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With just enough help, Devin Booker is ready to carry the Suns to the playoffs

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns is introduced before the NBA game against the Utah Jazz at Talking Stick Resort Arena on October 28, 2019 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Jazz defeated the Suns 96-95. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

If there was one game of the Phoenix Suns’ terrific seven-game start to overreact to, or at least take the most stock in, it was Monday night’s win over the Philadelphia 76ers.

In a game featuring a five-time All-Star, a 22-year-old All-Star and a max contract player on the opposition, Devin Booker was the best player on the court. And it wasn’t even close.

Al Horford had 32 points, five rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block. Tobias Harris added 24 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and two steals. Ben Simmons had six points, five rebounds, six assists and seven steals. None of them were even flirting with being near Booker’s performance.

The circumstances of game flow matter beyond the better stat line for Booker.

The Suns’ offense was barely staying afloat through one half. Three-pointers and 76ers turnovers were bailing them out. Booker (and probably Monty Williams) sensed it, responding with 16 points in the third quarter and another 11 in the fourth.

This came following a half in which Booker played the highest level of defense we’ve ever seen from him.

The physicality, lateral quickness and smarts here on this specific possession is All-League defense. That’s not to say Booker will be that type of defender, but who knew he was capable of such?

When Booker picked up his fourth foul in the third, all he needed was a little spurt from the bench to keep things close until he was able to return. Tyler Johnson provided that, as did Ricky Rubio, and then Booker created 14 straight points over five minutes in crunch time to seal the deal.

It was the best game Booker has ever played in Phoenix. He had 40 points on 19 shots in his top defensive performance and should have had 8-10 assists, but the Suns weren’t making shots off the double-teams. Through three quarters, there was no secondary scoring option emerging. Rubio ended the night with 21 and Aron Baynes added 15.

It was just enough of what Phoenix needed while Booker had to do all the heavy lifting. Can he do that all season?

Well, to be honest, that’s a pretty dumb question. Of course he can! He just did it for the last two seasons, albeit on really bad teams while getting hurt along the way, but we’ve seen this before and there are notable differences that will have it naturally translate to winning much easier.

For one, Williams has prioritized getting Booker off the ball more, setting him up more as opposed to having him create the entire possession on his own like he did in the past.

Booker is a pick-and-roll ball-handler in 23.5% of his possessions this year, down 11% from last year. Booker now has had 55% of his buckets assisted this year, up 19% from last season, per the Seven Seconds or Less Podcast. Williams has nearly doubled his use in handoffs, from 4.9% to 8.4%, getting Booker on the move with space more.

That and Rubio running more offense, especially when Deandre Ayton returns, will not have his gas tank running on E and hopefully, keep him healthier.

This brings us to defense, where Booker blends with the Suns’ gritty and sound principles of aggressive rotations, banking on being a step ahead and keeping hands active.

The Suns just need Booker to be a small cog in the grand scheme of the defense like everyone else with the right amount of hard work and persistence.

Mikal Bridges gets the steal here on that step ahead but this is all Booker.

Booker has a habit of dying on screens in the bad way. This is the good way, where he bludgeons his way through it to at least cut off James Ennis’ ability to “split the defense” by staying on him till the end.

Phoenix playing this brand of basketball under Williams’ guidance is critical. The most impressive and exciting trait the Suns possess as a team thus far is their ability to hang around in games. A blind scoreboard test would have had you guess they were down double digits against Denver, Utah and Philadelphia. They kept sticking, though, and that’s a credit to having enough capable NBA bodies.

Frank Kaminsky and Jevon Carter had rough go’s of it on Monday, so there were Bridges and Johnson to provide the spark instead. Some nights it has been Carter and Kaminsky, and for a few already it has been Baynes, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Dario Saric. And this is a team that will soon get back rookie Ty Jerome, who fits in perfectly with Williams’ principles, and Ayton.

The well-coached group of the right types of players is going to continue to compete, grinding teams through closely-contested games.

That’s where having Booker is the difference-maker.

He’s currently on 26.1 points, 3.6 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game, shooting 53.5% from the field, 50% from three-point range and 90.3% at the foul line. If that sounds bonkers, that’s because it is, good for a 65.1 true shooting percentage, the best in the league among the 36 players who have a usage percentage above 25%.

Booker has been at this All-Star caliber for over two years now. The difference now is that he already got to learn through playing this role instead of doing so on the fly. The far-elevated expectations and in-game responsibilities are not new to him anymore. He’s improving at wearing the big boy pants too.

You can see it in the way he’s moving the ball, the way he’s defending and the way he’s picking his spots. All of these are skills he crafted as being “the man” and kid franchise since he was 20 years old.

He’s ready. And, shockingly, it looks like the Suns are too.

So how far can a star young player already equipped for this climb, armed with an organized, structured team, go? If the latter is indeed for real, far, like doubling your win total and making a run at the eight seed far.

Buckle up.

All stats via NBA.com and Basketball-Reference

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