Devin Booker has a tall task ahead of him in the 2022-23 season, year eight with the Phoenix Suns. Many still doubt the legitimacy of his top 5 finish in MVP voting or the placement in the All-NBA First Team a year ago. It only took one night to cement his spot up there with the league’s best.
Oct. 19 vs Dallas: 28 points (9-19 2P, 1-1 3P, 7-7 FT), 4 rebounds, 9 assists (2 turnovers), and 1 block in 41 minutes (+20)
That’s a pretty good statline across the board, even for Booker. Not his best performance in the box score by any means, but it only tells the beginning of the story.
After a slow start offensively (0-3 to start), Booker finished the first quarter with 9 points on 4-5 shooting the rest of the way, playing the entire frame. Even on the misses, he found plenty of good looks thanks to his craft with the ball inside the arc.
Booker also set the tone defensively, despite the Suns’ defensive scheme tending to leave him covering corner wings and not involved in many ball-centric actions, at least to start games.
He’s become quite a proficient team defender at this point in his career, which is especially key to his development since that what hampered him the most defensively in earlier seasons. Here’s an example from the first quarter, tracking Tim Hardaway Jr. away from the ball and stalling a drive after he receives it:
In the second quarter, Booker shared the ball a bit more than to start — 6 points (1-3 FG) and 2 assists, one more than in the first, in only eight minutes. He looked decisive as a distributor, bending the defense to his will using his scoring gravity:
Booker also kept up the pressure defensively, negating a bad turnover from Bismack Biyombo with a chasedown block in transition on Reggie Bullock:
Booker totaled -9 in the first half, which means a +29 second half is up on deck. 13 points, 6 assists, and some of the most impactful defense he’s ever played is on the way, too. The defense even earned him a Jimmy Butler comparison on Twitter:
Booker looked reminiscent of Jimmy Butter in some defensive possessions playing strong and tenacious. That’s what I would like to see more in depth.— Kyle Clark (@kyclark) October 20, 2022
It didn’t take long for that hard-nosed defense to show up against Luka Doncic, still relenting a score in this case, but making it about as hard on the fellow superstar as possible:
He had better luck against Doncic later in the frame when his physicality forced a carry violation:
The two-way impact helped fuel the rest of Booker’s game. Plus when you’re as refined a bucket getter as he is, you’re able to find your spots no matter how the game goes. Few in the league have the kind of patience and craft that it takes to be this productive in the mid-range:
Kevin Durant may be a touchy topic around these parts after the summer of waiting we all just experienced, but we know for a fact that he spent time working out with Booker in the summer. After seeing a beautiful hesi move like the following to freeze the defense, it’s impossible for me to not think about Durant’s possible influence on that part of Book’s game.
The possible addition — if we can even call it that yet — of a hesi dribble should put stars in Suns fans’ eyes; hesitation is a great way to beat blitzes and doubles, so we may see a more efficient Booker in those situations where he’s struggled in recent playoff runs.
Including the two third quarter examples, a third of Booker’s second half buckets came out of the mid-range:
In the absence of Chris Paul, who was on the bench for the final 6+ minutes of the game, Booker was the true “point god” of the hour, tallying 6 assists in eight and a half fourth quarter minutes. Especially of note is the growing chemistry in late-game situations between Booker and Deandre Ayton.
Over the entire game, the two-man combo posted a team-best net rating of +46.4 in 27 minutes, well over any other combo with at least 20 minutes. Only two 20+ minute combos across the entire league did better in their first game; both were from New Orleans — Jonas Valanciunas with Herb Jones and Brandon Ingram with Jones.
Booker found Ayton late time and time again to help put Phoenix in control:
Booker finished the game with a team-best 4.78 passes between each assist (43 passes, 9 assists). That’s what I like to call “passing with a purpose”. For reference, here’s how other Suns did in that department:
- Paul: 6.56 (59, 9)
- Damion Lee: 7.5 (15, 2)
- Ayton: 17.5 (35, 2)
The most important assist of all came at the end of the game to the aforementioned Lee when Booker was doubled on two different occasions within the same final possession. In past seasons, Booker may have been too tempted to keep the ball himself and force a tough shot.
However, on Wednesday night, Booker trusted the hot hand. Lee, who was -24 in his first 11 minutes on the floor, turned his night around and scored all 11 of his points in the fourth, including hitting three of his four three attempts. He would finish the frame +7, a miraculous turnaround, only improved by the beauty of a falling-away jumper to win it:
If there’s one big picture takeaway from Booker’s season opener, it’s that the playmaking is taking a leap. NBA.com lists his AST% for the game at 39.1%, nearly doubling last season’s mark of 21.2%.
The defense isn’t so new to me; it’s been well above replacement level for years now. It’s still just really beautiful to see that side of his game take centerstage in a big matchup, especially during those one-on-one situations against Doncic.
By the numbers, Booker was arguably the squad’s best defender on the night:
6 points allowed (3-8 DFG, 0-3 D3P), 3 turnovers forced in 16:15 spent as the closest defender
- only Paul (3 points in 12:22) gave up fewer points among those that spent at least three min. as the closest defender
- only Ayton (33.3% on 12 shots defended) had a better DFG% than Booker’s 37.5%
- no one forced more turnovers; Payne and Lee each forced 2
Several things would have to break right for this iteration of the Suns to even reach the conference finals without roster revisions, and Booker being a bona fide two-way star is definitely one of those things.
Inserting himself into the MVP conversation for the second year in a row could be enough to will Phoenix to the top, and hopefully this time, added counters can get him past the roadblock of playoff defenses, while being a problem for opposing playoff offenses at the same time.