All of Devin Booker’s All-Star Weekend exploits looked quite cheery during this gloomy season, but in the end the attention might have done more harm than good — at least as the Phoenix Suns’ success is concerned.
The rookie said he accepted the beauty of the struggle moving forward, but so far, it’s been more difficult than anything the 19-year-old saw previous.
Booker has hit 8-of-30 shots in three games following the week off and since teammate Markieff Morris was dealt to the Washington Wizards.
Without Morris, Booker has become a magnet for opponents’ attention. And it didn’t help he’s so far faced two upper-tier perimeter defenders (Danny Green and J.J. Redick) and two guys he happened to beat in a tie-breaking round of All-Star Weekend’s Three-Point Contest (Redick and James Harden).
Phoenix’s first game out of the break, against the Houston Rockets, saw Booker shoot 3-for-11. His only makes came on a transition layup, off a defensive gamble by Trevor Ariza and ensuing breakdown and finally, thanks to a flop by Harden as he tried to follow Booker over a screen, leaving the rookie open.
“They made sure he didn’t touch the ball,” Suns interim coach Earl Watson said of his 19-year-old guard.
Yes, Booker even drew a valiant defensive effort from Harden, whose individual defensive efforts have caught much criticism in the last few years.
For Booker, there is good to come out of this.
The rookie is drawing attention away from his teammates. Unfortunately, they’re not doing enough to take advantage of that.
Just take this play for example: A set designed to use Booker as a decoy pulls four of the Rockets to the weak side corner as two Rockets attempt to follow him over Suns center Tyson Chandler and his man.
Jon Leuer doesn’t hit the open shot nor make an extra pass to take advantage of the confused defense.
So far, it appears teams would rather lightly show their big men to defend Booker handling the ball off pick-and-rolls.
This is unlike how they would cover a Klay Thompson or Stephen Curry. While Booker’s own players are hounding him over screens, he’s not yet become comfortable making bigs defend him.
Here, LaMarcus Aldridge drops down to stay in front Booker as Green recovers. Green wants to chase Booker, and even on his tail, the rookie has been quick to shoot mid-range jumpers off such plays.
Unfortunately, he’s not been hitting these shots.
More unfortunately, Suns opponents couldn’t care less about a screener like Kris Humphries rolling to the rim or stepping out for a mid-range jumper. San Antonio, likely, expects their weakside help would come if it’s the former and that Aldridge can easily recover if it’s the latter.
The Suns’ young star, however, did record six assists in the loss to the Spurs, making quick and timely decisions when San Antonio happened to come further out to trap him.
On Monday, it seems the Clippers learned of Booker’s tendencies. Instead of putting pressure on the guard, who has only three turnovers in the last three games, they sat bigs like DeAndre Jordan back, making Booker, again, take mid-range jumpers.
It’s hard to judge from afar, but perhaps Booker doesn’t give himself enough credit as a ball-handler and slasher.
Maybe he’s playing it too safe. Several occasions may have allowed him to use his body to keep Redick or Green on his back and attack the interior defense, making the big men make decisions: Do they attempt to stop the penetration or cover Booker’s cutting teammates?
Speaking of cutting, Booker has shown flashes of using scouting reports against themselves. Twice against the Clippers, he was blocked by Jordan but those came following a pretty strong-side backcut to fool Redick and a weakside cut into an opening in the paint.
Through just three post-All-Star games, we’re already seeing how much more difficult the Suns have made life on Booker by trading Morris. Mirza Teletovic, Leuer and Alex Len, among others, have been able to take advantage of it. Of course, it’s not enough to lead to wins.
It doesn’t appear Watson has put Booker in as many pick-and-roll situations as maybe former coach Jeff Hornacek would have. It’s a difficult and fine line to overwhelm a 19-year-old, after all.
Booker has enough on his plate working off the ball while learning a more pressing matter — defense.
The Suns might add more to the rookie’s plate as the season goes on.
One play in Los Angeles stood out, maybe because we hadn’t seen it much.
That would be Booker working on a basic pick-and-role with Teletovic, the other deadly shooter on the Suns. The result wasn’t surprising. Two Clippers chased Booker, who this time took the extra dribble to attack Teletovic’s man as the forward leaked out to the three-point line.
Booker made a smart read and executed the pass despite the attention on him. More of that, and the Suns’ rookie will only grow in confidence.