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Phoenix Suns Temperature Check, Vol. 2: Warm, with a looming heat wave in the horizon

A dive into the happenings of the Phoenix Suns, of late.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Golden State Warriors Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns are 38-34, are presently ranked fourth in the Western Conference, and have a ninth-ranked net rating of 1.7.

Let’s zoom in on some of what’s caught my eye over the last few weeks.

Booker’s Prolific Pull-Up

*All stats prior to Suns-Lakers on Wed night

Since the All-Star Break, Devin Booker is averaging 32.4 points per game on 55.0/40.0/81.8% shooting.

This is one of his better 11-game stretches in scoring over his career, with 356 points accumulated.

In doing so, he’s also shooting more efficiently than ever, on 55% from the field and 60.2% from two.

Post All-Star Break, he’s navigating to his spots with his signature ferocity and knocking down shots at such an efficient clip, while doing so early in the shot clock as well.

Early in the shot clock - those initial seconds where a defense is regrouping and, subsequently, vulnerable - Booker has often been looking to shoot or attack the basket before the opposition can set itself or send doubles.

In the “very early” portion (22-18 seconds) he’s shooting 53.8%.

Zoom in a little more and, via one dribble, he’s shooting 44.4%.

The pull-up three, particularly, is the shot that is standing out most for me in terms of the next step in his evolution as a scorer.

Aside from his increasing work in the mid-post:

(Sidenote: he’s at 1.273 points per possession on low volume in these scenarios, with 37 attempts on the season).

This specific shot - being the pull-up three - is the one that serves as the final domino to fall for him in being a truly complete weapon as a scorer (similar to Durant).

Booker’s increased his volume of this shot each of the past three seasons in this new era of the Suns:

· 2022-23: 3.9 attempts

· 2021-22: 3.8 attempts

· 2020-21: 2.8 attempts

He’s taken 18 of these so far post All-Star Break, and, while the efficiency isn’t quite there in totality, it’s the confidence (even in “experimenting”) that bodes well to my eye.

Specifically, as the ball handler in pick-and-roll, he’s shooting 33.3% from deep - per Synergy.

This shot out of pick-and-roll - the one that compromises on the comfortability of drop (or drop-adjacent) coverages that most frontcourt pieces like to sit in - is one that can truly change the way his numbers weigh over the course of a game.

The Curry’s, Lillard’s, and Young’s of the league open so much for their offenses because of their prolificity and never-ending threat in that scenario.

Booker can already beat drop coverage in the mid-range (not unlike teammates Durant and Paul have shown for their entire careers, in high-leverage moments even more).

If he can nurture and polish this specific shot - amidst the prolificity of his pernicious pull-ups from inside the arc - and impose his will efficiently here, he’ll grow increasingly more scheme-proof.

Booker has that dynamic, and it’s beginning to surface as we speak.

Bench Production

The Suns presently have the 11th-best bench unit in terms of scoring this season, chipping in 35.8 points per game.

They’ve seen a shift in methods of operation, and shot profile, of course, as the trade for Kevin Durant occurred.

However, because of the Durant injury, they’ve been placed in a unique situation.

For Durant’s three games played, they were perfectly positioned to simply play to their strengths. Now, they’re back tasked with doing more to chip in with his absence, only the bridge (no pun intended) that Mikal served in that conglomerate of the roster that wasn’t Booker or Paul, is no longer in the fold.

Past that, however, there are a few things the bench needs to re-establish with consistency, even prior to Durant’s return:

· Fortify their defensive-minded identity and activity

· Consistency at the head of the snake, from Payne

· Collectively knock down the open looks from deep that are generated

This is a group of players that have been tasked with toggling multiple roles both individually and collectively all season.

Look at Payne and Craig, who’s been in and out of the starting lineup since November, as well as Okogie (who’s earned starting minutes most of late).

This has been a group that’s seen time on task for the season’s entirety to date, and the team will surely need them to resurface that flow.

For Payne, he’s in a position to operate as well as he ever has, with minutes sure to come with Durant staggered in rotation with reserve lineups.

He needs to remain aggressive and operate in a manner in which he’s consistently applying pressure to the defense, while that serves as an “in addition to” for his defensive activity.

He’s the tone setter of that group, and when his frenetic nature is optimized, that group can not just hold down the fort, but extend leads.

In addition to Payne, the inner-lineup synergies that exist must continue to hit.

Whether that’s the shooting in movement sets from Ross, Payne, Shamet, and Lee, below-the-break shooting of Wainright and Craig, or rim running and defensive scheme versatility that Landale and Biyombo bring - it all needs to blend into one.

The Durant Rendition

This rendition of the Suns, while short-lived and serving as about as much of a tease as possible, could be summarized in one word as prolific.

Suns lineups in general with Durant in the fold, operated with an offensive rate of 130.3 (on a 65.4 effective field goal percentage), coupling that with a 106.6 defensive rating (with an effective field goal percentage allowed or just 47.4 - ranking 99th percentile this season).

The Suns essentially operated as the best offense and upgraded from one of the better defenses, to one of the best.

The starting lineup (Paul-Booker-Okogie-Durant-Ayton) has an offensive rating of 132.0 and a defensive rating of 93.1 in non-garbage time minutes.

That is beyond dominant.

Of course it’s a small sample, but that starting lineup has the best defense of any of the best offensive lineups this season has seen, with by far the best effective field goal percentage allowed - 41.2%.

Past the numbers (though they did also register their two best half-court offensive ratings of the season vs Chicago and Dallas) that starting group was already clicking at a high level in synergy - even off-script.

They displayed a few instances like this one and also put forth very impressive offensive processes that made it abundantly evident that the pieces didn’t just fit together, but all existing talents were bought into the renditions process as well.

As the Suns await the return of both Durant and Ayton, solace can be found in the manner in which that lineup operated - in addition to how Durant’s presence immediately unlocked Devin Booker (averaging 36 points on 56.0/50.0 shooting when Durant has played).

We hadn’t quite seen the Paul-Ayton pick-and-roll integrate itself fully with Durant, so that will be a dynamic to gauge closely as the tandem seven-foot frontcourt makes its return.

Devin Booker on the Move

As one of the best scorers in the NBA, the abundance of ways he can heavily impact the game - with or without the ball - makes him primed for postseason success.

Specifically working off screens (elbow cross-screen angles, wide pin-downs, veer screens, middle pin-downs) he is one of the best in the NBA.

He has a true shooting percentage of 65.9% off screens, per Synergy.

Even more, he’s scoring at 1.188 points per possession, which is excellent, ranking 85th percentile.

Off handoffs, he ranks 63rd percentile at 1.021 points per possession here, with a true shooting percentage of 59.3%.

He’s been *really* good off the ball this season, further cementing him as the golden standard at the shooting guard position.


· The Suns are tied for the most free throw attempts allowed in fourth quarters this season, at 7.8 per. In the clutch (where they’re 13-17 this season), they’re 27th in trips to the line allowed, conceding 3.6 per these moments

· Amidst the ups and downs of their defense this season, they reside in 7th with a defensive rating of 112.2

· They’re 6th in offensive rebound percentage, grabbing offensive boards on 30.7% of their possessions

· Suns opponents score just 48.0 points per game in the paint, ranking as 7th best protecting the paint

· They’re first in screen assists (13.1) and second in screen assist points (29.1) post All-Star

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