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The Suns need Devin Booker to be more aggressive, but it’s never that simple

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Devin Booker can make bad teams good, but there have been growing pains learning how to make this good team great.

New Orleans Pelicans v Phoenix Suns Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

All season long, Devin Booker has been a good soldier.

Phoenix’s superstar wants to make this project work. You can see it in the way he plays. Playing alongside a generational passing talent in Ricky Rubio, Booker still often looks to pass first. Booker barely trails his point guard in assist rate. He averages just 10 points in the first half compared with 14 in the second half, and that includes games in which he sat out the fourth quarter of a blowout. The focus for Booker is clearly to spend the beginning of games setting up teammates.

Many point out all the different coaches, teammates, and voices Booker’s seen come through the organization since being drafted in 2013, but my guess is we actually understate it. These are the years you are supposed to spend crafting your game, learning the league, and figuring out how to contribute to winning. Booker has improved by miles since entering the NBA but also has spent a ton of energy figuring out how to build a winner in Phoenix.

This is a team with a disciplined long view. The focus of the organization right now is to build “a program,” as coach Monty Williams likes to say, but in order to construct a winning season, Booker needs to take games into his hands more often.

After charging out to a lead in several advanced on/off metrics, Booker’s numbers are ugly. The Suns are obviously a better team with Booker on the floor, but the offense statistically has been 0.6 points worse per 100 possessions, even during the most efficient shooting season of Booker’s career.

Defensively, things have been even uglier. Booker is in the bottom fifth of the NBA based upon how much worse the Suns’ defense is when he’s on the court.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Even last year, as Booker took the floor with far less talented teammates and a worse coaching infrastructure, his on/off impact was among the best in the NBA. The Suns were 7.0 points per 100 possessions better with Booker in the game.

All this makes the recent drop-off more puzzling.

Booker’s impact has dropped over the past few weeks, with the Suns most recently losing seven of eight games. What hasn’t flipped — and needs to — is Booker’s assertiveness.

Discussing Booker’s turnovers and shoot/pass decision-making after a loss to the Pelicans, Williams said, “I’m OK with it, because I think he’s trying to make the right play.”

Added Williams: “Everybody’s paying so much attention to him, and I’m proud of his poise.”

All along, Williams has said one of the top factors in him deciding to take the Suns job was getting to work with a talented, passionate player like Booker. Their relationship is one of the strongest things this team can build on. The way Booker is playing is clearly emanating from Williams.

The coach pointed out after that Pelicans game that teammates can do an even better job moving without the ball to challenge defenses that overplay Booker. It’s also fair to point out that very few players on this team consistently create shots for themselves or others, meaning that even though the overall talent level of this roster is greatly improved, the team still relies on Booker’s play-making and gravity to open up holes on offense.

Still, it’s difficult not to look at Booker’s quiet couple of weeks and connect it with the losses piling up. Did they lose games simply because Booker took a reasonable amount of shots rather than an overwhelming proportion? No way. But they seemingly could have won a couple more if Booker decided to take over.

To be clear, the idea of a player taking over is often used to mean they close a game in the clutch. In this case, it counts over the full 48 minutes.

Fox Sports Arizona game analyst Eddie Johnson often points out the split-second decisions Booker has made this year to give up a good shot for himself to get a great shot for a teammate. Those are obviously the right basketball plays and earning the praise of Williams, but that doesn’t take into account the fact that a “good” Booker shot is often better than a “great” shot for any of his teammates.

The closest we’ve seen to Booker trying to own a game is also the coolest development in his game this year. In semi-transition, before the defense has fully gotten set, Booker this year often will charge ahead full-speed to snag a quick layup.

Calling this type of thing “sneaky athleticism” would just be rude, but at the very least, let’s agree it’s a function of athleticism we haven’t seen in years from Booker. The feeling the young star possesses for when to pop in for buckets like these shows a sense for the moment. So it’s not that he cannot feel when he needs to grab hold of a contest, but more likely that he’s choosing not to.

This year was supposed to be about giving Booker support that would keep him fresh and generate more open shots. Deandre Ayton’s suspension threw a wrench in that plan, as did recent injuries to two key veteran contributors. Booker’s usage rate is still at a reasonable 28 percent, but that’s a tick below the likes of Pascal Siakam and Spencer Dinwiddie, young play-makers leading good teams that should be around the level of Phoenix.

Lately, the amount Phoenix has relied on Booker made it seem like it was 2018 again. But despite the battered roster, Booker’s usage rate has actually been slightly lower the past seven games.

It feels like Booker could be doing more. The temptation is to grade him on the curve of what he looks like at his ugliest, with Rubio, Ayton and Aron Baynes out, but it’s also unrealistic to say Booker should have wholly changed how he played just to compensate for their absences.

If the goal is to build a program this year, Booker being aggressive as a scorer is ultimately going to be a key part of the Suns at their best. All the losses are evidence that Booker’s current style isn’t helping the team, and prior results show how incredible his impact can be when he goes all out.