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When Devin Booker is out, Suns want to get Deandre Ayton the ball more

Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) looks to pass as Dallas Mavericks forward Dwight Powell (7) defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, in Phoenix. The Suns won 121-100. (AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX — Through four games of the season, Phoenix Suns shooting guard Devin Booker has a 32.8 usage percentage, the second-highest mark in the NBA.

Booker, though, strained his left hamstring on Wednesday against the Los Angeles Lakers. His status is day-to-day and he is out for Saturday’s game against Memphis. The Suns also play the day after in Oklahoma City.

That means the offensive focus will have to go elsewhere, and the Suns will look more toward No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton with that in mind.

Booker not playing wasn’t official yet after practice on Friday when head coach Igor Kokoskov spoke, but he did discuss Ayton’s role expanding.

“We’re not changing completely what we’re doing but we mentioned that very first day of training camp that [Ayton] is our second-best playmaker and we play-make for our bigs,” he said. “Bigs have to catch the ball, not just in the post necessarily, but at the high post, on top of the key and play-make for other guys on the weak side.

“That’s how we play anyway but Book dominates the game so a lot of times we can’t see it. Now it’s gonna be more obvious. We’re gonna use Deandre as one of our best play-makers now.”

As a 7-foot-1 operator down low, Ayton actually presents some challenges in that regard because of how unique he is. There aren’t many situations where players are running their offense through a big, so it’s been an acclimation process Kokoskov has talked about since Flagstaff.

The coach called it “on-timely targets” for the way they need to find the big fella.

“That’s something we have to find with ball space and passing on target on time,” Kokoskov said.

When Kokoskov alluded to earlier regarding Phoenix not “changing completely” what the offense is, that’s because Ayton is involved right away.

Whether it’s a quick touch at the top of the key that leads to a dribble handoff, or Ayton setting a few screens off the ball, he’s not just standing around.

That’s why the timing of his openings is crucial.

“For us to initiate and start a play, he has the ball first, and that’s a challenge for our guys,” Kokoskov said.

The balancing act for Ayton becomes sensing those chances to strike when they are there. While the scoring production is certainly there with 16.8 points per game while shooting over 60 percent, Ayton’s individual post touches have been hit or miss and are a department he will be busier in this weekend.

By default, Ayton likes to be patient when he receives the ball. He will take a look around the floor and assess his opportunities from there.

That’s a great quality in a young big, especially one that passes like Ayton because if he sees the help coming somewhere, the ball is already on the way to the shooter that help is leaving.

Here, Ayton takes a peek at the help defense on the weak-side defenders and lets Booker get through the lane. Once Booker is done with his motion, it’s time to go to work.

This was his most promising post touch so far. Watch Ayton have the baseline on Lakers big Jonathan Williams and fake the spin once to see how he reacts. No bite, so he uses his quickness and gets the edge.

The adjustment for Ayton is going to be what happens when his initial plan doesn’t fall into place.

He backs down Warriors center Damian Jones here, doesn’t gain much ground and then fades as he puts up his hook shot.

How about passing opportunities after he gets going? This is a great-looking move on Denver’s Nikola Jokic, but he could stop after the spin and find Trevor Ariza in the corner. (Also note where Paul Millsap is as T.J. Warren’s defender. Let’s hope that jumper sticks for Warren.)

All these quirks and adjustments needed are to be expected. Ayton is a 20-year-old rookie center who played power forward in college, and his individual 1-on-1 offense was never his strongest skill at Arizona.

What a back-to-back on the road presents is a chance for him to get more volume in that area and improve. Best of all, he’s going to be facing some great defensive bigs on Memphis’ Marc Gasol (if he plays) and Jaren Jackson Jr., along with Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams.

Ayton has mentioned after every game this season how he specifically has learned something and he’s going to learn a lot more as a post scorer this weekend.

BOOKER UPDATE

Booker spoke with the media on Friday to provide an update on his hamstring. He did not participate in practice.

“I’m feeling better,” he said. “Went home, slept and felt better the next day. Still not all the way there yet, though, so I heard it’s day-to-day, nothing serious, so that’s good.”

Kokoskov said it was not a major injury for Booker. The shooting guard noted the hamstring is a little sore and wants “for it to feel normal” before he plays.

“It’s progressed,” Booker said. “Hopefully keep doing treatment on the plane, do it overnight and hopefully tomorrow it feels a lot better.”

Booker has managed to keep getting nicked up since the start of last year.

He had a right knee issue, a back and hip issue, a left adductor strain, a right rib contusion, a left hop pointer and the right hand injury that had him miss the last stretch of the season.

This season, he had surgery on that right hand less than two months before the opener, sprained his left pinky finger and now has the strained left hamstring.

That must be difficult for Booker, who is so important to his team and carries quite the load, but he said it comes with the territory.

“I always say nobody is out here just playing healthy so there’s always going to be nicks, bumps and bruises,” he said. “Just limiting those the best you can and control what you can control.”


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