All-around prowess, similarities make Suns’ Booker, Beal best NBA backcourt
Sep 13, 2023, 1:40 PM
(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Have we ever seen a NBA backcourt like this one?
It’s a question that’s more like a proclamation.
But what the Phoenix Suns have in Devin Booker and Bradley Beal is special and unique. I don’t mean to say that as if to represent they are the greatest ever assembled. What they provide, however, is different than what we’re used to.
By zigging when traditional basketball is zagging, they are betting big on the playmaking ability of two uber-talented “shooting guards” to be enough in order to supplant what an everyday traditional point guard brings. In return, the benefit is an all-around offensive combination no other current team can match.
I’m also starting to think it’s not as much of a dramatic difference as you’d initially be led to believe.
The basketball purist in me is conflicted. Floor generals are a dying breed. I realized this more than ever while covering Chris Paul for three seasons. Young stars like Tyrese Haliburton hold out hope that there will still be a few true out-and-out maestros around. But if you look at nearly every great point guard in the league and had to identify their first skill, it would be scoring. Luka Doncic is a masterful passer but is known more for his step-back jumper to the left than his skip pass. Stephen Curry and James Harden are similar.
With that said, what other fantastic 1s like Darius Garland, De’Aaron Fox and Jamal Murray offer is still inherently valuable: running an offense. Beal and Booker have done it in bunches over the course of their careers, but never to this degree and never sharing it with a similarly-minded two-guard.
I think it’s going to work out just fine. Booker and Beal are going to surprise many with their capabilities as passers. How about we look elsewhere.
Those point guards and just about every other ball-dominant guard not named Stephen bring the most value through ball screen situations, the primary ingredient of every modern offense.
But what do they do when they are off the ball?
We’ve all heard the tired cliché. “There’s only one ball.” Yep, there sure is. Astute observation. And that’s where Booker and Beal bring a shared skillset no other backcourt in the NBA is in possession of.
Phoenix will weaponize their prowess in all sorts of variations, and that gets even more dangerous once you realize how interchangeable the pair is. We can also include Kevin Durant in that equation, because he is great at everything one wants to be great at on a basketball court. His all-time versatility has been previously covered in this space if you want to take a quick pit stop there.
Through a whole bunch of video to really highlight the many ways Beal and Booker can go about scoring, let’s also zig where others zagged and ditch pick-and-roll analysis. Instead, how about a review all the off-ball possibilities Phoenix has at its disposal?
Devin Booker, Bradley Beal thrive off the ball
Much like ball screens, dribble handoffs are all the rage. Starting that screening play with a big by allowing the ball-handler to get on the move earlier presents a different type of threat to the defense.
For scorers like Booker and Beal, that type of head start off a quick pitch is about all they need.
If defenders want to get cute and try to actually go over that screen to stay as attached as possible, this Suns duo will just get to the lane.
Trying to work around the screen by going under it is also quite problematic considering Booker and Beal are great shooters. Because of the rigorous skill development Booker and Beal have put in through the years, they have perfected their footwork to accelerate or decelerate where it is required. Keep that in mind throughout these clips.
Here are more defenders making more bad choices.
Getting to all 3 levels without the rock
Another notch on the belts for Beal through 11 years in the league and Booker entering Year 9 is the craft of angles.
It could be an Olympic track and field star navigating through off-ball screens, but if they don’t understand the ripple effects of 1) where the screener is, 2) where the defense goes, 3) where that means they should receive the ball and 4) where the opportunities are off all that, it’s useless explosiveness.
The beauty in the games of both guards is they play at their own pace, even in these little sequences where gaining a half-step advantage is everything.
To stick with the theme of attributes in place for this type of offense, Booker and Beal maximize through those tiny margins as three-level scorers.
And they are extremely smart, instinctual players.
Booker and Beal frequently call their own audibles inside of this game within the game.
Rip Hamilton, one of Booker’s idols, must shed a tear whenever he watches the Grand Rapids kid maneuver screens off the ball.
These three jumpers caught my eye the most looking back at tape.
What looks like a pindown to free up Booker around the top of the key allows Charlotte’s Dennis Smith Jr. to hop around the screen, before Booker quickly plants on the catch and spins off his pivot into a crisp fadeaway.
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) September 12, 2023
Rookie Jabari Smith Jr. is supposed to defend Booker for Houston. He sees the screen coming, angled in a way that suggests Booker will escape toward the left wing. That’s where Booker initially goes before planting his right foot and side-stepping into space on the opposite wing.
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) September 12, 2023
Milwaukee Bucks guard Jrue Holiday, correctly labeled as one of the best perimeter defenders in this hemisphere, knows these angles better than anybody. He also knows it’s going to take more than one screen to shake him off. So here comes Ish Wainright, getting all of his gigantic frame behind Holiday to set the precursor for a dribble handoff with Jock Landale.
Holiday’s on it. He instantly backs up and breaks on the handoff like Ed Reed scanning a quarterback’s eyes.
But Booker’s got the vision too:
uncalled for pic.twitter.com/qb2UYb1bdY
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) September 12, 2023
Watch it one more time and you’ll see how it’s almost like a jab step from Booker with his right foot. It is both an art and a science. He’s got a dual degree, the Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts.
Beal’s an educated man himself.
Josh Hart is an excellent, brainy defender like Holiday. He knows what a dribble handoff means and how Beal wants to get going curling around that. He’s two steps ahead.
Beal is three.
We all remember Jevon Carter’s defense and cherished it. He’s awesome at using his base to keep himself handcuffed to a star guard.
Beal uses this to his advantage and busts out the ol’ Ring Around the Rosie move.
Cut it out
A branch extending off that is when a defender is a little too keen, and as a result, “Congratulations, you played yourself.”
Looking through some of the off-ball motions we reviewed, watch how Booker and Beal use their floor vision, including as screeners.
(Side note, if you’re with me this far, you would be more than interested in Zach Lowe’s piece on how much the Washington Wizards used Beal as a screener last year.)
What I’m about to write confirms how much of a dork I am and my love for this game. I can’t freaking wait to see how much cutting the Big 3 does.
It will not shock Suns fans to hear Second Spectrum’s tracking data not tallying too many field goal attempts off cuts for Booker. Only 13 last year. He didn’t have a fellow gravitational threat on the ball until Durant got to the Valley.
Beal should provide some inspiration, as he is a great cutter and manages to find free baskets still in that way despite being the focal point, like Booker. (Durant is the best of the three too, I should add.)
Expect Booker to feature that strand of his basketball DNA more prominently, much like we see him do when someone becomes a teammate, as he did with the tricks he picked up from Paul.
I don’t need to emphasize any further how intelligent of a player he is and how all the other gravity threats will allow him to do this more often.
Here’s both Booker and Beal getting it done last year.
Someone’s gotta pick it up in Mikal Bridges’ place!
Get ready to see a handful of those this season, when we look around and wonder what blown coverage just happened. In reality, it’s just a testament to the threat.
One more! And a way two of these subgroups can merge together.
I love this heady movement by Booker. It looks like your traditional motion to get Booker going off a handoff, and instead, Booker darts towards the space in the middle of the floor, a move Cam Payne is on top of to feed him immediately.
Booker’s got it now in his sweet spot, spins off the impending triple team and voila.
By the way! No free, quick swipes and tags on those next season.
Mismatches every night
One of the bullet points on the first bundle of games for me will be how often the trio naturally turns to isolation and mismatch hunting.
Against a switching defense, teams are used to triggering certain motion and screening to find the weak link on the preferred ball-handler. A recent example over the summer was Germany’s Dennis Schroder exposing Team USA’s Austin Reaves.
The Suns will be unique in that they don’t need to go through that whole charade. It will be there by default.
To stick with Reaves, looking at the Los Angeles Lakers, let’s presume LeBron James is on his usual rest off the ball shtick and is on the fifth starter, with Anthony Davis taking Deandre Ayton. That leaves Reaves, D’Angelo Russell and Jarred Vanderbilt to cover the Big 3. Ruh roh!
If James is willing to step up and exhaust himself to cover Durant, that still leaves defensive liabilities like Reaves and Russell on Beal or Booker.
It is basketball’s version of common courtesy toward teammates to feed the player with this mismatch, and is especially common amongst new comrades. And given the skill of these three, why wouldn’t you? Build up the confidence. Build up the trust.
Among that tracking data, isolations are the least efficient shots. Beal’s three-year number is 44.7%, while Booker clocks in at 40.9%, far worse than the eye test would have guessed.
To veer back on the ball where a possession ends, the two are obviously more than capable.
But a reliance on this will be problematic. Keeping the defense on its toes with movement, like a lot of what we went over, will be imperative. Then again, you know what keeps a defense on its toes? A pigeon, a.k.a. what the Suns have previously called the individual target defensively, forced to defend one of these two!
It is one of the reasons to expect the line graph of Phoenix’s offensive flow across the first two months to feature more ebbs and flows than likely desired. Running pick-and-roll for Beal four possessions in a row while he’s defended by Jamal Murray is good offense. But the last couple Suns teams have taught us the valuable lesson of how maintaining rhythm should trump just about every other goal. Doing so without a pure point guard will be a challenge, one I expect these guys to be up to the task for.
In a similar vein, if the small point guard finds himself on Booker, the bad man will be taking him down toward the baseline and/or block for an experience they will very much not enjoy.
Booker wasn’t even of the legal drinking age in the league before he started employing bully-ball tactics from the post. And now, eight years in at just about his physical peak, he is overpowering smaller defenders.
Beal, like any featured perimeter scorer, will do this on occasion as well. But tracking data put Booker down for 126 attempts in post ups over the last three years, with a conversion rate of 54.8%. That’s compared to Beal’s 23-for-49 (46.9%). We should see more for Beal next season.
If you have been paying enough attention, many video clips included in this story come from the same game. That’s because on some nights, the way the opposing defense schemes something benefits a certain, particular blend. That’s some of what makes these guys so good. They can do it all.
Some nights, Beal and Booker will be finding the mouse in the house regularly.
This was so fun to compile and watch that I present to you part two, which begins with a possession I don’t know how Reggie Bullock ever recovered from.
This is going to benefit Phoenix in the playoffs as well, when the pace slows down and just “needing a bucket” on a trip down no matter the circumstances comes up.
Don’t worry, they got it
Just so we don’t close without some playmaking clips, these guys know every read out of all these motions and have been making those passes for a half-decade.
The gravity is going to shift different places on different nights depending on which perimeter scorer the opposition wants to lock in on, and Deandre Ayton’s rim rolling will draw rotations too.
But it’s going to go toward Booker and Beal a whole lot. They’re ready for it.
How do Suns channel all of this?
The onus here is on Kevin Young, head coach Frank Vogel’s lead assistant who likely will focus on offense. Phoenix made him the highest paid assistant in basketball, which is fitting because he’s arguably now the most important. While all of the attention with this roster construction turns to its potential weaknesses like defense, it should actually be on maximizing its strengths.
We just went over one of them.
Young will be one of the leading voices (along with the players themselves) in crafting together an offensive playbook that gets Beal, Booker and Durant the ball where they like it the most in a way that is both the most efficient and keeps everyone in the fold. It is an embarrassment of riches to choose from, and that’s where collaboration will ultimately be Young’s best friend.
This will be a fascinating, year-long process to watch develop.