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Devin Booker’s 3rd season will show how valid hype train is

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker throws one of his game shoes to the crowd as part of Fan Appreciation Night following an NBA basketball game against the Dallas Mavericks, Sunday, April 9, 2017, in Phoenix. The Suns defeated the Mavericks 124-111. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)
AP Photo/Ralph Freso

Devin Booker dropped 70 points in an NBA game at the age of 20. Sure, the Phoenix Suns cooked the books a bit in that game to make it happen. In a game they were going to lose, they fouled to extend the game to get Booker more attempts at scoring. A special night was going to become a more historic night, no matter what. Some of the NBA chastised the Suns for celebrating a loss in that way, even despite the 70-point performance. But to be in a position for that to happen in the first place is truly remarkable.

Through two years of NBA play, Booker often looks like the real deal. He shoots the ball extremely well and seems like a natural scorer. We often see a lot of qualifiers thrown into superlatives with him, reminding us of his young age during all of these building moments. Booker’s shortcomings are often dismissed because of his age, just as his accomplishments are bolstered by it. The age of Booker doesn’t matter as much, though, because nobody is guaranteed a cutoff or boost for development. The most intriguing thing about Booker centers on his position.

The shooting guard is the weakest traditional position in the NBA. Its lack of depth, along with the emphasis on versatility, has led to a lot of positional dialect being changed. Now we have a lead guard, wings and bigs. But Booker fits the bill of the traditional shooting guard mold. He can fill it up from all over the floor, shoots extremely well from deep, and has that typical 6-foot-6 frame. He doesn’t quite have the versatility yet (he’s still so young!) to be able to swap against most wings, and he isn’t quite the playmaker to be a lead guard.

Until his game expands, Booker exists in the traditional role with big-time firepower. And there’s actually nothing wrong with that right now. While versatility and positionality are fluid concepts in today’s NBA, a flat-out shooter and scorer still brings high value. As Booker enters his third season in the NBA, he has a chance to clean up some questions about his game. He also has the chance to turn what he does really well into an elite weapon teams have no choice but to game plan against.

Let’s take a look at what Booker has shown us outside the 70-point game and his age.

What we’ve seen from him so far

Halfway through Booker’s rookie season, the Suns realized it didn’t make sense to keep bringing the young guard off the bench. He showed flashes here and there while his 3-point accuracy was through the roof coming off the bench. For 25 games as a reserve, Booker knocked down a ridiculous 62.2 percent from deep (just 37 attempts). His usage rate hovered around 17.0 percent as the Suns seemingly eased him into NBA life. He started 49 of the final 50 games of his rookie season. Not only did his minutes increase, but his usage made a huge jump.

Booker went from being an occasional sniper in the second unit to a real weapon for Phoenix’s main scheme. He had a 24.4 percent usage while averaging 17.4 points, 3.5 assists and 3.0 rebounds. His true shooting percentage plummeted 10 percent from reserve to starter, mostly due to his 3-point shot becoming shaky (more on that in a bit). But his newfound role became invaluable. In his second season, he was a full-time starter and the No. 1 option on his team. He put up 22.1 points per game, started righting the ship on his true shooting percentage, and became much more comfortable in certain scoring situations.

Check out the comparison of his Synergy Sports possession breakdown from his first two seasons. The big jumps in his scoring efficiency happened in spot-up shooting and isolation scoring:

Outside of spot-ups and isolation, we haven’t seen a ton of change in the efficiency of Booker’s scoring. The biggest disappointment comes in the pick-and-roll creation, and he’s surprisingly bad coming off screens and scoring in hand-off situations. A lot of these dips in efficiency come from poor 3-point shooting, which is surprising, considering his reputation.

Let’s take a look at Booker as a 3-point shooter.

A special but inconsistent type of shooter

Wild swings in his accuracy

There are times in which it’s fair to wonder if Booker is one of those good shooters who can’t shoot. Well, “can’t shoot” is extreme, but his streakiness makes you wonder just how lethal he is. Some people seem to want to throw him out there with elite historic shooters. He might be more of a Cuttino Mobley-type of shooter — a guy who can get stupid hot from deep but year-to-year sees a real rollercoaster in his shooting percentages. Either way, Booker as a weapon from outside will still strike fear into opponents.

The confusing thing about analyzing the first two seasons of his shooting is how all over the place his accuracy is. Just looking at the 3-point line breakdowns from his rookie season to sophomore season, the only real consistent area on the court is the top of the arc. In 698 3-point attempts into his career, Booker has made 35.4 percent of those shots. He was below league average (35.6 percent over last two years) as a rookie (34.3 percent) and just above it as a second-year player (36.3 percent).

As a rookie, he was solid from the left side of the floor and struggled a lot from the right wing. In his second season, his percentages hit poverty level on the left side of the floor, and he was the Monopoly Man on the right side:

It’s mostly a month-to-month thing with Booker, too. His rookie season saw incredible accuracy early on (as mentioned above) and then an extreme dip after he became a full-time starter. That’s understandable for a rookie dealing with the new focus of defensive scouting reports in an expanded role. In his second season, he started slow and then got stupid hot in January and February. He crushed 43.2 percent of his 3-point shots in those two months before falling off a cliff in the final 19 games of the season (33.6 percent).

I’m not sure how much to glean out of the inconsistencies of his 3-point shooting in the first two seasons. We saw similar inconsistency from Mobley in his first two seasons. We saw Ray Allen a bit up and down from deep in his first four seasons in the NBA. But those were much different times with an emphasis on outside shooting. Bradley Beal and Klay Thompson both shot extremely high percentages right away and stayed consistent.

The biggest key moving forward will involve Booker finding his comfort zone in creating quality looks from deep and remaining consistent with those motions.

Don’t ever leave him

One thing that will make Booker and Suns fans feel better about him as a shooter is that he shreds defenses when they leave him. It sounds like an obvious thing, but we typically see streakiness from streaky shooters even when they’re left open. Booker doesn’t have that problem. Through his first two seasons, Booker left “wide open” (6 feet of room or more) by the defense has resulted in John Wick levels of shooting accuracy. On those attempts, he’s knocked down 40.1 percent of his 3-pointers.

As a rookie, we saw a confusing split with his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. On guarded attempts, he hit 40.7 percent compared to just 31.0 percent on unguarded. As a sophomore, those levels of accuracy flipped. Booker knocked down just 31.1 percent of guarded catch-and-shoot 3-pointers and 49.3 percent on unguarded. As a spot-up shooter, a big part of Booker’s improvement year-to-year came from his 3-point accuracy. He knocked down 34.1 percent of his spot-up 3-pointers as a rookie. That percentage jumped to 41.3 percent in his second season. Mostly, Booker found better ways to create space for himself by making little adjustments against a roving help defender.

Booker still has a long way to go in finding comfort shooting quality 3-pointers consistently. But it’s good to know that he’ll make the defense pay when it swarms Eric Bledsoe, Josh Jackson and anybody else on the Suns who can create a defensive rotation decision.

Struggles a lot in the pick-and-roll

For Booker to become a true star shooting guard, he’ll eventually have to create in the pick-and-roll. So much of NBA offenses revolve around PnR possessions, and Booker has been horrendous at them in his first two seasons. As a rookie, he showed a surprising ability to make plays for others out of these situations. But in terms of making plays for himself, he just couldn’t get good, consistent scoring opportunities.

Booker created 79.9 points per 100 possessions as a rookie PnR scorer. Factor in his passing in the PnR and that number jumped to 89.9 points per 100 possessions. His second season saw that efficiency fall to 77.8 and 84.1 points per 100 possessions, respectively. He was very bad at it the last two seasons. In 2015-16, Booker’s scoring efficiency ranked 32nd out of 50 players with at least 300 possessions. Booker had 304 possessions as a rookie PnR scorer.

In his second season, Booker (494 possessions) ranked dead last among the 22 players with at least 475 possessions. Take a look at the video and you can see just a lot of bad decisions. It often looks like he’s just trying to take shots he’s seen stars take on television, without actually setting them up for a chance at success. His footwork and balance are all over the place. He leaves his dribble too loose and needs to work on keeping it alive a bit longer to find better attempts:

 

All of these issues he has in the PnR are completely correctable. These aren’t glaring inefficiencies coming from a lack of talent or skill. He clearly has the skill to do a lot of this stuff. Booker just needs to keep sopping up experience and learning where he can hurt the defense in front of him. This will be a big season for him figuring that out.

The sneakiness of his post dominance

So far, a lot of this post skews a bit negative, and it isn’t intentional. The talent and potential of Booker exist on a high level in the NBA. But they still don’t grade on a curve in this league, and that valuable youth of his tends to show through inconsistency. That happens with most young players. There is a lot of good to his game too.

One of the gems of Booker’s offensive repertoire happens in the post. We don’t often see a shooting guard abusing players in the post. Occasionally, teams will find those strength mismatches and exploit what they can. However, seeing a shooting guard with 100 post-up possessions last season didn’t happen all that often. DeMar DeRozan, Dwyane Wade and Booker were the only shooting guards with at least 100 post-up possessions. It makes sense for DeRozan and Wade, because of their strength and lack of 3-point ability. Booker doesn’t appear all that NBA strong, and he can shoot from deep. That’s what makes his post work so intriguing:

 

The Suns sought out this type of mismatch a lot more in 2016-17. It worked, too. Booker scored 101.0 points per 100 possessions in the post, which was good for eighth in the NBA out of the 54 players with at least 100 possessions. Booker takes guards to the woodshed in the post. He has quick footwork and savant-like balance in every shot. He takes it to smaller guards and defenders his own size. It’s a brilliant adjustment the Suns can throw into their offense when it looks like he’s headed to the lower part of the court to come shooting off a screen.

What should we expect from him moving forward?

What will come of Booker and his offensive prowess in the third season? A lot of this might depend on how much the Suns believe they can win. They still have an extremely young roster built around Booker, Jackson, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. If Bledsoe remains healthy, Phoenix might be a tough out most nights. That creates better chances for Booker to take advantage of what the defense gives him.

The two things to look for most of all are consistency in his outside shooting and production in the pick-and-roll. Give him that, and the 70-point game becomes less novelty and more expectation. Not that anybody should ever expect someone to drop one, let alone multiple 70-point games in their career. That’s insanity. But for a player so young, it will look less flukey and more like the danger of letting him get into a rhythm.

Eventually, Booker won’t have the guise of “but he’s still so young” on his résumé. At that point, he should be one of the best scorers in the NBA and the prototypical shooting guard — no matter what we think about positions by then.

All stats via Synergy Sports and NBA.com.

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