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Devin Booker’s threes still aren’t going in, but here’s why things will get better

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The Suns’ star is shooting below 35 percent from deep this season, but there’s still reason for optimism.

Phoenix Suns v Washington Wizards Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

For the third straight season, Devin Booker is among the most efficient high-volume scorers in the NBA despite shooting worse than league average from deep at 34.6 percent.

As has also been true for all three seasons, Booker’s poor shooting comes in large part because of his shot diet. Booker’s threes can basically be sorted into a few different baskets, and while many of his misses have come from just being off target, the blame in part also falls on Booker’s Suns teammates and coaching staff for not putting him in position to drop in easy triples more consistently.

Of the six or so threes he takes every night, more than half are pull-ups. And Booker is hitting just 27.3 percent of those looks compared with 42.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot attempts.

That last element of his game — the pull-up three — is not only among the most difficult shots in basketball but also a tantalizing carrot that always seems to be a few paces ahead of Booker. It’s a skill that can effectively neutralize defenses.

Back in 2016-17 (his last elite shooting season) Booker made more than 37 percent of his pull-up threes, even as he took nearly four per game. But since then, defenses have learned how to blitz him in the pick and roll or even send help from unlikely spots in order to throw off his focus or suck up the space he had as a younger player.

You’ve seen it in many of his 67 turnovers this season:

Since that time, Booker has increasingly gone inside the arc for his shots. After a stretch of four straight 30-point games last season around New Year’s Day, Booker explained the change in his mindset.

“I’ve realized that when I’m more aggressive and I put that pressure on the defense, it forces them to be in rotation instead of coming in with a pass-first mindset where I’m taking away from what I do best,” Booker said, “which is to score the basketball. If I’m doing all that at a high level and doing it aggressively, I think it opens up a lot more for other people.”

To his point, Booker’s assists have also skyrocketed since that 2016-17 season (though they’re down this year). Players who can make the shots defenses are specifically designed to give up can, in their own way, break opponents. But there’s a reason threes are so prevalent in today’s game, and it’s not just because three points are better than two.

Having a deadeye who demands the defense’s attention also gives everyone else space. If the Suns want to create a mid-range look for Chris Paul or a lob for Deandre Ayton, the middle of the floor needs to be open. Too often this season, it hasn’t been. Teams know Booker and Paul are among the best mid-range shooters in the NBA, but they are often content to make the Suns’ stars beat them.

The problem gets even worse when Booker is on the floor with bench players, as you see here in a possession from opening night:

NBA.com

“I’m not going into a game saying I’m going to shoot 10 mid-range shots a night or five threes, I’m just trying to take what the defense gives me, reading coverages and playing basketball,” Booker told me last year.

Right now, the right read is often to force the defense to really sell out to stop him (even more than they already are) by working on and making some of those pull-up threes. As Booker saw earlier in his career, those shots can be the rising tide that lifts less-talented lineups offensively.

Still, it’s not all on Booker. He’s adjusting to yet another group of teammates and watching how the defense reacts to him in this new context.

“Even though there’s continuity with me, he’s having to figure it out with Chris just as he and Ricky had figured it out,” Monty Williams recently said. “That takes a while. So it speaks to his level of determination in his mind that he’s been able to handle all this stuff.”

Part of Williams’ point here is likely an acknowledgment that the coaching staff is also adjusting. So far this season, they just haven’t generated enough open looks for Booker off the ball. Despite the addition of Paul, most of Booker’s offense is still coming out of pick-and-roll, per Synergy Sports play type data. Booker is rarely cutting, and because the Suns are playing slower, he’s not cherry-picking in transition nearly as often, either.

While Booker’s spot-up possessions have increased, it’s still less than 15 percent of his total offense. That number needs to increase. When you look at Danilo Gallinari’s elite 61.5 true shooting percentage last season playing alongside Paul or even how Dennis Schroder put together a career year playing more off the ball, it’s clear Booker should be benefiting more from his partnership with Paul than he is.

And it’s not as if we haven’t seen Booker be involved in the offense that way this year. Plenty of plays, including the Spain pick-and-roll you’ll see below against Sacramento or even simple pin-down screens and dribble handoffs can put Booker in position to shoot open catch-and-shoot threes.

There are also easy ways to incorporate Booker’s obvious marksmanship and deep range without running anything too sophisticated. Paul is learning, like Ricky Rubio did, to look for Booker in stride in transition, and when Cameron Payne was healthy early on, he did a great job finding Booker out of drives.

As these clips show, defenses still respect Booker as a shooter. It’s probably still the number one skill associated with his game, even as he’s expanded it.

“If I have an open three, it’s not like I’m not going to take it,” Booker said last January. “And I don’t think the scouting report for the other team is to let me get an open three, either.”

It’s also just about impossible to block Booker’s shot, a tribute to his versatility and elite footwork. There are few comparisons in the league for how Booker could (and likely will as the season goes along) be utilized in an off-ball role.

“He’s one of the rare guys that can adjust his shot to the situation,” Williams said recently. “When he’s in catch and shoot, he shoots it here (gestures from his shoulders) but when he is pulling up, he gets that thing up high like Glen Rice or Glenn Robinson. It’s rare for a shooter to have that ability to adjust.”

And of course, a mid-range shot from Booker is not bad offense. According to Cleaning the Glass, Booker is making nearly half his mid-range shots this year, putting him near the top 10 percent of all wings.

At the time I spoke with him last year during perhaps the best scoring stretch of his career, Booker told me that “analytics are for some players” and that he’s not “in that situation.” Considering he took in his early-career struggle and overhauled his game to develop elite mid-range touch and play-making ability, that’s probably a true statement. Nevertheless, it’s time to dip back into that well.

The Suns don’t play as fast as they did with Rubio, and they don’t have as many players who put pressure on the rim. The offense goes outside-in. It’s no coincidence that Paul has developed chemistry with Ayton more quickly than with Booker. With Paul, nobody else plays on-ball except his backup.

To maximize his fit on this team as well as his own scoring output, Booker and the Suns need to find ways to get him more catch-and-shoot looks in the flow of the offense as well as the confidence to bomb away off the bounce again.

I’ve used the interview with Booker from last January because it coincided with a similar moment to what he’s facing now. He was scoring at a high level and the team was winning, but his threes weren’t going in.

“I am locked in and obviously I want to make those shots and I think of myself as a high-level shooter, so I want to shoot better from three right now,” he said, “but if that’s not working, I think I have many weapons in my arsenal that I can still be effective.”

Effective is one thing. Great is another. Booker clearly has it in him, and likely knows what adjustments he should make, so as he and Paul get acclimated and a rhythm is established within the Suns’ offense, it’s only a matter of time until we see Booker rediscover his elite shooting.