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For most NBA players, growth isn’t linear. Devin Booker isn’t most NBA players though.
Since he first entered the league being billed as a spot-up shooter, Booker has consistently defied expectations of what his game is and what it could become. Every season since the Phoenix Suns drafted him back in 2015, he’s added something new to his bag.
Whether it was more efficient scoring, getting his teammates involved as a playmaker, committing to the defensive end or simply leading a winning team, Booker has addressed each lingering criticism of his game with each passing year.
All that remains is the obvious: solidifying his status as the greatest Sun ever by winning the franchise’s first title. It helps to have a front office devoted to acquiring superstar talent like Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal, a coach with championship experience like Frank Vogel, and complementary role players like Grayson Allen, Jusuf Nurkic, Eric Gordon and so many others on the bench.
But Devin Booker’s gradual, incremental improvements each season continue to bump Phoenix’s ceiling a little bit higher, and Year 9 has been no different. Sunday’s game-winning 3-pointer against the New York Knicks –over the infamous double-team, no less — was another “cold-blooded” reminder of that.
Through nine games, Booker is averaging 29.4 points, 8.9 assists and 5.4 rebounds a night. He’s flirting with 50-40-90 territory, shooting 49.7 percent overall and 43.5 percent from 3-point range. Every single one of those numbers would represent a career high if it holds for the entire season.
But the beauty of Booker’s latest leap is the clear, MVP-caliber effect he has on his team’s success — much like Kevin Durant has displayed this season as well. Multiple injuries derailed the first chunk of Book’s year, but the Suns are 8-1 when he plays and have won seven straight games since his memorable return from a right calf strain. All of those games have come without Beal, and two have come without Durant.
Over this seven-game stretch with Booker back in the lineup, the Suns check out as one of the NBA’s most potent, well-rounded offensive teams:
- 5th in PPG (124.7)
- 2nd in FG% (51.4%)
- 2nd in 3P% (43.9%)
- 3rd in FTAs (28.0)
- 5th in FT% (85.2%)
- 7th in APG (28.4)
- 12th in TOs (13.1)
- 4th in point differential (+9.9)
- 1st in O-rating (128.4)
- 3rd in Net Rating (+10.5)
And again, that’s without their third-best player, a three-time All-Star who’s averaged 30 points per game twice!
The question is, how has Devin Booker continued progressing nine years into his NBA career? In short, by fine-tuning these three areas of his game.
Devin Booker the point guard
The most obvious change is Devin Booker is running point for the Suns. Going from a Hall-of-Fame floor general like Chris Paul to a combo guard represented a slight departure in playing style for Phoenix, but as Durant pointed out, it’s not exactly uncharted territory for Book either.
“I want to say by his third year, he was already handling the ball, being asked to do a lot on the ball up top, dealing with guys double-teaming him at half-court, double-teaming him all over the floor,” Durant explained. “So he had a lot of experience in that for four, five, six years, and now it’s just second nature. You see how he’s handling the ball now. He looks like a point guard, ’cause he’s always been doing that.”
That’s true, but the results have still been exemplary:
For the first time since the days of Isaiah Canaan and Mike James, Booker is the Suns’ primary ball-handler and facilitator, and he’s currently ranked fourth in the NBA in assists per game. Coach Frank Vogel knew Booker could seamlessly transition between playing on the ball and off the ball, but even he’s been impressed.
“Better than expected,” Vogel said. “We expected it to be pretty good, but to have some growing pains and some bumps. But he has really embraced the overall leadership role on this year’s team, and in particular, in running the offense and embracing that transition to playing point guard.”
In the earlier part of the season, Phoenix required Herculean performances from Durant to carry the scoring load. Since Booker’s return, the offense has had more rhythm, not only because of his increased responsibility as a vocal leader, but as a point guard who’s taken the reins of his team. The various ways he’s created high-quality looks for teammates just reinforces his enhanced control of the game — something Chris Paul excelled at managing.
As the film shows, a good portion of his assists have come from simply drawing two defenders to the ball and kicking to open shooters one pass away. But Book has also found his rollers coming off screens, located shooters in the weak-side corner and manipulated defenses with his eyes and midair passes.
“I will put us in action if I want to see it, but I want them to own their team, and he really takes control of that,” Vogel said. “And then obviously, the shot-making, the attention that he draws, bringing two to the ball, his ability to pass the basketball out of it, is really exceptional. An underrated part of his game.”
Booker has gone from being able to make correct reads to bending defenses and even double-teams to his will. It’s the rare type of command of the game that requires a certain skill-set and basketball I.Q. to attain, and only a handful of NBA players possess it on a nightly basis.
Booker has gotten there, making it extremely silly that anyone was ever worried about the Suns not having a “true point guard.”
Devin Booker the pull-up threat
Because of injuries, and because of his increased burden to score and facilitate, Booker’s first few games have featured a different allotment of minutes. The 27-year-old is used to playing full first quarters, resting for about six minutes, closing the half, and then repeating the process in the second half.
Vogel promised to keep an eye on that early in the season, and since Book returned from the calf strain, they’ve chopped up his normal stints on the floor, capping him around 32-33 minutes. Lately, Booker has subbed out near the 6-minute mark of the first and third quarters, rested for about 3-4 minutes, and then returned to close out one quarter and begin the next one. Mixing up his playing time, on top of adding more to his plate, is something Booker admitted was new for him.
“I’d say the part that I do like about it is ending quarters and starting quarters, which is important to the game,” Booker said. “But for the nine years I’ve been in [the NBA] now, I could find my rhythm in that first 12 minutes and then come in at the end of the second and keep it going. But whatever it takes for this team to win.”
At times, the switch in mindset from “Point Book” to “Scoring Book” has flipped pretty drastically from quarter to quarter. In Sunday’s game, Booker wound up playing 38 minutes in a more familiar substitution pattern, but his first half still featured a more concerted focus on playmaking, while the second half saw him change gears into a more assertive scorer.
“I’m in the position where I’m facilitating and make sure our shooters are getting touches, making sure KD gets clean looks and not seeing doubles the whole game,” Booker explained. “So there’s responsibility there that I’m still figuring out.”
Fortunately, Booker is handling it well. Averaging just under 9 assists per game is impressive enough, but he’s also eighth in the league in scoring. Booker’s always been a three-level scorer, but he’s taken that deadly midrange game and supplemented it with dangerous 3-point efficiency as a routine pull-up threat:
Booker is right to feel like no one can block his shot when he raises up from his right side: He’s currently drilling a career-high 42.1 percent of his pull-up 3s, per NBA.com. The game-winner against New York was just another example, but it’s a shot Vogel has said he’s “personally winding him up” to shoot whenever possible.
“I think he’s been a little bit hesitant — just talking to some people that have been here the last couple of years — to take that shot in a high volume,” Vogel said. “One of the things we talked this summer is that that’s a shot that I really want to encourage and to extra green light for him. Because when he’s knocking down that shot, the big’s gotta come up. And when the bigs come up, that just opens up even more stuff. So it’s a hell of a weapon.”
The message seems to be sinking in, since Booker is currently taking 4.2 pull-up 3s per game — another career best. He’s never shot better than 37 percent on those looks in a season, so this could just be small sample size theater. But if this is truly a new part of his game, opposing defenses are doomed.
“Make or miss, I think it puts pressure on the defense,” Booker said. “A lot of the coverages in the NBA are drop coverage, and I think that’s gonna be tough to do against us with some marksmen out there, some people that can shoot the ball.”
Having the support of one of the NBA’s all-time great scorers to pull the trigger doesn’t hurt either.
“When you got a player as efficient as Book, it’s cool to come down and not pass the ball,” Durant said. “So it’s a good shot when you come off a pick and the guy’s in the drop and it’s a wide open shot for you. We don’t have to have a pass, that’s a shot we want.”
Devin Booker the driver
It’d be easy for Devin Booker to get in his own head about finding the right balance between scoring and playmaking, especially during this recent stretch without Beal and Durant. But regardless of who’s playing, the Suns want him to just continue being himself.
“He’s still in attack mode,” Vogel clarified. “We’re not asking him to go be Chris Paul or some of the great point guards; we’re asking him to be himself. But he’s doing it with the ball in his hands to start possessions.”
Part of the advantage to putting the ball in Booker’s hands more often is his increased willingness to attack the basket. Book’s frequency of shots at the rim has never been particularly high, and those numbers are pretty consistent so far this year.
But Booker has never been more efficient when getting downhill, shooting a career-best 72 percent at the rim, per Cleaning The Glass, which excludes garbage time.
Booker may not be getting a ton of looks at the basket, but he’s generating offense for his team in multiple ways. His 15.8 drives per game rank 10th in the NBA and represent a career high. Not only is Booker shooting 49.3 percent on those plays, but he’s also ranked fourth among qualified players in assists on drives (2.1 per game), sixth in scoring on drives (10.9 points per game) and 10th in free-throw attempts on drives (2.9 per game).
Essentially, nobody in the NBA is creating more complete offense off their drives than Devin Booker right now. Coupled with his career-high 8.1 free-throw attempts per game and his 91.8 percent shooting from the foul line, Book has somehow elevated his status as an elite three-level scorer.
“He came in scoring 70 against the Celtics pretty early in his career, so yeah, I don’t wanna say he’s just grown and grown as a scorer,” Vogel said. “He’s always kind of had that killer instinct, but I think leadership, seeing all the different coverages that you see as an elite player over the years, it just gets you sharper with how to attack them.”
Once Beal and Durant return, the Suns will finally get their first look at the Big 3. But even without Beal, Booker has kept this team humming along with the most well-rounded performances of his career thus far.
“I just go out there and play basketball, man,” Booker said. “Take the best available shot and understanding the artillery that we have with us. All these guys make the game easier for me, and I understand that. We all have to be aggressive at the same time, so finding that balance.”
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