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Diving deep into Devin Booker’s defensive improvements

Making the case for the MVP candidate as the league’s best two-way guard

Phoenix Suns v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Devin Booker has become so much more than your everyday high-usage, superstar scoring guard. If we can be honest with ourselves, there was a time when that was all he was on a trajectory to be.

Coming out of the 2015 draft, where he was selected 13th overall by the Phoenix Suns, he wasn’t expected to do much more in the NBA than just score.

Even as recently as the final games before the Monty Williams era when he had this insane stretch:

Ever since that point, he’s developed into the most well-rounded two-guard in the league with his two-way impact standing as the biggest area of improvement. Booker is at the point now where given his usage and overall offensive effectiveness, I believe he’s the best two-way guard in the game.

As of Apr. 2, Booker ranks 16th overall in usage at 31.3.

The only guards ahead of him in that category are Donovan Mitchell (32.4), Ja Morant (33.0), Trae Young (33.1), and Luka Doncic (36.5). To me, the only one of those four that even has an argument at being a better defender than Booker is Mitchell, but I’m not going to be the one to make that argument, especially the way this season has played out with both stars trending in opposite directions on that end.

As far as below Booker, he ranks ahead of DeMar DeRozan (30.8) and Shai Gilgeous Alexander (29.8) who are both below Booker as defenders as well in my eyes. It’s down at 23rd overall in usage where we find Jaylen Brown (29.7), who is the clear better defender. But Booker has Brown beat offensively, no doubt.

So, that’s where this “best two-way guard” talk is coming from. But I can’t just say Booker’s an awesome defender without providing the evidence, right? Right!

I dove into the film of some recent games to find plays that best illustrate what makes Booker a great defender, as well as the plays that show his remaining weaknesses.

As I was doing my research, one prevailing takeaway I had was that opposing guards known for creating off the dribble just have such little interest in “trying” Booker at this point. In years past, they likely see him as a target to be attacked, but those days are over. This applied specifically to guys like Will Barton, James Harden, and Tyrese Maxey.

On-ball defense:

To start with an area where Booker’s always been better than he gets credit for, he’s always been awesome with using his strength on the defensive end.

There’s this example where he stays in front of Tobias Harris, a 6-foot-8 235 forward with a big body and is capable of using his body to operate in the post. Sometimes the bigger guy who, by his own right, is a very good shot creator and maker gets the bucket, and all you can do as a defender is your best. And that’s what Booker does here:

Booker uses his body here as well when guarding Tyrese Maxey, though I do wish he could’ve stayed more in front rather than off to the side in this instance. Still makes the shot too tough for Maxey to finish:

As well as here when defending a drive from Bones Hyland:

He’s also already been pretty good in straight up one-on-one situations for the past few years, but is especially well-versed and disciplined now, including on this play where Booker just stands in front of Harden in a situation where Harden likes to lull defenders to sleep, and Booker is right there with him every step of the way:

Booker’s able to stay solid against bigger assignments as well, like when Harden and Embiid got the switch on a Booker and Ayton pairing to set up Embiid in the post on Booker. Booker fronts Embiid as the pass comes and is able to break up the play before it gets too dangerous:

The biggest area of improvement Booker’s made as an on-ball defender comes in the form of screen navigation, which he does well here before helping on Embiid and closing out on Maxey:

Off-ball defense:

Conversely, when Booker’s job isn’t to go over or under those screens and rather to switch them, he’s gotten very good at making these switches as smooth as possible.

And when he isn’t directly involved in the actions that an offense wants to run, he still finds ways to disrupt it, like he does on these two instances:

And as a roamer, Booker does a great job of occupying the right space to discourage drives or passes and still puts himself in a good position to close out on a shot:

Areas that still need improvement:

The parts of Booker’s defense that are still lacking are some of the most annoying areas for a defender.

Jeff Green isn’t shooting the ball all that well this season at 32%, but is 38% over the previous two seasons. That’s someone that deserves a closeout. Booker does not give him one here, and there’s really no reason for it other than possessional laziness:

Here’s another example that we’ve just seen too much of in Booker’s career. Sometimes he thinks a play is over after just one or two actions, and he falls asleep, when he still has work to do.

Booker’s going to continue to get better in each area as his career continues to unfold. It will unlock individual and team acclaim that wasn’t previously available as well as make things easier on James Jones from a team-building aspect. For such a long time it was “you have to insulate Booker with good defenders around him” but now if a point guard in a post-CP3 era isn’t the best defender, that’s okay because Booker will be right there to help make up for it.

For now, Booker’s the best two-way guard in the NBA at 25 years old. What will he be at 27? At 30? He’s giving us reason to believe in a ceiling that was unimaginable when the Suns drafted him at 13th overall in 2015.

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