This time last year, Devin Booker was making the end of the 2018-19 season meaningful for Suns fans in a way no one expected. With stopgap players like Jimmer Fredette and Ray Spalding playing meaningful roles for a team destined for the high-lottery, Booker scored 59 points in a 33-point loss to Utah, followed by 50 on March 27, at home against the Wizards. Fifty-nine isn’t 70, but the performances were a reminder that Booker can turn it up when he wants to.
The games have not aged well, because no one remembers them. They serve as a metaphor for the arc of Booker’s career, as many of the young star’s best moments have come with no one watching. I’ll be the first to say I didn’t tune in for Booker’s 70-point game in Boston until the third quarter. That doesn’t take away from the performance — and neither does the fact that the Suns lost both games.
For much of Booker’s career, a possession could play out one of three ways: Booker scores, a teammate misses a shot, or Booker turns the ball over by forcing the issue too much. That was never more true than last spring during Booker’s scoring frenzy.
On March 25 in Utah, Dragan Bender and De’Anthony Melton both started, while Elie Okobo played 27 minutes off the bench and Fredette played 14, including parts of the fourth quarter when he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) get Booker the ball.
Still, Booker did this:
Two nights later (the anniversary we’re celebrating), Jamal Crawford was back in the lineup, scoring 12 points on 11 shot attempts in 30 minutes of action.
Here’s what Booker did with those weapons around him:
Could anyone have done better? The Wizards were in tank mode by that point as well, but the fact that Booker scored an efficient 59 points says more about him than anything else that happened in that game. Scoring at its core is an individual skill. It can’t be a player’s only skill if they want to have a long career, but the best way to prove one’s might as a scorer is to consistently and efficiently create good shots for themselves.
With 157 points over three games (Booker scored 48 on March 30 against Memphis), Booker proved once again that he is one of the absolute best individual scorers in the world.
Taking it a step further, let’s compare that to how similar losing performances from guys like Trae Young and Bradley Beal were received this year.
Right after a discussion about how Beal should have been an All-Star despite 2019-20 being one of his worst overall seasons, Beal came out of the break with back-to-back 50-point games, both in single-digit losses. Maybe it’s because Beal has more of a proven track record of playing winning basketball and contributing in the playoffs, but somehow the narrative smelled of sadness about Beal’s situation, rather than how he could be doing more to help his putrid roster win. Sound familiar?
The same story has followed Young throughout his young career, perhaps as a result of him becoming an overnight sensation at Oklahoma en route to the third overall pick in 2018. Young somehow was an All-Star starter despite being among the worst defenders in the entire NBA and leading a 20-win team.
Still, the same could be said of Booker. At Kentucky, Booker was a sharpshooting sixth man who was mostly appealing as a draft prospect because it was believed his young age meant there was room for improvement by the time he reached his prime. Everyone knows by now that he was much more than that player, but the benefit of surprise did not serve Booker well. By the time Eric Bledsoe was traded in Booker’s third season, the narrative had coalesced that Booker was not a winning player.
It’s something I’ve never understood, but these back-to-back 50-point games last March brought the whole conversation back. Booker was incredible in both games, shooting better than 50 percent from the field and getting to the line at will. The G League Suns still couldn’t win. Rather than change the narrative or draw sympathy for the lack of support Booker was getting, somehow it forced folks to double down on criticism, which followed Booker into the summer as folks jumped on him for his open gym etiquette and for sitting out the FIBA World Cup.
Anyone who watched Booker this time last year knows he jumped up a level. Booker can turn it on in an instant and put on a show. For about a week in March 2019, he put on one of the best shows of his life.