Coming out of Kentucky in 2015, the book on Devin Booker was pretty simple. He was an incredible spot-up shooter who made 41 percent of his threes, and because he was so young, had a good chance to expand his game. No one saw this coming.
Take it from the owner himself. Robert Sarver appeared on The Burns & Gambo Show this week to discuss Booker’s first All-Star appearance and dove back into the memory drawer, recalling the predraft process in 2015.
“He showed such an ability offensively to score in so many different places,” Sarver said.
But that didn’t come right away in the NBA. One-third of Booker’s shots came from three as a rookie, and he only shot 46 percent from two-point range.
“If you’ve seen Devin’s game grow year by year, it’s really been impressive,” Sarver said. “Not only has he been putting up good numbers, but you look at more advanced statistics in terms of efficiency and things like that, and he’s just becoming a better and better basketball player.”
Sarver’s point is well-founded here, and a big reason why he will appear in the All-Star game on Sunday night and was a favorite to be voted in by the coaches initially. But what happened to the shooting?
By no means is Booker a bad shooter, but he’s never approached his 41 percent mark from Kentucky, topping out at 38 percent in 2017-18. Instead, as Sarver notes, his special shooting ability has taken a back seat to other areas of his offensive game, as he’s improved his at-rim finishing, mid-range shooting, and play-making. Now a more well-rounded player, he impacts winning more consistently than ever before.
Still, as Booker returns for his third 3-Point Contest tonight in Chicago, where he is also a fill-in for Damian Lillard, it’s worth looking at his shooting again.
The first thing to note is that Booker has never been an elite pull-up shooter from three-point range. It’s one of the toughest shots in basketball, demanding perfect timing, form and touch. Last year, according to NBA tracking data, Booker shot 29.1 percent on 3.7 pull-up threes per game. That dragged his overall three-point efficiency down below league average.
This year has been better, as Booker has been able to limit those shots to when he’s in rhythm. He’s up to 34 percent this year — not great, but better.
Altogether, those numbers still pale in comparison to the best off-the-dribble shooters in the NBA. Over the past three seasons, James Harden has attempted 2,065 pull-up threes and made 36.8 percent of them. No one has even approached that volume, but Harden can make those shots like few others, and it’s become an elite, nearly unguardable skill. After last year’s series-winning three against Oklahoma City, Damian Lillard has unleashed the weapon more fully this season. Lillard takes 7.4 pull-up threes per game and is making 40.1 percent (don’t sleep on the season Lillard is having just because Portland is bad). In his second MVP season, Stephen Curry took 6.3 pull-up threes per game and made 43.8 percent, because he’s the best shooter of all time.
Not even Luka Doncic, whose smooth step-back three has become his signature move, is all that efficient with that shot. Doncic takes nearly eight per game but makes fewer than one-third of his pull-up threes. It’s a skill that seems to develop over time, even for the elite.
That Booker is even discussed in that company shows how special he is. Despite a stylistic adjustment this year playing next to Ricky Rubio, eventually Booker will become a star-level dynamic wing play-maker like the players listed above. To make that level of impact on a routine basis in the modern NBA, Booker probably needs to build up his pull-up shooting.
Though Monty Williams has repeatedly stated he does not want to demand certain shots out of individual players, he has emphasized a team-wide mandate recently to get back to their early-season three-point volume. Booker has responded. In seven February games, Booker is taking over six triples per game. The need to keep the defense honest and make the most valuable shot in basketball is integral to Booker’s game and the Suns’ offense, even as Booker demonstrates his proficiency elsewhere.
That’s all coming. As Jackson Frank explored in his breakdown of Lillard’s season, his pull-up excellence is the product of years of development and practice. Even having the cojones to try some of the shots Lillard busts out is rare.
But Booker has all of that. Considering how great he is as a midrange pull-up shooter, there’s no reason to believe he won’t expand his range. More promising in the meantime is his shot-making from everywhere else. Booker has spent the past two seasons in the 90th percentile or above in mid-range accuracy, per Cleaning the Glass. This season, 45 percent of Booker’s shots have come from mid-range as he rediscovers his best spots on the court in a new offense built around Rubio. A case could be made Booker’s combination of volume and efficiency from mid-range makes him the best operator in the modern NBA’s most desolate space.
Even more insane than Booker’s mid-range proficiency is his finishing. As Sarver noted, Booker has always had the ability to make shots from everywhere. Generally, young players just aren’t given the freedom to play the way Booker is now. They are expected to finish at the rim, and Booker had to work to improve there. Over his first three seasons, Booker never shot better than 61 percent at the rim, which put him around the middle of the pack among NBA wings. This season, he’s skyrocketed all the way to 70 percent.
What separates Booker even further from other good wing finishers is he can make non-restricted area paint shots at an elite rate. These are the floaters, jumpers and long layups that many never even try. Booker is shooting 48.4 percent from those spots as well.
This supernatural shooting touch proves Booker is a good shooter. Far too often, that categorization is limited to three-point shooting. Though Booker has a way to go statistically to be counted among the league’s top players from deep, the sharpshooter out of Kentucky has proven the past two seasons he is one of the best shot-makers in the NBA.
Maybe all he needs to find that spark is a second 3-Point Contest belt.
All shooting stats via NBA.com unless otherwise noted.