When a team struggles through an 82-game season, it’s always important to find pockets of positivity. The campaign can be lost, but there can be parts within showing hope for a brighter future.
With all due respect to T.J. Warren and Alex Len — who both appear to have long and solid NBA careers ahead of them — 2015 first-round pick Devin Booker is the player that has the chance to change the fortunes of the Suns franchise.
It’s not often a player of Booker’s skill level falls to the 13th spot in the first round, but a confluence of circumstances led to Phoenix’s ability to pick him where they did.
First, this past draft was loaded. Outside of the Hornets taking Frank Kaminsky, you can see a reasonable argument for every pick in front of him. In a re-draft scenario, Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis go first and second — Booker would fall in the next group with D’Angelo Russell, Emmanuel Mudiay, Mario Hezonja, Willie-Cauley Stein, Stanley Johnson, Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Myles Turner.
The amount of talent listed above is wild.
Second, it was hard to know how good Booker actually was. Playing on a loaded Kentucky team limited what he was able to show. You were banking on him being able to translate what was seen in practices and workouts to live-game action. It’s not unreasonable to have some hesitation with that scenario.
The plan for Booker’s first season has been altered after a season-ending injury to guard Eric Bledsoe.
“We were trying to get Devin in bits and pieces,” said head coach Jeff Hornacek. “Obviously with Brandon (Knight) and Eric those two guys were playing the majority of the minutes. There was some back up time for Devin against bench guys and kind of get his feet wet. Without Eric he’s thrown to the fire and he’s done pretty well for a young guy put in that situation. I think that bodes well for his future and going down the line.”
Booker facing opposing teams’ better players in increased playing time hasn’t impacted him at all. He’s seen his minutes rise each month of the season and continued to have success. According to Nylon Calculus, his effective field goal percentage (accounts for twos and threes) actually jumps by 4.2 percent when playing against starters versus the bench.
There was no doubt about Booker’s ability to shoot coming with him to the higher-level league. His smooth mechanics and confident stroke have led to him making 25 of his first 50 three-point attempts. No rookie in NBA history has shot 50 percent or better from three with 50 or more attempts in his first season.
What’s changed the dynamic in regards to Booker is how quickly he’s proven to be more than just a shooter.
The numbers put together by Synergy Sports’ play charting illustrate how well-rounded Booker’s game has been.
“I just take what the defense gives me,” explained Booker. “If I post up while it’s a smaller defender on me I feel like I have the advantage. A lot of teams know the high three-point percentage I was shooting and they’re running me off the line a lot. That’s opened up the lane for me, opened it up for pull-ups or floaters or just get somebody else involved. When they run out fast at me I’m looking for a quick swing, things like that. It’s just a read, really.”
He’s proven to be extremely effective playing on and off the ball. That’s best shown by the fact he’s made 14-of-18 shot attempts off cuts — a preposterous percentage exemplifying his smarts at such a young age.
Booker’s level of efficiency stems from him actually not being aggressive enough.
“I think he’s not really forcing anything, said Hornacek. “Your points per possessions drops a lot if you have turnovers, if you take bad shots. In a way, we probably want him to do a little bit more and not worry about the points per possession. He’s a guy that can really score the ball. We think he’s sometimes too tentative when he has a shot, but he wants the better shot. Can’t fault that, he’s trying to get our guys better shots. He’s driving in there and making passes. He has the size at 6-6 to when he gets in the lane he can see over guys.”
From Booker’s perspective, it’s about finding the right balance. He’s trying to find the correct mix of fitting in versus overstepping what he feels is his place on the totem poll as a first-year player.
“It’s tough because I’m a rookie and you don’t want to force anything,” Booker said. “Being the young guy out there and taking a lot of shots, it’s not really a good look. I’ve always credited myself on playing the right way and playing with IQ. I feel like some shots they want me to shoot, I feel like I can get a better shot for somebody else. They say they rather me take that shot. I just listen to them trying to figure out that balance and knowing it’s going to come along.”
As Booker’s role and voice grow, this is the type of attitude that can help set the correct tone for a roster. If the best shooter on the team is willing to give up a good shot for a great shot, the lesser players have no excuse to not do the same.
How good Booker ends up being is not yet known, but he’s on the right path. He’s already shown more as a rookie than anyone expected. It’s important for the Suns to continue to leverage Booker’s skills into what they do schematically. He’s only taking 3.2 threes per 36 minutes, which will surely go up in time.
If this is the starting point of Booker’s career, it’s hard to not get excited about where it eventually ends up.
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