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With or without Kevin Durant, Devin Booker has gone scorched earth

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
April 1, 2023

Since Kevin Durant first suited up for the Phoenix Suns on March 1, Devin Booker has been on an absolute tear. Over the last month, Booker has brought new meaning to “March Madness,” averaging 32.1 points, 4.9 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game on blistering .551/.400/.863 shooting splits.

Compared to the 26.5 points, 5.7 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game on .473/.347/.841 shooting splits he averaged prior to March, Book’s torrid scoring numbers over the last four weeks are pretty scary. But they become downright terrifying when one realizes KD has only played five times over that stretch.

“It’s been amazing to see, ’cause I’ve been in the league for a long time and I probably played with a few All-Stars, but never to this caliber,” said Terrence Ross, an 11-year NBA veteran. “He’s definitely one of the great shooting guards in our league, and to see him up close and see how he works and see how he approaches every game, it’s been fun.”

Over 15 games in March, Booker hit the 30-point threshold nine times. He shot 50 percent or better 10 times, posted a true-shooting percentage of 65.4, and boasted a +5.8 point differential, carrying the Suns to a 9-6 record despite Durant missing 10 games.

His scorching-hot run started with KD in the lineup, but he’s maintained that momentum all month. Now, life is going to get even easier for Booker as Durant works the rust off. In 105 minutes together so far, lineups with those two on the floor have posted a +22.8 Net Rating, according to NBA.com.

“Book understands exactly what he needs to do every time out on the floor, and once you prepare the right way and you know your role, the game’s pretty easy,” Durant said. “The game is easy for Book. It makes the game easier for all his teammates as well, and he’s a hard worker. And that’s what we need from the leaders of our team.”

So how is he doing it? How has Booker taken his game to another level lately, to the point that he’s earning praise like this from KD, stunning Chris Paul with a 30-point first half, or prompting Jae Crowder to tell the world he wanted to guard Book in training camp because he felt if he could guard Booker, he could guard “damn near anybody in the league”?

As with most of the elite scorers in the league, Booker is doing it from all three levels: attacking the rim, in the midrange, and from beyond the arc.

Devin Booker attacking the rim

Booker hasn’t noticeably increased his volume of shots near the basket over the last month. According to Cleaning The Glass, he’s taken basically the same percentage of his non-garbage time shots at the rim.

But he has been a hell of a lot more efficient when he finds himself among the trees, and he’s getting deeper into the lane than he typically does — something coach Monty Williams says has been a point of emphasis for the Suns this season.

“The deep paint is where we’re trying to get better,” Williams said. “Last year we were really high-paint, mid-paint, and that was about it. This year, we’ve tried to get to the rim a ton more.”

Booker has epitomized that team-wide goal, ever so slightly elevating his attempts near the basket in March and taking a leap in his efficiency on those looks:

  • Shots less than 5 feet away: 62.7% (4.3 FGAs) to 70.8% (4.8 FGAs)
  • Shots in restricted area: 67.2% (3.8 FGAs) to 70% (4.0 FGAs)
  • Shots in paint (non-restricted area): 47.5% (4.0 FGAs) to 58.8% (5.7 FGAs)

Whether he’s curling toward the basket out of elbow sets, coming off high screens with downhill intentions, or freezing defenders with a nasty little hesitation dribble, Booker has been getting to the cup and finishing strong all month:

Having extra spacing with Durant on the floor certainly hasn’t hurt, and KD was sure to let him know that he should stay in attack mode whenever they share the court.

“He’s such a gifted, talented offensive scorer that he can make plays for others, but he can create for himself,” Durant said. “So I felt that a couple of times last game, he had the one-on-one opportunity with not a lot of help, and I felt like he was going downhill and getting whatever he wanted. So we want to exploit that as much as possible, but he’s gonna play the right way regardless.”

The Suns have also found windows to attack in semi-transition, turning defensive stops or even opponents’ made baskets into opportunities for Booker to capitalize against a scrambling defense:

“We’ve made a point of trying to make the hit-ahead pass a lot more,” Williams explained. “But to do that, you have to get stops, and we try to get it ahead to the wings so they can attack. It’s one of the best opportunities to attack.”

According to NBA.com, Booker has shot 69.4 percent this month on “very early” 2-point shots with 22-18 seconds left on the shot clock, as well as 67.4 percent on “early” 2s with 18-15 seconds left. Leading up to March, he was at 56.6 percent on “very early” 2s and 45.5 percent on “early” 2s.

Forcing the issue in semi-transition and driving into the paint in general usually comes with physical punishment, but Booker has been finishing over and through contact.

“I think he’s gotten so much stronger since I’ve been here,” Williams said. “The weight room focus has been something that he’s always been dialed in on, but the last three, four years, his body is starting to mature in a way where he can take that hit and still finish. A lot of younger guys can’t take the hit and finish, they go down. Book’s been going through guys a lot this year, and a lot of that is probably because of the weight room work.”

Not only is Booker finishing at a high clip around the basket, but he’s seen a promising uptick in free-throw attempts too. That issue got more attention after the Suns’ free-throw discrepancy blew up and Williams was fined $20,000 for criticizing NBA officiating, but Booker said nothing has really changed with his approach.

“I think they’re just noticing it,” he said of earning more respect from officials. “I’ve really been playing the same way all season, it feels like.”

Whether it’s a direct result of Williams’ down payment or Booker finally getting the superstar whistle he deserves, he’s increased his free-throw attempts from 6.3 per game before March to 7.8 per game over the last month. That’s particularly impressive considering he was working with cramped spacing during Durant’s absence.

“Just need a little space,” he lamented over that stretch. “There’s not much of it out there, especially with Kev out. Obviously teams are gonna be more focused in on it, so just tougher shots, finding my spots and trying to get to the free-throw line.”

Devin Booker’s midrange prowess

Devin Booker being an elite midrange scorer is hardly an earth-shattering revelation, but he’s been even deadlier from his favorite spots lately. Over the last month, he’s increased his frequency of shots 4-14 feet away from the basket from 27 percent to 33 percent, and he’s taken a staggering 56 percent of his shots from the midrange in general.

Fortunately, he’s made 59 percent of those short midrange looks (which ranks in the 98th percentile at his position) and 56 percent of his middies overall (96th percentile).

The footwork, the ball-handling, the patience with a defender on his hip, the silky turnaround jumper — all of the aesthetic beauty of Booker’s midrange game has been on full display. Just soak in some of the incredibly tough shots he’s hit over the last few weeks:

“It’s amazing, bro, his shot-making is elite,” Ross said. “He’s an amazing three-level scorer, plays on both sides of the ball, but his shot-making is jaw-dropping sometimes, the things that he’s able to do. When he gets to his spot, you just know that he’s in rhythm, he’s gonna make that shot.”

In March, Booker shot a red-hot 57.9 percent on pull-up 2s, navigating through a crowded interior to get to his spots. For context, Booker made 48.5 percent of his pull-up 2s before March.

“I’d say just every shot’s different,” he said. “Just shooting from different pockets, being able to bring it right, bring it left. It’s just, scoring’s an art, so there’s so many different ways to do it.”

Booker has been scoring every way possible all season, bringing his average up to a career-high 28.1 points per game on 60.2 percent true shooting. With Durant back in the fold, his driving lanes, midrange opening and even 3-point spacing figures to improve even more.

“It’s gonna be a problem,” Booker said. “Just less attention on each one of us. A lot of teams have one good defender or two good defenders, and now you’re gonna have to try to find where you’re gonna put them. Who are you gonna put ’em on?”

Devin Booker finally getting open 3s

Remember that hit-ahead pass? It isn’t just paying dividends on full-throttle drives to the rim. While Booker’s 3-point attempts dipped from 6.2 per game before March to 5.3 per game this month, his efficiency shot up from 34.7 percent to 40 percent.

So although Book is only shooting 32.6 percent on pull-up triples this month (right on par with his output for the rest of the season), he’s finding openings to fire away in semi-transition or after a made basket.

According to NBA.com, Booker has shot 11-for-19 (57.9 percent) on “very early” 3s within 22-18 seconds on the shot clock this month, and 3-for-8 (37.5 percent) on “early” 3s within 18-15 seconds.

More importantly, however, is how many more catch-and-shoot 3s he received in March. Part of that is a product of having Kevin Durant out there, giving Book the type of space on the backside to launch the types of wide-open 3s he’s rarely enjoyed in his NBA career.

“It makes it a lot easier,” Booker said. “Less attention on me, less attention on Chris and the other guys, and we all know how to play the game. I said before, I think our games complement each other very well. We’re all unselfish players that know how to play the game the right way, but also have the ability to do, I think, very talented things out there.”

With or without Durant, the Suns have also done a nice job of generating weak-side 3s for Booker lately, lifting him up from the corner and catching his defender off-guard with a quick little screen. When Durant has been on the floor, Phoenix’s double drag screens and post-ups for KD generate quick ball movement, usually leading to a high-quality look for Booker on the second side:

So even though Booker has taken fewer 3s this month, he’s taken more catch-and-shoot triples on a per game basis. His efficiency has skyrocketed too, jumping from 40.8 percent on catch-and-shoot looks before March to 54.8 percent over the last month.

“For whatever reason, Book’s been on the backside and he’s getting a lot of open looks on the backside,” Williams said. “A lot of it is just having Kevin on the floor, some of it is the fact that we just move the ball and get it to the second side. We just gotta keep doing it.”

The numbers agree:

Devin Booker was already torching opponents’ best defenders; now that Durant will command those assignments, Book might just go full supernova against their second-best defenders.

“It’s a really good feeling,” he said. “And not only that, not even the defender, just the spacing overall and the gravity of the game. It’s even more now than ever where teams are just gonna have to pick your poison.”

Ahead of a playoff run with championship aspirations, Booker is rounding into form at the perfect moment. He’s helping make Durant’s transition even smoother, and he’s making the Suns look even more dangerous in the process.

“He just wants to kill and eat,” Williams said. “That’s who Book is. He’s just a nut….I see it in his workouts, I see it in the focus and film session, you see it on the floor. There’s a hunger. He’s chasing something, and it gives our team a lot of juice.”

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