Suns building blocks: Devin Booker doing his part on defense

Jul 26, 2019, 3:09 PM | Updated: 7:38 pm
Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns looks on during the game against the Boston Celtics at TD Garde...
Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns looks on during the game against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden on December 19, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The Phoenix Suns will exit the 2019 offseason with their young core clear. While some pieces are more proven than others, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Devin Booker, Cameron Johnson and Kelly Oubre Jr. are all under the age of 24 and will shape how the next three years go for Phoenix as it leaves the rebuilding phase.

Empire of the Suns will take a look at key areas of improvement for each young piece, ending with the franchise star addressing his biggest weakness.

Devin Booker has already more than proven himself for the Phoenix Suns and he’s going to continue to do so next season.

He’s one of the best guards in the NBA, and I don’t have to put “offensive” in front of guards because he’s so outstanding on offense that it counterbalances his defensive woes.

On top of that, the shocking lack of talent and proven commodities Booker was not surrounded by in his last two seasons carrying the team forced him to do nearly everything on offense. Would you have the energy and desire to be locked in as a defender while putting up some of the best statistical seasons by a young guard ever as you’re down by 20-plus in the first half again?

I’ve been willing to give Booker that aside. I think it’s fair. But now that the Suns have adopted the concept of bringing in “proven and capable basketball players,” the Suns are going to be the most competitive they’ve ever been in Booker’s four years as a Sun and that means his defense needs to step up.

Booker has earned the label throughout his career as an awful defender because he gets disengaged too often.

Note the scoreline on this one, but still, yeesh.

Can’t say he hasn’t earned it.

With that being said, maybe things change now that he’s got a real roster, a real point guard and so on.

So, how did it look last year when the Suns were competing?

Focusing on a stretch late last season where the Suns won four of five games, a run you’d expect Booker to be engaged defensively in, and well, it was a mixed bag.

The bad was still seeping through.

Here’s a weak swipe at the ball, some not moving and a huge closeout to try and make up for bad positioning because of said not moving.

Gotta do better on this one to get around Tyson Chandler setting a “hey I’m just gonna stand here” screen.

What might be the signature bad habit of the terrible Suns defensive teams in Booker’s time on the team is over-helping.

In what shouldn’t be a surprise, these guys are ultra-competitive and when they’re putting together a string of good play, everyone wants to be locked in on both ends.

But time after time, guys getting antsy and jumping on unnecessary defensive rotations leaves a fatal wound in all the hard work done prior.

Booker has his fair share of those.

On this possession, Booker is zoned in on the ball and sees that Ayton is going to have to step up on the ball-handler to deny the basket. Booker sees it as his responsibility to grab Hassan Whiteside and make sure he doesn’t have a free dunk.

There are multiple things wrong on this read, with an asterisk I want to add that the Suns’ schemes or a specific gameplan might have warranted this. That, too, has been a problem for Phoenix’s defenses.

Anyway, click play one more time. You’ll see that Oubre doesn’t even get beat that bad. He’s still there on his man. Secondly, Oubre is right next to Whiteside, as is Ayton, so there’s not much the ball-handler can do from that touch. Third, Booker is behind Whiteside hugging him, so his best option would be to try and foul him from behind. Fourth, that shooter in the corner is Duncan Robinson, a specialist who is only out there for his shooting.

Credit to Josh Jackson and Tyler Johnson, who make the necessary defensive rotations to make up for this and at least give Robinson a light contest and cutoff the obvious extra pass to Kelly Olynyk on the strong-side wing.

Another example of the same brainfart against the Knicks.

Oh &*^* that’s Kevin Durant! Cut off the lane! Even though Ayton already does too!

To file this one under another instance where Booker is trying to help but goofs, he’s making sure the directions are clear to his youngins and then he turns his head back towards Klay Thompson as he’s running away. Whoopsie.

I chose to include that one because it’s partially amusing but also shows how quickly things can fall apart off the ball. Booker probably saw what the Warriors were going to run — that didn’t involve Thompson and wanted to make sure the lads were aware. It’s classic Warriors for Klay to run an impromptu action and the reactions from Draymond Green (passer) and DeMarcus Cousins (screen setter) reflect that was the case.

Those are the little instances that make assistant coaches punch their notebooks on the bench because a few of those a game is all it takes to lose to a very, very good team.

Those are the wins the Suns will need to eventually become a playoff team. Booker is a great enough offensive talent to offset those but it would be such a huge added bonus if he was moderately passable on defense. That’s all we’re asking for!

And here’s the thing: he’s very capable of doing so.

There’s a myth about Booker that he doesn’t possess the right attributes to be a good defender. That’s lazy garbage. He’s quick enough, strong enough and has shown the competitive edge to be that.

Here on Dion Waiters, Booker sniffs out the screen coming. He gets low, ready to wiggle around the screen coming from Whiteside. He knows from experience that type of shot from that angle is tough for Waiters, so he doesn’t contest too strongly and makes sure he doesn’t get beat off the dribble.

A huge problem for bad perimeter defenders, like Booker has been, is “dying” on screens. He didn’t die on that one and managed to get over it too. That’s good stuff.

Staying on that note, check out Booker’s rim (!) protection (!) here after a scramble leaves him on Bam Adebayo inside. This is just an awesome finish by Waiters.

We’ve seen the glimpses over his short career.

Even if Booker isn’t good defensively next season, as long as he’s there working with everyone else it’ll be fine.

To go back to dying on screens, he does it here, but works hard to recover back and try to contain the pocket pass to the rolling big. It’s just Oubre falling asleep off-ball (remember that?) that dooms this possession.

Because the Suns have Ricky Rubio, Bridges and Oubre, Booker is always going to be left to the easiest defensive assignment, likely a floor spacer as we saw above occasionally on Robinson or Reggie Bullock.

Teams will still target him to exhaust him even more, and some nights he does have to guard Thompson because there isn’t any other option. But it’s mostly looking at Booker not to be the crutch as the defense looks to upgrade to tolerable next season.

It’s time for him to do his part on that end. Booker has improved every season at an impressive rate. All of that came on offense. It’s time for the jump he’s capable of as a defender for a real push towards winning basketball.

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