happen.
He has a quick first step and is a strong, athletic scorer. Knight finished in the restricted area at a nearly 60 percent clip during the 2015-16 season. On a team in desperate need of a veteran who makes the right play, Knight will be pivotal.
But in 2016-17, Knight’s efficiency plummeted as his injury concerns (this time a wrist sprain and back spasms) continued, and the team became Booker’s. His isolation numbers shot through the roof as Earl Watson’s non-system organized around one principle: Get Book the ball.
The Suns were reduced to running incredibly simple plays because of the lack of talent on the court, and ingenuity on the coach’s bench.
No one else on the team outside Booker and Bledsoe were capable of taking (or really even making) open shots, so 13 percent of Booker’s possessions came out of isolation opportunities. He was relatively efficient as a sophomore player, but overall not good enough to be the crux of a real NBA offense.
This season, effectively without Bledsoe or Knight, he went into isolation mode less often, as new coach Jay Triano tried desperately to openings through movement on offense.
Booker finished 11.7 percent of his total possessions in isolation, but performed even worse than usual in those situations, ending the year in the 45th percentile in the league. The Suns were the very worst 3-point shooting team in the league, meaning Booker encountered more bodies on his way to the basket as the talent around him dwindled.
But Booker also learned how to more efficiently orchestrate an offense. He slid into the point guard position often until around the All-Star break, when the Suns welcomed Elfrid Payton into the fold.
When Booker was the primary ball-handler, his physical, patient scoring style translated well when he looked to pass.
In turn, having the ball in his hands against switching defenses opened the rest of Booker’s game. Bigger defenders stood no chance guarding against the threat of a pass, drive or pull-up jumper.
That should help tremendously playing with Knight, the best 3-point shooting point guard Booker has ever played with. Knight shot 37 percent on catch-and-shoot looks playing in 2015-16. Kokoskov will dial up sets that launch the ball around the perimeter to misdirect defenses, and more respect will be focused on the interior with Deandre Ayton in the mix. Knight should see plenty of open 3s, and Booker has gotten better delivering them.
Watching the few games in which Booker and Knight both played well two seasons ago and building their improved cohesion into Kokoskov’s style could introduce some very fun possibilities, simply by having two playmakers on the court. That’s a must for Kokoskov:
They have a long way to go, but for the first time in Booker’s career, he enters training camp with both a reliable point guard and a coach who can help put both players in position to be efficient and produce at a high level. It should allow him to limit his isolation scoring volume, put up more 3s and conserve energy to play more aggressive defense over the course of long, more competitive contests.
Booker also quietly may need a closer eye from a health perspective. The Suns’ tanking hides the fact that Booker struggled with injury last year around midseason and then again in March. He played just 54 games -- less responsibility may also help him stay in better physical shape throughout the year.
At the same time, Knight can lock down the starting point guard spot without competition for the first time since the franchise acquired him in 2014. He could be the answer Phoenix has looked for since trading Goran Dragic that same February afternoon. If all goes well, maybe he unlocks a new level for Booker -- or just boosts his own trade value.
The organization will eventually have to address the point guard spot, but if the Knight-Booker frontcourt can fit into Kokoskov’s offensive system and bring the most out of one another on defense, the Suns’ young roster could improve in a hurry.