EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Should Las Vegas take Devin Booker’s potential greatness more seriously?

Aug 6, 2018, 6:36 PM | Updated: 7:00 pm

Devin Booker, right, drives into Kevin Durant during a training camp for USA Basketball, Friday, Ju...

Devin Booker, right, drives into Kevin Durant during a training camp for USA Basketball, Friday, July 27, 2018, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

(AP Photo/John Locher)

This past week, the offseason aftermath of the NBA comes with the first over/under win totals filtering through Las Vegas and other outlets.

ESPN’s projections have the Phoenix Suns at 27 wins for next season. Las Vegas’ Westgate has the Suns at 28.5 wins. A varying number in the 26-29 win range is the consensus.

It does not take a tiring journey to arrive at the logical conclusion of these numbers, but at the same time, 21-year-old shooting guard Devin Booker has been improving rapidly every year and just came off a third-year season that has rarely been seen.

Booker’s line last year: 24.9 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 4.7 APG, 56.1 TS%

If we qualify a 24-4-4 line for third-year players in NBA history, we get a list of 15 players from Basketball-Reference, including Booker. Ten are in the Hall of Fame, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are on their way there and early-peakers Derrick Rose and Mark Aguirre round out the list.

You know by now, but if we change the qualifier of league experience to the age of 21 instead, it’s just Booker, James, Tracy McGrady and Michael Jordan.

Let’s play a little game of projection and focus again on the 24-4-4. Let’s make a slightly reasonable assumption Booker can bump his PPG by at least 0.1, his rebounds by 0.5 and his assists up another 0.3. At the age of 22 in his fourth year, let’s say Booker averages 25-5-5 or more.

The only three players in the last 15 years to average that before they turned 25, let alone 23, are James, Wade and McGrady.

At a certain point, despite the players around them, a star player will hit a level of greatness that can carry underwhelming rosters to a certain level of winning.

James carried terrible rosters above .500 all those years, Wade won 52 and T-Mac’s three years of the line posted win totals of 44, 42 and 21.

One more left hand turn down Basketball-Reference and then we will be finished.

Looking past assists and rebounds, let’s centralize on great, young volume scorers. If Booker averages at least 25 points per game at the age of 22 on a 55 true shooting percentage or better, he would be one of six players to do so in the last 16 seasons. Carmelo Anthony’s Nuggets won 45 games, Kevin Durant got to 55, James was at 50, Amar’e Stoudemire was at 62 and Derrick Rose also won 62.

Now, I know what you’re going to say.

“Kellan, LeBron James is one of the two best basketball players of all time. D-Wade had Shaq. KD had Russ. Amar’e had Nash. D-Rose had … Carlos Boozer? A terrible Eastern Conference? Ah, screw it, you get my point! Quit it!”

Booker doesn’t have any of that. The roster around him is young and is relying on Trevor Ariza, Brandon Knight and T.J. Warren as the experienced, consistent veteran presences in the rotation. Booker also has a first-year head coach with no prior NBA head coaching experience.

The advanced stats that are meant to portray winning contributions really don’t like Booker, either. To go back to the initial list of 15 players, Booker’s 2.4 win shares are by far the lowest on the list. His box plus/minus (BPM, a box-score based statistic) of 0.4 is also way down there. His value over replacement player (VORP) of 1.2 shares the same basement dwelling among those great, young seasons.

But, let’s examine last year a bit closer.

After Eric Bledsoe was traded and Earl Watson got fired, the Suns were 14-20 in games Booker played up until mid-January. Next was a three-game stretch he shot a combined 11-of-42, the same rumored starting point of a nagging hand issue that saw him sit out the last 12 games.

That winning pace, alone, is over 30 games and that last victory in Denver on Jan. 19 had him starting with Tyler Ulis (waived), Warren (the Suns drafting Josh Jackson and Mikal Bridges at his position back-to-back years should tell you something), Dragan Bender (massively underachieving top-five pick) and Tyson Chandler (the Suns acquired Richaun Holmes for a reason). Booker had 30 points, five, rebounds, five assists, a block and a steal while shooting 11-of-23 from the field in the win.

Need I say more?

Booker has gotten dramatically better every year and he will very likely take another jump forward in the 2018-19 season.

This summer, Booker spent a few days with Team USA, running 1-on-1 drills and more with Kevin Durant and company. That was less about Booker getting the respect of his peers. He already has it. This is more about Booker realizing what it takes to be truly great right when he is ready to make the leap towards a surefire All-Star guard.

The Western Conference is impossible, but you know what, so is denying Booker’s path to stardom.

At some point, he is going to be too good to lose over 50 games no matter who is playing alongside him, let alone 40-to-45 games and missing the playoffs.

Is that point next season? It very well could be, and from all indications across projection land, no one is ready for it except him.

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Should Las Vegas take Devin Booker’s potential greatness more seriously?