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Suns need Devin Booker’s playmaking to return

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The All-Star has taken a back seat on this amped-up Suns team and that needs to stop.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns may be on a hiatus these days as they deal with the COVID pandemic, but at some point their season will continue. And when it does, the Suns would be better off getting the best of Devin Booker rather than the guy who’s been wearing his uniform so far this season.

Much of Suns criticism has been leveled at the youngest, biggest player in the rotation lately and that’s giving way too much credit to the rest of the team. For example, if Mikal Bridges is going to be the team’s second-leading scorer, he can’t just take games off of being aggressive on the offensive end like he did in the Pistons loss (6 points) and Wizards loss (14 points, mostly garbage time). If Chris Paul is going to be the team’s leading playmaker, he needs to find a way to get more shots for last year’s second leading scorer. If Jae Crowder is going to be a reliable veteran wing, he can’t keep vacillating between hero and zero every other game.

And if Devin Booker wants his team to make the playoffs for the first time in his career, he’s going to have to be the best he’s ever been, not the worst.

So far this season he’s posting the fewest shots, points, assists, free throws and rebounds since his first full year as a starter on a team that lost 70% of its games (2016-17).

His scoring is creeping up lately, though he didn’t cross the 30-point threshold till the Wizards blowout loss, but the playmaking is still lacking.

Booker’s assist percentage is down a ton this year — from 28.8% to 19.7% — and you can see from the eyeball test he’s simply not initiating as much offense as he we are used to seeing. After years of 6.5-7 assists per game, Booker’s posting a paltry 4.3 per game this year.

As a team, the Suns are down only slightly from 1st or 2nd in passing categories to 4th.

Team Assist Percentage:

  • Last season: 66.1% (2nd)
  • This season: 64.3% (4th)

Team Assists per 100 possessions:

  • Last season: 26.7 (2nd)
  • This season: 26.3 (4th)

So you can make the case that the team as a whole is absorbing Booker’s lost playmaking among themselves and still producing at a high rate. But unless all those assists are coming from Chris Paul and Cameron Payne instead, I’d rather Booker be initiating those shots than the likes of Jae Crowder, for example.

Is Cameron Payne taking away Booker’s passing opportunities? Payne is much more of a ball handler than last year’s Rubio backup Elie Okobo. Payne has a 33.3 percent assist ratio, much better than Elie’s 22.2 percent. But he’s not even touching the ball as much as he did in the Bubble when both Booker and Rubio were hitting on all cylinders, so Payne is not the problem.

And in the three games Payne has been out and Booker has truly been the primary backup point guard, the Suns are 1-2 with Booker posting 10 total assists (3.3 per game) including a 0-assist game against the Washington COVIDs.

Could it be that Chris Paul is taking Booker’s chances away? Paul has a higher assist ratio than Ricky Rubio a year ago (42.9%, compared to Ricky Rubio’s 37.7%) but only marginally touches or holds the ball any longer than Ricky did. CP touches the ball slightly more than Ricky did (81.5 touches per game vs. 77.5) and holds it slightly more (7.2 seconds per possession vs. 6.8) and has virtually the same seconds-per-touch (5.3 vs. 5.2 seconds). So it’s not Chris Paul ball-hogging.

Maybe it’s the other guys taking Book’s touches away? Nope on that either. Booker gets just as many touches a game as last year (58 to 60), dribbles and holds it almost virtually the same (4.33 seconds per touch on 3.7 dribbles vs 4.22 / 3.5). He just isn’t doing as much with the ball, producing almost 6 fewer shots/free throws/assists combined per game.

Maybe he’s not passing enough? That’s not it either. Last year: 32 passes per game. This year: 31.8.

He’s simply not generating as many potential assists — where the player takes the shot off his pass, miss or make. A year ago: 13.1 potential assists per game. This year: 9.3.

Maybe his teammates are simply passing the ball along a lot more than last year, rather than just taking the shot? A little. The Suns are making 298 passes per game this year vs. 292 a year ago, on five fewer possessions per game. On a per-possession basis, that’s 3.04 passes per possession this year vs. 2.89 per possession a year ago, which equates to a whopping... one more pass every 9th possession. Okay, it’s not that either.

Shoot I don’t know, folks.

Again, he’s getting the same touches, holding the ball the same amount of time, got the same coach and scheme as a year ago when he became an All-Star, but putting up his worst numbers since his first full year as a starter.

I just want All-Star Devin Booker back. I want him to put the best team he’s ever had on his shoulders, stop giving frustrated looks to his center that get blown into crazy narratives, and own the fact that it’s his responsibility to be his best self.

Some of you might think this is harsh criticism of the best player on a 7-4 team predicted to go deep in the playoffs. But it’s actually okay to hold a team’s best player to the highest standard.