In three and a half seasons, Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker has lofted himself into the rare air of the league’s youngest big-time scorers in history, both in pure scoring and in efficiency for his age and scoring volume. He’s been called a future All-Star by living legend LeBron James, a star in the making by Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving and a young player Jimmy Butler “really likes.”
This season, he’s added more playmaking to his arsenal, dishing 6.9 assists per game. An even better indication of his playmaking on a bad-shooting team is his 12.4 “potential” assists per game, ranking 12th among all players in the league (fourth among non-point guards).
But Booker hasn’t seen any NBA success in the win-loss column. It took more than three seasons for Booker to experience the high of a four-game winning streak, or taste the satisfaction of an extended winning road trip.
Sure, the rotation around him has been suspect at best, but there have been many whispers that Booker is not a winning player, that he doesn’t contribute enough to winning games. Sure enough, despite his individual accolades, the Suns have a league-worst 25 percent winning percentage since Booker joined the league in the fall of 2015.
Booker can be clutch. He’s made a handful of true game-winners in his career and taken over many games in the fourth quarter.
This season, his 17 points in the last five minutes on opening night closed out the Mavericks in thrilling fashion, then he made game winner against the the Grizzlies a few weeks later.
But those were the only two wins the Suns experienced in their first 15 games of the season. They lost all 13 others in numbing fashion, setting franchise-worst marks for negative point differential, offensive production and defensive production.
Rotations had to be worked out, ineffective players benched, released or traded, replaced by even more unproven players around the ones already being gifted minutes before they’d earned them. The rookie coaching staff had to find its footing and figure out how to plug enough of the gaping holes in the dam to become competitive.
And competitive is exactly what the Suns have become, going 7-9 in their last 16 games — the best 16-game stretch since early 2014, which was more than four years ago.
Their point differential in these last 16 is still underwater — minus-2.1 points per game — but it’s closer to even than they’ve seen over an extended stretch since Booker was coming off the bench for Kentucky.
Yet even now in this recent stretch, Booker has not been the primary solution.
He has personally been on the floor for just four of those seven wins in the past month, and has the team’s worst point differential when he does play, at a minus-4.8 per game in 12 games (4-8 record). That negative differential is nearly double that of the next-worst Suns player in that span.
How is it possible a team’s best player — team leader in points, assists, free throws and attempts — can have the worst impact on the scoreboard during that stretch of basketball?
To be clear, this recent stretch of success without Booker is an anomaly.
Earlier this season, the Suns lost their first nine games without him and over the years, their winning percentage without him has been worse. And like I said, he’s had huge moments in the clutch. So he hasn’t been the problem.
But now, as Booker returns from a three-game absence with the Suns starting a long road trip, he needs to be more of an ingredient than a solution.
Booker is returning to a team that has found a bit of an identity with furious defensive effort and a balanced scoring attack who could have a different leading scorer each night among T.J. Warren, Kelly Oubre Jr., Deandre Ayton or Josh Jackson.
With Booker back, all eyes and energy return to him. He’s the center of the Suns’ universe when he’s on the court, but in the opponents’ eyes and his own teammates’ eyes.
Can, or should, Booker blend in to the success the team has found without him this past week, when they beat playoff contenders Sacramento and Denver at home? Or was that Booker-less success unsustainable, requiring Booker to put the team back onto his shoulders now that he’s healthy again? My hope is that Booker actively tries fit into the team’s recent success, rather than taking it back over.
Sure, a head-down Oubre or Jackson drive into the teeth of the defense seems fraught with danger compared to Booker’s, but those players need to know they can be trusted with the ball in clutch moments.
Rookie De’Anthony Melton has been the biggest beneficiary of Booker-less basketball, posting much better numbers with the starters sans Booker. Same with Josh Jackson.
That doesn’t mean the Suns are better with those two over Booker, but shouldn’t we at least try to see if they can all co-exist as their best selves together?
That requires Booker to begin to trust his teammates in tight situations a little more, to give up the rock and not expect it back right away. To allow a play to unfold while he’s simply in a catch-and-shoot position on the weak side, which is not a bad place to be for one of the game’s best shooters.
A Suns offense fueled by Melton, Oubre and Jackson has helped the team win two of their last three games, and energized a previously frustrated locker room. In a starting role recently, Josh Jackson is playing his best basketball of the season. Sure, he’s still all about the hero ball mentality, but in 30 minutes per game he’s got more time to get past his mistakes. Melton has problems scoring, but in extended minutes his defense often makes up for that. None of Oubre, Jackson or Melton is efficient scoring, but they all have made up for it on the defensive end if given enough minutes.
I’d like to see their confidence continue to flow even with Booker back in the lineup. I don’t want to see Jackson lose his newfound consistency, nor do I want to see Melton just defer to Booker all the time.
This four-game road trip will be a good test of that experiment.