Fatigue comes in many forms, and for Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker the physical, mental, and emotional fatigue he has endured this season is appearing to affect his play.
Some fans are starting to claim that Booker has checked out of the season, disappointed in the team’s inability to close out enough games to stay in playoff position. Basketball-reference.com has the Suns ‘expected’ record at 28-33 (based on their offensive and defensive metrics), which would put the Suns in 9th in the West, breathing fire down the necks of the slumping Grizzlies. However, the Suns actual record is only 24-37 and that breath is more of a death rattle.
But the more likely answer is that Booker is simply in a funk.
This season has been a challenge for Booker in many ways. The first-time NBA All Star is facing situations he never truly has in the past, and what you are seeing might be him simply wearing down.
Booker’s performance and production on the court has fallen off statistically and it is due to numerous external factors. As a rising superstar in the league, learning how to perform under stresses is what separates the boys from the men, and Devin must learn how to use his stressors as fuel for success. This is a skill he has yet to conquer.
What is wearing Devin down? Why, I thought you’d never ask!
The Physical Fatigue
Devin Booker joined the league in 2015. Although he wasn’t a starter in his first season, he still started 51 of the 76 games he appeared in. Since that season he has not played in a game he has not started.
The ’16-‘17 season saw Devin play the most games (78) and most minutes per game (35.0) in his career. He averaged 22.1 points-per-game on 18.3 shots-per-game as he began perfecting his offensive approach to playing at the highest level in the world. He ended the season with a 103 offensive rating and 19.5% of the Suns total points. His defensive effort was, well, blah. That is not where he spent his energy.
The next two seasons of D-Book’s career saw him play fewer games due to injuries and “injuries” (a.k.a.: the Suns tanking). Due to the Suns lack of success, Booker has not played a full season since his sophomore year. He played in 54 games in ’17-’18 and 64 games in ’18-’19.
This season has been the most physically demanding for Booker. He has played in 58 games thus far, logging the most minutes-per-game of his career (36.0). He is on pace for the most minutes he has ever played in his life (which is most likely why the Suns are putting in a waiver claim on Jordan McRae).
He has also increased his defensive intensity (somewhat). He has his best defensive rating of his career as he has tried to become a more complete player. When the fatigue sets in, however, the defense is the first thing to go.
Although the All-Star break felt like a fortnight to fans yearning to watch some basketball, in reality Booker did not get much rest. He participated in All-Star Saturday Night and (thankfully) was a part of the NBA All-Star game. Yeah, he only played in 9 minutes of the game, but the physical toll the weekend took on him is clear:
- Prior to the All-Star Game: 26.4 ppg, 6.3 apg, 4.2 rpg, 49.6 FG%, 92.0 FT%, +/-: plus-1.4, OFFRTG: 115
- Since the All-Star Game: 22.5 ppg, 6.7 apg, 3.3 rpg, 42.2 FG%, 90.6 FT%, +/-: minus-1.7, OFFRTG: 101
We wanted him to return from the ASG ready to lead this team into the playoffs. Conversely, it took a physical toll on him from which he has not recovered. His scoring is down. A lot. His shooting is down. His plus/minus is way down. He is tired.
Part of that is due to his lack of rest, and part of that is due to:
The Mental Fatigue
Carrying a team is no easy task. Being the only scorer on a team losing by 20 every night is one thing. But being the primary scorer on a team likely to beat you if you don’t disrupt Booker is quite another.
No shot goes uncontested, no high screen and roll goes un-pestered. Almost every possession he crosses mid-court, he’s blitzed hard into an outlet pass across the floor.
Devin Booker has carried the scoring load for the team, scoring 22.1% of their total points this season. It has been laborious doing so, for it takes effort and energy that can be mentally draining. The franchise has put their faith in Devin Booker, as has the Phoenix fan base.
In his career he has never had to play for anything other than his stats. This season, however, the hope and promise of a potential playoff appearance has been within reach the whole time. And while Booker has succeeded for the most part this season — earning him that All-Star berth in the process — it appears lately that Booker is crumbling under the mental pressure.
Couple that with the physical fatigue he is feeling for the first time ever, and what you are seeing nightly is a player trying to learn how to push through to get to the other side.
At this point, he is failing to do so. The mental pressure of being ‘the guy’ on a team living on the bubble has affected his play. When the game is on the line, in ‘clutch time’ moments (less than 5 minutes to play, teams within 5 points of each other), Devin Booker shoots 38.7% from the field and 21.4% from beyond the arc this season.
It’s more than the physical and mental fatigue that has hindered his success this season. Booker has had to navigate the waters of dealing with the loss of his idol, which leads to:
The Emotional Fatigue
Losing a loved one affects us in ways we cannot fathom. Although Devin Booker was not extremely close to Kobe Bryant, he idolized the Black Mamba.
He wanted to carry himself in a similar fashion, both on and off the court, and someday reach the same heights that Kobe did. When the NBA lost a legend, Booker lost his hero.
He openly cried during pregame montages following Kobe’s death. He was in attendance on February 24 at the Staples Center for Kobe Bryant’s memorial service. Dark sunglasses, a somber look draped upon his face; Booker met his grief head on prior to boarding a private jet and playing in Salt Lake City that evening.
How we deal with grief is an individual process. Some compartmentalize, some fall into the depths of depression.
Not very many of us have to do so and are expected to perform in front of a national audience.
Booker’s numbers have faltered since that fateful January day:
- Prior to Kobe’s Death: 26.7 ppg, 6.4 apg, 4.5 rpg, 50.9 FG%, 92.2 FT%, +/-: plus-1.4, OFFRTG: 116
- Since Kobe’s Death: 24.1 ppg, 6.3 apg, 4.2 rpg, 43.3 FG%, 91.2 FT%, +/-: plus-0.3, OFFRTG: 109
Does Kobe’s untimely passing have everything to do with Booker’s decline in performance? No. But add that to the physical and mental obstacles he has faced and it surely doesn’t help.
There is a saying I share regularly with friends and co-workers: “Champions adjust”.
A poster I created states my personal philosophy behind the saying, “You don’t become a champion by doing the same thing over and over. You become a champion by adjusting to your opposition, rethinking your approach, and executing your new game plan.”
This is the next step in Devin Booker’s development: learning how to push through the challenges this season has presented, adjust his approach, and emerge victorious.
Don’t shut it down this year.
Don’t throw up your hands and say, “it’s too hard”.
As my old Drill Sergeant used to say, “Nothing good is life is easy.”
Power through the struggle, Devin. Fight your demons. Understand that you are tired, and more importantly, why you are tired. This will allow you to put plans against those stressors.
And success will follow.
King’s Note: Welcome John Voita to the Bright Side team! John is a regular podcast host on The Suns Report, which posts three pods a week on various topic. Check it out in the pod feed at the bottom of each Bright Side article, alternating days with the Fanning the Flames pod.
John will also become a regular blog contributor on here as well! I’m very excited to add John to the Bright Side writing team!