EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns have multiple players capable of stepping up in Devin Booker’s absence

Dec 2, 2021, 1:22 PM
Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns watches from the bench during the second half of the NBA game a...
Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns watches from the bench during the second half of the NBA game against the Golden State Warriors at Footprint Center on November 30, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Warriors 104-96. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — Every now and then we, the watchers of Phoenix Suns basketball, should reflect on our perspective compared to a few years ago. When Devin Booker missed time last decade, the sky was falling and the team was doomed.

But now? Eh, they’ll be fine.

Booker has a left hamstring strain, the same injury label that had him miss four games around this point in the season last year. It was fortunate timing for the Suns, as after a back-to-back on Thursday and Friday, they only play two games in nine days and they are at home.

The mindset of the Suns being OK through this has to do with where they are at as a team. Just like last year, they are certified contenders, and that means the regular season is essentially about getting things right before the playoffs. It doesn’t hurt that Phoenix is 18-3.

Playing well when Booker is off the court is always going to be on the list of areas the Suns could improve. And the thing is, they already have. Two seasons ago, the Suns were -6.5 points per 100 possessions worse when Booker was off the court as opposed to on it. That number dropped to -3.2 last year and this season it’s at -1.6.

Progress! And progress which Chris Paul’s presence undoubtedly helps.

He will obviously need to take more of the offensive load, but it’s not like he just takes all of Booker’s responsibilities on his shoulders too. Multiple other players will need to step up in his absence.

“You don’t try to do what Book does,” head coach Monty Williams said of Tuesday’s effort in the second half without Booker. “It’s gonna come from a team holistic effort. Because Book is a different type of player.”

The possibilities are two starters becoming more a focal point, and then there’s also the reserves doing more. It’ll be a combination of that anyway, but who really makes their mark?

We will start with Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges.

Ayton is coming off his best offensive game of the season in the win over the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday. That might seem like too grand of a proclamation based on how you remember the game unfolding and how Ayton scored, but look at the intent he showed to get open in his spots.

Ayton attempted 19 shots, the most he has since Paul arrived in Phoenix. The Suns are now 7-0 in that time when Ayton gets at least 15 shots up.

The fourth-year center playing with that level of purpose for position, and his teammates also looking for him every time, can be an easy extra development to add over the next few weeks.

As for Bridges, I say this as someone who believes he has a case as the Suns’ second-best player this season, his offensive breakout has not come.

The all-out aggression when he has openings to score, while better, hasn’t quite reached the highs you’d want. He’s logged single-digit shot attempts in eight of his last 11 games, including two games with only four. He does not have much run for him but does get consistent opportunities on dribble attacks off kickouts, somewhere he needs to get back to being full throttle like he was earlier in the season. That consistency will come with time.

It could help Phoenix in this current predicament because Bridges can score in Booker’s spot across some of Williams’ favorite sets designed for Booker. It happened in the preseason.

And as Williams is saying, it can’t be just Bridges slotted in there. But for a few possessions in scoring pockets of the floor Bridges has shown a knack for converting in? Sure.

Keep an eye on the FGAs for those two while Booker is out.

As for the bench, Suns fans had a sigh of relief on Wednesday when general manager James Jones told Arizona Sports’ Burns & Gambo that Cam Johnson’s exit in the fourth quarter the night prior was indeed due to just cramps and he’ll be fine. Johnson was not on Wednesday’s injury report.

A name, however, that was still on there was wing Abdel Nader. He’s missing his seventh straight game due to injury management for his right knee, and that ties up Williams’ rotation to only eight guys: Paul, Bridges, Ayton, Johnson, Jae Crowder, Landry Shamet, Cam Payne and JaVale McGee.

That’s too few guys, and Williams was already going to 10 at the beginning of the season. It got more complicated when Frank Kaminsky (stress reaction) got hurt and is out indefinitely, leaving the only players on the roster available as third-string point guard Elfrid Payton, second-year big Jalen Smith and two-way wings Chandler Hutchison and Ish Wainright.

This is where the team misses Nader, the 10th man of the rotation who probably won’t be in the mix for the postseason but as the fourth wing could patch up some holes in the rotation.

Nader catches some flack for his tunnel vision while driving but he plays hard, is a good defender on the ball and gives Williams another option with size to defend ball-handlers. For the rematch in Golden State on Friday, he would be quite useful as another body to throw at the Warriors’ Jordan Poole.

I bring all this up before we get to who starts in Booker’s place because that has something to do with it.

Johnson started the second half of Tuesday’s game and is the more straightforward complementary player than Shamet, and what I mean by that is Shamet’s on-ball prowess as a combo guard can give Payne the continued relief in the second unit to not handle absolutely everything. That’s something Paul can handle, and both Payne and Shamet will spend time with him on the floor when the first and second units mix together.

That is, unless Williams decides to play Payton like he did in the second half on Tuesday. Payton’s more of a pure on-the-ball player, and his effectiveness offensively normally comes down to a two-man game as opposed to fitting in with the flow of the offense.

He’s by far the most seasoned of the other options, so we will probably see him, unless Hutchison gets a shot, a 2018 first-round pick with great size and athleticism on the wing that hasn’t put it together yet in the NBA.

If Payton is in, that would leave Shamet’s ball-handling less necessary with the reserves and better alongside Paul in the starting lineup.

We also could be making this far too complicated, because Johnson is simply playing better. In his last seven games, Johnson is averaging 12.0 points per game and shooting 46.2% at three-point range. He’s a very good defensive player and won’t put the Suns in any matchup qualms despite being a 6-foot-8 wing in place of Booker.

He’s easier to plug and play as well being in the system since Williams arrived in the Valley, which is where we conclude on Shamet.

It’s going to be a good stretch for the fourth-year guard to get more acclimated to the Suns’ flow, similar to how McGee got starter minutes when Ayton missed a chunk of games. Shamet’s on-ball prowess that Williams hopes to unlock unlike Shamet’s past teams will come easier once it’s an effortless process for him on the floor, and it takes time with new teams.

And it’s not like he’s looked out of place on the floor. He has shown his 0.5 chops with quick decisions off the bounce, has been better than expected defensively and is shooting 37.8% on 3s, a bit below his great numbers the past three years, but fine.

Instead of some shifts that go 4-6 minutes, Shamet could bump that up to 7-9, and that goes a long way for reserves on a new team. That’s the biggest benefit for the Suns while Booker heals up.

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Suns have multiple players capable of stepping up in Devin Booker’s absence