Basketball fans can’t stop talking about Devin Booker.
The usual rebuttals will suffice, and I know Suns fans are practiced in the art of defending Booker already. A pundit or national blogger throws an insult Booker’s way, and you can be sure in the comments section there will be a quiver of arrows launched at the author in a matter of minutes.
“You’ve never watched a full game has played!”
“He scored SEVENTY points!”
“The franchise is the problem, not him!”
They’re all true. But what sticks out to me isn’t so much the way we talk about Booker, but the way we talk about the other guys in the league who are in better professional situations. Concerns about Booker’s defense and the desire to see him in meaningful games are actually understandable. Overblown, maybe, but definitely understandable.
On the other hand, players in the same age bracket or whose role and production mirrors Booker’s are lauded as if they’re trustworthy superstars after just a couple seasons. This is where the nonsensical overvaluation of wins comes into play, and where the permanency of playoff performances in our minds warps the perception some have of young players.
You can certainly make the case that players such as Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell have been more successful early in their careers than Booker. That’s basically inarguable. They’ve been the leading scorers on teams that have won playoff series. Booker’s teams have never won 30 games. But does that make those players better than Booker? No, those facts and statistics on their own shouldn’t push the young scoring guards over Booker in anyone’s rankings.
Still, it’s not as if the gulf between these players is massive. Most reading this likely believe Booker to be considerably better than those two. Personally, I have Mitchell slightly above Booker because of his athleticism, defensive upside and the fact he’s been in the league two fewer seasons than Booker and should have more room to grow. It’s all a matter of opinion.
What I can’t get past, though, are the rave reviews, the glowing hoopla, the outsized celebrations being thrown for the likes of Mitchell and Murray simply because they’ve made the good on their circumstances.
Take this, from an ESPN feature on the Murray-Nikola Jokic pick-and-roll during the playoffs:
“The Denver Nuggets understand they are a work in progress with miles to go defensively, yet a future cemented on a foundation of Jokic and Murray has the league buzzing. Is it too premature to anoint their pick-and-roll prowess on par with that of Stockton and Malone or Nash and Stoudemire?”
The blame for hyping up the youngster doesn’t fall entirely on the writer here. Jackie MacMullan is a fantastic writer, and certainly at times in the playoffs, being hyperbolic about Murray’s upside was reasonable. He had incredible hot streaks as a scorer, and she is merely reporting what the conversation around Murray was during this year’s playoffs.
Of all the games I watched live covering the Suns this season, the best performance I saw in-person was Murray’s 48-point explosion on Dec. 29. He’s an extraordinary talent. But he also posted just a .534 true shooting percentage in the playoffs and is a negative on defense. Murray wowed with back-to-back 34-point nights in the second round, but scored just six points against the Spurs as Nuggets went down 2-1 in that series, as well as just 17 points on 18 shots in Game Seven against Portland.
Murray’s averages of 21.1 points and 4.7 assists per 36 minutes in the playoffs are impressive for a 22-year-old, but the guy is far from a young Kobe Bryant.
How about this, on Mitchell, from The Athletic’s post-free agency power rankings?
“Do the Jazz have enough to unlock Donovan Mitchell in the postseason? The last two postseasons have seen the Jazz run into the Houston Rockets and have zero answers on how to match their firepower. Utah was so singularly focused from an offensive creation standpoint with Mitchell as the initiator that Houston could just load up defensive attention on him and dare anybody else to do anything. With Conley and Bogdanovic on the squad, the Jazz can throw a lot of floor-spacing out there. They can have Conley attack just about anybody with his great change of pace approach.
Mitchell can pick his spots and grow more with his understanding of when to attack and when to defer to capable teammates. Is that enough to turn Mitchell into a postseason hero? We’ll find out in nine months.”
Again, analysts are smart enough to not go overboard with these young guys. They have to earn it. But think about how insane it would be to see Booker be mentioned in the same paragraph as the phrase “postseason hero.”
Until this year, and especially his late-season scoring onslaught (Booker averaged 34 points per game in March), people underestimated Booker. He changed that narrative this season. Now, the discussion is sympathetic — the Suns are said to be wasting Booker. That case is easy to make, and is closer to the truth, but it does make you wonder what the discourse would look like if Booker were in the playoff lime light already.
This is what bothers me. The margins between these players (not to mention their veteran counterparts, CJ McCollum, Jrue Holiday and Victor Oladipo) are very narrow. This is true for most players in the star-but-not-superstar stratosphere of the NBA.
Imagine if Booker had a taste of playoff success (and don’t get it twisted, if he had been in the playoffs, he would have as many signature moments as Murray or Mitchell for sure). What would we say about him?
“Can the blossoming heir to James Harden become the player only assistants and high school coaches ever saw him as?”
“The youngster whose statistical production places him in the company of legends like Oscar Robertson and LeBron James is on his way to joining them among the greats.”
Perhaps this frustration is directed more at the hyperbole deployed by writers in need of a way to build up certain players they’re impressed by or someone who is the face of the current moment. It’s not as if I haven’t done the same. We all fall victim to that type of thing.
Being aware of that is important though. Public narratives about players are shaped by these broad strokes people paint with, and it skews realities about the game. The truth is Mitchell and Murray have played awesome playoff games in part because their teammates and coaches put them in position to be there in the first place. Booker likely could have done the same if he was in the same position.
Unfortunately, there’s no proof. We have no way of knowing Booker could have done the great things his counterparts have done in the league because he hasn’t had the chance. That’s fine. He will have to earn it in time, in Phoenix or elsewhere. But ignoring the circumstances of various players around the league is the way to misjudge and poorly analyze them in comparison with one another.