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Putting Devin Booker’s season into perspective

AP Photo/David Zalubowsk
AP Photo/David Zalubowski

To say that people keep shoveling coal into the engine of the Devin Booker Hype Train since the start of 2016 would be an understatement.

SB Nation’s Tom Ziller used him as the centerpiece to say that getting superstars doesn’t have to mean tanking. He snuck into the last spot on SI’s Top 100. The young Kentucky product has been called a future All-Star by everyone from BBALLBREAKDOWN to LeBron James.

Booker, as with several other young players, has been swept up into budding star status so quickly that it’s easy to lose sight of what’s actually happening in the moment. A few people have poured cold water on the wildfire of Booker love, given his less-than-stellar overall statistics:

Booker’s season statistics are certainly not where an observer might expect, or a fan would want. He’s nearly a 20-point scorer, but he’s shooting 41 percent from the floor and 34 percent from behind the arc. He’s also averaging as many assists as turnovers.

Calling Booker’s early season performance disappointing relative to his expectations is very fair. The bigger question is whether the expectations were realistic.

One of the underplayed variables of Booker’s hype this season was the coach, Earl Watson. Unless you’re an elite talent, how a player is used in a new system goes a long way to determining his statistical production. If you want proof of this, go look at Nick Young’s stats this season under Luke Walton and prepare to have your mind blown.

Unlike Young, whose value has been maximized by the system, Booker is not enhanced by Watson’s scheme. He’s isolating at more than double the frequency of last season. He’s eighth in iso possessions per game. The percentage of his field goals that are assisted has gone down from 54 percent to 44 percent. The percentage of his shots where he is defended very tightly or tightly is up from 61 percent to 67 percent.

The results of turning Booker into Kobe Bryant are…decent, statistically. His 1.11 points per possession rank second in the top eight isolation players. He’s also shooting better on pull-ups than catch-and-shoots, though most of that is shooting 20 percent on two-point field goals in catch-and-shoot situations.

The complaints come from the fact that the Booker-isolation game is so relentlessly used as a fallback for Watson when the Suns can’t get any good action on offense. Even when Booker does isolate, there’s no creativity. No fake off-ball screens or distracting action. Everyone just stands around.

Here, Tyson Chandler sort of tries to get Booker space and then the whole team just leaves him on the island for several seconds:

 

Here again, Chandler makes a minor effort to roll to the rim, but his defender just stares straight at Booker, and they corral him into a double team. Without a lane to the rim, Booker just flings an off-balance jumper:

 

The problems with Phoenix’s offense go beyond running too much simple isolation. There’s a deeper problem, one that existed under Jeff Hornacek and still prevails. The Suns pass a lot, but they don’t get good ball movement. There’s a key difference there.

Phoenix is 12th in passes made but 28th in assists and potential assists. They pass the ball, but there’s not enough mobility and action to generate quality looks. It’s pass, dribble, pass, dribble, pass, dribble until the red clock runs out.

The reason this seems to be a coaching issue is the Suns can get good action in the half court with their roster. Eric Bledsoe can drive-and-kick. Brandon Knight is a good passer. Dragan Bender was hailed for his playmaking coming into the NBA. Jared Dudley is a seasoned vet who can keep the ball moving.

When the Suns do get going on offense, it has a lot to do with dribble penetration, especially from Bledsoe. When Bledsoe goes full steam to the rim, it compels defenders to give chase, especially in transition. Here, Bledsoe blows through the lane and gets all the focus to him, leaving Booker with plenty of room from above the break:

 

The problem is that the Suns aren’t able to capitalize on this pressure at the rim. Because of how fast and forceful they are, they lead the league in points per game from drives, but they’re mediocre in field goal percentage and 28th in assists.

As for Booker, the discouraging thing is that he can be a self-made scorer if given just a modicum of help. He’s not the biggest or most agile guy, but he’s good enough to make the most of a sliver of space if he can get one:

 

In this instance, Chandler commits himself fully to the screen and takes E’Twaun Moore head on. That contact sets off a sort of chain reaction, allowing Booker to be one move ahead of his challenger. When Moore gets himself on balance at the point of the shot, Booker has already loaded up. When Moore is set up to face Booker, he’s already taken the step back to give himself room for the clutch shot.

In another example, the Suns get a quick touch pass to swing the ball to the left corner after the Wizards’ defense has rotated towards Bledsoe:

 

Even though it takes a while for them to get into the set, they manage to get a good pair of crisp passes to the best shot. Throw in a little inside blocking by P.J. Tucker and one can see the makings of a good offensive possession.

That’s the sort of action the Suns need to run with Booker. He can create, but he’s also compared to Klay Thompson for a reason. The Suns have players who can feed him off drives and get him quick pull-ups off screens. They just don’t do it enough.

Now, it’s not fair to say that Booker is just the abused puppy in this situation. Coaching matters a lot, especially to a 20-year old kid with a lot on his shoulders. However, it’s ultimately a game played by the players, and as an individual, Booker could be doing better.

One of the lesser-known elements of Booker’s season is that he’s finished horribly at the rim. He’s shooting 42 percent under the basket, a place where the league average is 55 percent.

Part of this, and indeed his struggles this season, have been lower body injuries. He dealt with turf toe early in the season and also has been struggling with a sore knee. A healthy Booker can definitely be more explosive at the rim.

There’s more to it than health, though. Booker has had 13 shots blocked from less than five feet, often on transition drives or short fadeaways. His decision-making on the attack has not been great.

The eye test behind this is interesting. Booker is a decent passer and seems to be very aware of himself and his teammates on the floor. What it looks like he’s much more liable to miss in his peripherals is the opposition.

This play is a good example. He thinks he’s free to shoot the pull-up because he got a step over Otto Porter, but Porter is still well within range to disrupt him:

 

This lack of awareness leads to Booker taking some unnecessarily tough shots outside of his isolation sets. It’s not like J.R. Smith where he knows he’s guarded and could care less. He looks like he’s trying really hard to seek out a good shot, he just falls into thinking the one he takes is better than it actually is.

Booker is also a little more confident with his back to the basket than he probably should be. He’s very good at posting up smaller guards (He’s eaten Emanuel Mudiay in the post in both games against Denver). However, when faced with someone of equal or greater size, Booker can fall in love with the turnaround a little too much:

 

Booker doesn’t face-up Gerald Henderson and tries to dribble past him for a long while. Instead, he’s looking hard for that turnaround shot. Joel Embiid is guarding the rim, but a dribble past Henderson and a floater over Embiid would make for a much easier shot.

After 1,000 words mostly about his struggles in the early season, there is one thing worth hammering in: Devin Booker is still really good at basketball. When he gets going, and the Suns get him openings to score, he can take over the point totals almost on his own. He’s a gem find for Phoenix and has a bright future in this league.

That said, whenever a young star does arise, it’s important to keep perspective on his limits, imperfections, and timetable for growth. Booker has to do a lot for his team and, at a young age, is still an unknown quantity as to who he is as a professional basketball player.

Maybe he’ll break through with this isolating and became the next Kobe, or maybe the Suns will gravitate towards his nature, and he’ll be the next Klay Thompson. Regardless, there’s still some patchwork both he and his team can do to help him reach as high as he can go.

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