There’s no doubt how great Devin Booker has been in his rookie year.
The 19-year-old guard out of Kentucky went from a preseason outlook of possibly beating out Archie Goodwin for a small chunk of minutes off the bench to becoming the surefire starting shooting guard and the team’s best overall player this season.
That growth exceeds any expectations for a rookie, let alone a No. 13 overall pick.
Since breaking through the rotation in mid-January, Booker is averaging 19.2 points, 4.2 assists and three rebounds a game. There’s the 41.1 percent shooting and three turnovers per game, but that is completely normal for a 19-year-old rookie being thrown into 36 minutes a game (see Emmanuel Mudiay in Denver).
Booker gives the Suns what they’ve been desperately searching for since current GM Ryan McDonough and former head coach Jeff Hornacek took over in the summer of 2013: a potential star.
Unfortunately for the Suns, Booker also gives the Suns dilemmas in different areas of the floor and forces them to make decisions teams shouldn’t be forced to make in year one of a 19-year-old’s career.
The first and most obvious problem is what Booker does to this year’s projected starting backcourt of Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight.
Simply put; there’s no way Booker will be coming off the bench next season. What became a “what if?” scenario in December has quickly turned into an inevitability.
Advanced beyond his years, Booker’s transformation from what looked like a heady prospect who could really shoot the ball to a dynamic and nearly complete offensive player has been staggering.
The list of things to love about Booker feels never-ending.
He’s absolutely fearless, talks trash to anyone on the court, is arguably the best passer on the team, can attack the basket and create his own shot, and he won’t even be able to legally drink until Oct. 30, 2017.
Assuming that Bledsoe is healthy next season, there shouldn’t be any hesitation about him taking back the point guard duties.
The 26-year-old is the best defensive player on the team and has had two of his three seasons in Phoenix hampered by knee injuries that possibly could have resulted in All-Star teams had he stayed healthy.
That leaves Knight, who, as it turns out, might naturally find himself in his best NBA role as a result of Booker’s emergence.
On his third team in five seasons, Knight has started at point guard for all those teams and also spent time off the ball more in Phoenix, but his best role in the NBA points towards the primary scorer off the bench.
Knight’s stats this season point towards some of the best microwave scorers in the NBA in the past decade when they were the same age.
As is tradition for armchair analysis of any flawed player, Knight’s weaknesses are being overexposed and his true value is not getting the proper evaluation.
Knight can change games with his offense.
In November, Knight scored 30 or more points in three games and the Suns won all of them.
The comeback in Denver on Nov. 20 when Knight scored 24 of his 38 points in the second half showed how dangerous the Suns can be when their two guards click. That could be three if the guard rotation heavily features Bledsoe, Booker and Knight.
Knight’s most recent explosion in Golden State showed what can happen when he gets hot. He scored 17 points in under five minutes, keeping the lottery-bound Suns in the game against the defending champion Golden State Warriors.
His role off the bench as the instant offense who can get hot quickly and turnaround games is clear to see.
The two potential problems, however, start with if Knight wants to play off the bench.
At only the age of 24, Knight has started 315 of his 328 career games in the NBA. A player who has started 96 percent of his career games being benched for a second-year player isn’t as simple as it seems.
The second issue is Knight’s contract, a problem that can not properly be evaluated until this summer’s free agency period has seen who got paid what.
The first bullet-point to jot over here is that the Suns knew what they were doing. With the NBA salary cap rapidly rising to possibly over $100 million within the next four years, Knight’s contract escalates from $12.6 million a year in 2016-17 to $15.6 million in 2019-20.
With the cap projected to go where it does, the Suns can afford to pay Knight. The question now becomes if it’s worth it for someone coming off the bench.
Let’s pull a recent example before making the argument that paying this much money to a player coming off the bench is going to be the future of the NBA for the next couple of seasons.
Take a look at what Brad Stevens is doing with the Boston Celtics. Stevens plays four guards at least 27 minutes a game, a model the Suns could run around their three interchangeable guards (now that Booker has shown point guard skills). Knight can easily get enough playing time to be worth the contract.
Moving on from Knight, the most problematic task the Suns will face building around Booker is on the defensive end.
Booker’s issues there have been outlined already and the rest of his team isn’t helping.
Knight ranks at No. 71 out of 84 point guards in defensive real-plus minus and T.J. Warren is at No. 77 of the 81 small forwards for his 47 games played.
That’s not to mention Booker being last among shooting guards and Archie Goodwin being second to last.
Those statistics don’t necessarily indicate those four players are some of the worst defensive players in the NBA, but they aren’t good, and if they were to play together next season, it would be a disaster for the overall team defense.
The difficult task it brings McDonough from a team-building aspect is the necessity for players like P.J. Tucker, Bledsoe, Tyson Chandler, Alex Len.
Mirza Teletovic has been a delight scoring the ball off the bench this season, but if this defense wants to drastically improve next season, it can’t afford another player that struggles as much as he does — 98th in DRPM of 99 PF’s — playing with Booker, Warren, Goodwin and Knight.
That extends to June and the NBA draft, where players such as Ben Simmons have major defensive questions to answer in the early stages of their NBA career.
It’s hard to imagine a long-term projected lineup including Simmons, Warren and Booker being able to produce even a top 20 team defense.
The Suns appear to have found their next star player and that can only mean good things coming to the Valley, but it complicates matters for the front office.
They face the challenging task of keeping the ship steady as it veers off-course, hopefully to a much more desirable destination.
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