As of October 30, 2017, Devin Booker can legally buy alcohol. Now in his third NBA season, the Phoenix Suns shooting guard has a reason to celebrate besides a lifetime of paying taxes on Schlitz: He is averaging 20.5 points a night, looks like a long-lost member of O-Town, and is regarded as one of the league’s emerging young talents.
On Monday afternoon, after a team shootaround at the Asphalt Green athletic facility in lower Manhattan, Booker iced his knees while describing the aftermath of the signature game on his professional résumé—a 70-point hurricane that made landfall in Boston last March. “That added more attention,” he acknowledged, with the suggestion of a smirk. “Nobody wants that to happen to them. So teams come in with a game plan to shut me down. That’s fine. I just have to learn how to do it other ways now.”
There are several important things Phoenix needs to figure out—former coach Earl Watson was fired three games into the season and Eric Bledsoe is estranged from the team after posting a morose tweet—but Booker is viewed as the organization’s one known commodity. Since he was selected 13th in the 2015 NBA draft, after playing one season at Kentucky, Booker has become the keystone in the Suns’ ongoing rebuild. Even when offseason trade rumors pin-dropped Phoenix as a possible destination for both Kyrie Irving and Kristaps Porzingis, Booker was reportedly untouchable.
“He wants to be one of the greats of all time,” said Tyson Chandler, the Phoenix center who is in his 17th NBA season. “You can see it in his work ethic and his demeanor. The first day I saw him, he believed in himself. You see special players come around this league and they all have it. He has it.”
In a pace-and-space universe, Booker ticks off the right spectral classifications. He’s a smooth 3-point shooter, a 6-foot-6 guard who can play on or off the ball, and he loves getting out on the break (by 2017 player tracking data, Booker was fifth in the NBA with 4.8 transition possessions per game, behind only Russell Westbrook, John Wall, LeBron James, and Stephen Curry). And when he catches fire, watch out: Booker is one of those combustible, three-level scorers who can effortlessly drop 34 on your dome, as he did on against the Blazers on Saturday.
In other ways, though, Booker is more of an old-fashioned shooting guard than an evolutionary anomaly. Last season he was one of only five players in the NBA—along with Bradley Beal, C.J. McCollum, Klay Thompson, and Andrew Wiggins—who notched more than 22 points a game while amassing four or fewer rebounds or assists an outing. Respectable company, but a list mostly populated by one-dimensional scorers in a league trending toward hybrid guards and lanky, interchangeable 3-and-D wings. That’s been the knock on Booker; he gets buckets but doesn’t do much else.
“Obviously, he’s a great scorer,” said Jared Dudley of the Suns. “But his passing and his defense will be crucial to our team success, and his development of being an All-Star player. He’s improved that this year.”
Booker’s featherly stroke and youthfulness make it easy to assume he’s coasting down the road to stardom, but metrics heads argue that his path has deep potholes. Last season, ESPN’s real plus-minus placed Booker 40th among shooting guards—sandwiched between Brooklyn’s Caris LeVert and Miami’s Rodney McGruder—with a gnarly defensive RPM that slotted him 77th and sixth-worst at his position. His box plus-minus of minus-2.9 pegged his value at a hair below replacement level, which was an improvement from his rookie season. The disconnect between Booker’s reputation and his statistical footprint has made him an oddly polarizing figure for a talented kid on a toothless squad.
So far, Booker has often been classified as the proverbial “volume scorer,” one of basketball’s favored backhanded compliments. He possesses textbook shooting form and a respectable knack for earning trips to the free throw stripe, but isn’t particularly efficient. He has a career true shooting percentage of 53.3 percent, a tick below league average, which is mostly due to ’90s-era shot selection: An unhealthy 36.4 percent of Booker’s field goal attempts have been dreaded midrange jumpers and long 2s.
“I know the numbers,” Booker said. “At the same time, I don’t want to be thinking about that. I’m a basketball player when I’m out there. A lot of teams are going with just layups and 3s, but for me, my game has always been based off the midrange game. I’m comfortable with that shot and I feel like it’s a high percentage shot for me.”
So screw the numbers? “Yeah,” he said, grinning.
While there are symptoms of Kobe-esque pathology in Booker’s love of pull-up jimbos—he was 15th in the NBA in those attempts last season—many were the result of playing on a lousy team with few playmakers. He was among the league’s top 15 in isolation attempts per game (in the 71st percentile of effectiveness, similar to Paul George or Kawhi Leonard) and in the top 25 in most attempts during the last seven desperate seconds of the shot clock. Unlike fellow sharpshooters Thompson and Beal, Booker doesn’t get many clean 3-point looks (only 21.3 percent of his deep attempts were categorized as “open” or “wide-open”). His efficiency would surely be boosted by a less burdensome role, but that’s not going to happen with Bledsoe in exile and a roster packed with infants like Josh Jackson, Marquese Chriss, and Dragan Bender.
If Booker hopes to join the ranks of the league’s most devastating offensive players, he needs to create more easy buckets for his teammates. Although he ventures into the paint regularly, he’s not the kind of invader who collapses a defense by plunging a bayonet into its underbelly. He shot 41 percent on 5.8 drives a game last season, and his assist rate on those plays was similar to score-first guards like Lou Williams and Austin Rivers. Late last season, when the tanking Suns tasked Booker with more distributive duties, there was a three-game stretch when he racked up an impressive 25 assists—but coughed up the ball 18 times.
“Once teams found out that I could actually play a little bit, I started seeing teams’ best defender,” Booker recalled. “So just going in with the focus of taking care of the ball, that was my next step.” While playing pickup ball over the summer, there were days when he did nothing but distribute as a pass-first playmaker. “I have to get people involved,” he said of his expanded role. So far, so good. Through six games, he’s averaging 4.8 assists per 36 minutes—a noticeable improvement from last season’s 3.5—while experiencing only a tiny uptick in turnovers.
Booker should be an excellent passer. He has keen basketball IQ, panoramic court vision, and a delicate passing touch, especially when it comes to finding teammates on long outlet passes in transition or diving for lobs. In the half court, he’s adept at weaving around the elbows, luring attention from defenders, and swinging the ball to spotted-up 3-point shooters.
“Scoring is a natural ability for him,” said Jay Triano, the Suns’ interim coach. “But I think he’s learning how to do it in the confines of everything that we do offensively. This year, we’ve already seen a jump in his ability to make plays for others. He sees the floor well. He knows, when two guys guard him, what he can and can’t do. He could probably get 10 assists, but I don’t know if that helps our team.”
Booker has been criticized for his defense, but it’s tricky to isolate individual performance on a team that has not been part of the #resistance. Phoenix has the 26th-ranked defense this season, was 28th last year, and 26th the one before that.
“It’s an effort thing,” said Booker. “If you take a night off—or a play off—you’re gonna pay for it. Even [against] the teams where you think you have the night off, people are still coming at you. I can’t hoorah all game like Patrick Beverley or a Draymond Green type. It’s a balance where you have to give that energy, but I have a heavy load on offense.”
Dudley offered an alternative theory. “A lot of defense is that, at a young age, people just don’t like to do it,” he said. “A lot of his generation is on social media, so their communication skills are poor. So him talking more, being involved, not being weak-side and letting his guard down for backdoors. It’s about staying engaged and knowing personnel. The other night he guarded C.J. McCollum. He might have to guard D’Angelo Russell next game.”
Triano insists that Booker has made visible improvements since he assumed the helm. “Over the last three games, we’ve seen a huge jump in his ability to defend,” said Triano. “He was known as a bad defender, but that’s not the case. He’s capable of being a very good defender.”
Only weeks into his third season, Booker remains an intoxicating talent and a work in progress. Maybe he’ll develop into a franchise-defining star. He could end up as a complementary piece, a valuable second fiddle whose strengths are amplified and whose weaknesses are muffled in a winning system. It’s too early to know.
But if Booker has unwittingly become a proxy for the eternal battle between the Eye-Test Army and the VORP Corps, one thing is certain: No side should be fully entrenched on a gifted player who just earned the right to buy a beer. Happy birthday, kid.