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The time is now for Devin Booker to improve defensively

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Slight improvements on defense will elevate not only Booker’s ceiling, but the Suns’ overall outlook. Two examples from All-NBA players prove it.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Devin Booker has had to develop amidst chaos on all levels of the organization outside of his own control. And it’s an incredible accomplish to see the progress the 22-year-old has made to his game each season.

Now, entering into his fifth season and making $158 million dollars over the length of his new five-year extension, one area needs to finally be unearthed and polished. With his best roster and coaching staff to date, it’s on Booker to show there’s another level he can take to vault up an even higher rung when compared to his counterparts.

Consistency on the defensive end has been absent throughout Booker’s career in Phoenix. You can’t blame him for that either when you realize the lack of NBA talent surrounding him, plus the night-in, night-out blowouts witnessed on a consistent basis.

Booker has endured 46 losses by 20 or more points when on the floor for the Suns already. So, when the Suns’ star has logged minutes, 16.9 percent of the time they’ve lost by 20-plus. Yikes, but that also again goes to show just how porous the roster construction was under former Suns general manager Ryan McDonough as he bet far too often on potential (ex: Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, Josh Jackson).

Under new GM James Jones, building a solid infrastructure around Booker and Deandre Ayton was of the upmost importance. Jones even hammered home that point when he spoke to the media during Las Vegas Summer League.

One of those key focal points revolves around surrounding Booker with non-negatives on the defensive end.

With Ricky Rubio now added alongside two lanky, switch-happy wings like Mikal Bridges and Kelly Oubre Jr., Phoenix has the opportunity to “hide” their star on the worst perimeter player most nights. Not only should this help Booker conserve more energy to do damage scoring the basketball, but limit the chances opposing teams can pick on him trying to guard others.

Even with a system likely to implement these ideas, it doesn’t mean Booker can continue to stagnate on one side of the floor.

Booker’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus throughout his career has been absolutely hideous with no true step taken forward: Year 1 = minus-3.87, Year 2 = minus-2.58, Year 3 = minus-2.44, Year 4 = minus-2.44. Booker can look to two All-NBA players who slightly improved on the margins, which drastically changed their overall profile around the Association.

James Harden and Booker have been compared often over the past few seasons due to their similar scoring styles, but the early days of the MVP runner-up were nitpicked endlessly. If you watched Harden try to play defense during his first two seasons in Houston, it was ugly. Not only did Harden look like he wasn’t trying at all, but teams quickly realized they could continuously target him with no real chance of stopping it.

However, once the criticisms reached an all-time high after the 2013-14 season, Harden locked in. The Rockets’ star saw his DRPM rise from a putrid minus-2.84 to a more than respectable figure of minus-0.16. Harden slightly regressed in 2015 and 2016, but the times where he was the major liability were over. And over the last two seasons, Harden has carried a positive DRPM (0.02 in both campaigns), which is a remarkable turnaround over a 3-5 year period.

If Harden can go from being an absolute joke on defense, so can Booker. Even if Booker can reach the regression years Harden experienced (minus-0.98, minus-1.57), that’s a huge jump from where he is now in the basement amongst other guards.

Damian Lillard is another pivotal example the Suns should examine when trying to find out how Booker can take his all-around game to the next level. From 2015-2017, Lillard’s Defensive Box Plus Minus was below minus-2. Portland’s ceiling was plateauing until Lillard made the changes necessary to hold his own guarding primary ball handlers. In the 2017-18 and 2018-19 campaigns, Lillard’s DBPM bumped up to an average of minus-1.0.

One of the main reasons why Lillard’s defense upgraded was becoming more active with his hands. As you can see below, most of these highlights revolve around the Trail Blazers’ point guard having his head on a swivel and knowing when to poke the ball free.

Again, if a former red flag on defense such as Lillard can make the necessary changes, so can the Suns’ 22-year-old budding star.

At the moment, Booker’s defensive similarity scores put him in company many wouldn’t him to be associated with. Michael Redd was the top comparison on Basketball-Reference, as both he and Booker had extremely high offensive output but horrendous defensive metrics (+2.5 OBPM, minus-2.3 DBPM) within their first four seasons. Other guards who join Booker on this list over the years include well-known offense-first players: Kevin Martin, Joe Johnson, Lou Williams, and JJ Redick. Specifically for Martin and Johnson, those two players would’ve had drastically different outcomes for their long-term career arcs if they learned to at least be average on defense.

Booker has shown that he can be passable as a defender within the confines of a winning environment, though. Case in point the best play of his career on the defensive side back in March, which saw him swat Kenrich Williams at the rim when Phoenix was trailing 134-131 in overtime. Without Booker’s block, the Suns don’t end up winning this game.

The pieces are in place for the Suns to insulate Booker’s biggest weakness, but it’s all on his shoulders to make the correct adjustments moving forward. The Suns’ primary building block will continue to be rightfully criticized until there’s consistency showing he can hold his own on defense more often than not.

No, Booker doesn’t need to make the unrealistic leap to lockdown defender, but taking the step forward from sieve to below-average would be a huge step forward for his own personal growth in 2019-20.