Devin Booker, Bradley Beal know Frank Vogel’s elite defenses firsthand
Oct 23, 2023, 8:08 AM | Updated: 8:25 am
PHOENIX — The defensive mind of new Phoenix Suns head coach Frank Vogel has the highest of reputations from producing stellar results both in the regular season and playoffs.
When it comes to the latter and how daunting Vogel’s defense can be in a playoff matchup, two of his stars know what that’s like more than most.
In 2014, second-year pro Bradley Beal had his first crack at postseason basketball at the ripe age of 20 on the Washington Wizards.
Seven years later, a 24-year-old Devin Booker led the Suns to their first playoff appearance in a decade. It served as his own playoff debut with the brightest of lights on him.
Both players’ teams came up in a series against Vogel, a tremendous learning experience as young players new to the postseason. Beal and Booker provided their own perspective on what went into facing his defenses, while Vogel gave the other side of how he evaluated their games and what goes into a playoff run for him. Booker and Vogel both spoke exclusively with Arizona Sports.
The moment Bradley Beal arrived (and then got pancaked by Frank Vogel’s brick-wall defense)
Beal by Year 2 was the second-leading scorer in the nation’s capital, forming a show-stopping backcourt with 23-year-old John Wall, who was coming off his first All-Star season. Along with the dependable Trevor Ariza on the wing and offensively potent frontcourt of Marcin Gortat and Nene, the Wizards were in the postseason bracket again after missing out on the previous five.
In the first round, a great albeit wounded 48-win Chicago Bulls team lay in wait without an injured Derrick Rose, giving the upstart D.C. crew a real shot at making some noise.
They did. And Beal was the loudest.
Across the five games, Beal averaged a series-best 19.8 points per game. His smooth, tempo-based scoring approach made the transition seamless to the slower, more methodical brand of playoff basketball (sound familiar?). He was still getting to his spots fairly easily, both on and off the ball, along with impacting the dynamic transition game spearheaded by Wall. Vogel said that made it so much more difficult to keep track of Beal.
Washington stole Game 1 in Chicago, and when the Wizards were down by six with less than three minutes to go for Game 2, Beal produced back-to-back buckets to eventually force the game to an overtime period the Wizards would win. He had 26 points and seven rebounds.
Two years ago during the 2021 run to the NBA Finals, Booker like any playoff debutant was consistently asked by the media how he was unfazed by the moment and only performing better in his first postseason. Booker always credited it to his mental preparation and visualization, stages he always saw himself eventually starring on.
Beal said something similar helped. He got the advice from an assistant coach and former Sun.
“I remember John (Wall) and I, our coach who was like our mentor, Sam Cassell, told us that, ‘We won’t win unless we play well,'” Beal said. “He made sure we knew that every single day leading up to the series and every day in the series. That’s one thing I’ll never forget.”
It’s coach-speak, sure, but that’s a terrific message for young players getting into that entirely unique style of basketball. The playoffs do not allow any margin of error, the slip-up of an off night or lack of focus for a few possessions. You could tell watching these games how much Cassell got through to Beal, and how much Beal was ready for this (expletive), just like Booker.
Next up in the second round for the Wizards was Vogel’s Indiana Pacers, winners of 56 regular season games and coming off a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals where they came up short against the “Heatles” led by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Vogel since his arrival in the Valley has stressed the importance of physicality and how he wants that to be the key characteristic of his Suns teams.
Watching this series back and seeing the likes of Roy Hibbert and David West battering guys, he accomplished that in Indiana.
“I remember those distinctly were some tough, ice-after-the-game type nights for sure,” Beal said.
What was Vogel thinking in prepping for Beal after how awesome he was in the Chicago series?
“Just being terrified,” Vogel told Arizona Sports. “We knew he was a young player so we always want to attack guys on the other end but especially younger players, guys getting their first look. We had the mindset … (that we) wanted to be real physical with him.”
The explosive two-guard picked up right where he left off, dropping 25 points in a Game 1 victory. Washington had done it again, snatching the series opener on the road. The pesky and irritating Lance Stephenson was Beal’s mark, one Beal cooked, along with reserve Evan Turner.
Turn on Game 3 at a 1-1 split, and nope, no more Stephenson on Beal. There came Paul George, one of the best perimeter defenders we’ve seen in the last 15 years. George, now off Wall, was slithering around all the screens that were previously more successful in freeing Beal up. Beal was actually still getting to his spots but shot 6-for-19. The beatdown of Indiana’s size and length was starting to wear on Beal, as you’d expect for a guy who couldn’t even order a beer at a bar yet.
“We have to be able to give different looks to whoever we’re trying to slow down and the way you start is not only going to be how you finish a game or a series,” Vogel said of changing it up on Beal.
Beal joked he was just a little ol’ 6-foot-4 guard, and there’s Stephenson (6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan) and George (6-foot-8 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan) cutting off all sorts of space while bumping and bruising with him whenever possible. If Beal was crafty enough to find a lane to the rim, where he always wants to be, welcoming him to the party was either the 250-pound West or 270-pound Hibbert.
Those teams really brought some of Vogel’s football-like philosophies to life.
“That’s just winning the game,” he said of the physicality affecting Beal. “We gotta win the war in the trenches. There’s line of scrimmages all over in basketball. … It’s physicality in everything you do.”
In a series that was much closer than you’d recall, the Wizards fell in six. Beal was fairly solid, leading the team in scoring again with 18.7 points a night on 41.2% shooting, and the tape backs up how great he was at filling in the gaps elsewhere, an encouraging tidbit worth noting for this upcoming Suns season.
“It was a tough adjustment but it was fun, man, just to be a part of that series and the playoffs as a whole,” Beal said with the tone of a guy who can’t freaking wait to get back to that.
Beal had made his mark in his postseason debut. If you were an NBA fan at the time, that Bulls series specifically was one you saw and were like, “Oh, that guy is going to be a great player.”
Vogel saw the same.
“We just knew he was going to be a special player back then,” he said.
Devin Booker’s mid-series adjustment to counter Frank Vogel
Vogel, fresh off winning a championship with the Los Angeles Lakers, wasn’t so lucky trying to stop an elite two-guard in 2021’s first round.
Booker was sensational but not without his own struggles in adjusting to the chaos that Vogel manufactured for a playoff newbie. Meanwhile, Booker’s co-star Chris Paul was either out or playing through a significant shoulder injury.
“It’s tough. Even though I had a really good series in my first one those guys had a lot of length, they protected the rim well,” Booker told Arizona Sports.
Size was a factor on those Lakers teams, too. Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond and Marc Gasol were everywhere around the rim and on the glass.
“I think our size early on in that series was one of the things that we were really good at,” Vogel said.
Phoenix went down 2-1, and with Booker and Jae Crowder both getting ejected at the end of Game 3, it appeared Vogel broke another young star.
While the Suns won Game 4, Booker was still managing things through turnover issues we hadn’t really seen from him previously. Usually, an outstanding high-usage guy in regard to taking care of the ball, Booker’s 19 turnovers in a four-game span was a total he’d only amounted to once in the regular season, and that was at the beginning of it when Phoenix wasn’t quite clicking instantaneously.
“Yeah, those were tough ones. I remember we went down 2-1 at LA,” Booker said, attempting to recall exactly what he was doing wrong in those instances.
He still wasn’t quite locating it in his memory bank, saying “I don’t know if I just remember the high points but I thought I was busting their ass!”
He very much was, even though Booker was seeing a help defender or two every time he dribbled inside the 3-point line. Vogel, with an inferior team in hindsight, nearly contained Booker enough with Paul limited to get the job done.
Somewhere in that Game 4 victory, though, Booker cracked the code. And it really showed during the next matchup in Phoenix for Game 5. You could see Booker on the floor correctly dissecting the defense, making every correct choice.
Booker posted 30 points, seven rebounds, five assists and just one turnover. The Lakers were without an injured Davis, which surely helped Booker see more of the floor. Nonetheless, Booker had figured it out. Phoenix was up 15 by the mid-second quarter and blew the doors off them.
There were windows to shoot that Booker was taking advantage of more. Booker’s head coach at the time, Monty Williams, was encouraging him to see them and take them every time. As we’ve seen over his career, Booker (a tempo connoisseur) has been hesitant to jack up 3s, so it took a while for that to materialize.
But once it did, boy did it.
“I knew I was going to be forced to have to shoot the deep ball well,” Booker said.
That did not go well for the Lakers once Booker found rhythm off the bounce.
His iconic 47 points in Game 6 included six 3s in the first quarter, following up his 18 points in the opening period of Game 5. Davis tried to play through his injury, and by the time he was ruled out after giving it a shot for a few minutes, Phoenix soon led by 17 a little over eight minutes in.
“That was just ridiculous,” Vogel said through a bewildered laugh when thinking back on how Booker defiantly ended the series over those remaining two games.
Booker, through the off-the-charts comfort and poise he’s always had on the floor, made it look easy. It’s never supposed to be that way for anyone in the playoffs, let alone young stars getting the first impression of postseason ball that routinely knocks promising players on their ass.
“It’s always easier said than done,” Booker said. “You just want to make it hard on stars, the guys that you know can carry a team on the road and that’s what they did.”
Frank Vogel is a coach made for the playoffs
Vogel does it better than just about anyone. While part of our time here was taken to properly illustrate how talented Beal and Booker are and have been, we also have to put the spotlight on Vogel.
Booker spoke on what he’s seen from Vogel so far in teaching defense, and his answer should have you excited if you’re a Suns fan — and petrified if you’re rooting on another squad.
“Very detail-oriented when it comes to the defensive side,” Booker said. “He’s throwing in some things I haven’t seen in my existence of playing basketball. Usually, you see a common theme or ways to teach, (like) you’ve heard it before, but he’s come in some foreign environments that I’ve never heard of that make a lot of sense.”
Booker is a historian of the game, aware of the ins and outs of basketball at every level. So for him to say that, man.
The Suns’ long and versatile group of supporting cast members on paper is a perfect match for what Vogel wants to do.
“It’s aggressive, it’s physical,” Booker said of Vogel’s defensive style. “They stress using our length. I think we have a team that has the ability to switch a bunch of different matchups.”
All of that for the Suns will develop and improve throughout the regular season. If they have enough of a handle on the principles, Vogel will take it from there inside the layers of strategic dynamics that are part of what makes playoff basketball so special.
When Booker spoke ahead of his debut against that Vogel-led Lakers team, he said “this is what I’ve been waiting on.”
While the NBA calendar winds down over the next few months, his coach is the same way.
“My favorite time of year,” Vogel said of the postseason. “The 82-game is fun but you’re limited in really how creative you can get from game to game. But come playoff time, you can really dive into the opponent. The level of study I put into playoffs, there’s nothing better in my profession than preparing for a playoff opponent and the creativity that comes along with it and then the chess match.”