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Here Comes the Sun

The sun may have set on a Kyrie Irving–led backcourt in Phoenix, but Devin Booker’s progress in his third season has become a ray of hope for the struggling young Suns

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We were this close to the Suns Splash Bros.

Phoenix discussed a trade over the summer that would’ve landed them point guard Kyrie Irving, but the team was unwilling to part with the no. 4 overall pick, which they used on Josh Jackson. Irving was “stung” by the news, according to ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan, and eventually requested a trade. Even with Irving very publicly on the trade block, the Suns were still reluctant to include Jackson in a deal.

Alas. Irving and Devin Booker would have been the closest thing the league has to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Irving would’ve been the magical shotmaker, and Booker would spread the floor as a 3-point assassin. If they had joined forces, this season would’ve been completely different for Phoenix. The situation with Eric Bledsoe, who would have gone to Cleveland in the discussed Irving deal, would’ve been avoided entirely. Earl Watson, fired after just three games, might still be the coach. Maybe the Suns would’ve been players in free agency (they had a meeting with Blake Griffin, which he later cancelled).

Instead, the Suns got off to a historically horrific start. Now, Jay Triano is the coach and they’re 15-25—still closer to the top of the lottery standings than the bottom of the playoff seedings. That’s OK. They’re making progress. Especially Booker, who has not only blossomed into a star in his third season, but has become much more than the Southwestern version of Klay Thompson Lite.

Booker can still score. The 21-year-old guard is scoring 25 points per game, and in his last 10 games, he’s averaging 29.9 points with a gorgeous 52.9 effective field goal percentage. The list of players as young as Booker to average at least 25 points includes four Hall of Famers, three current All-NBA players, and Booker’s ex-teammate at Kentucky, Karl-Anthony Towns. But Booker isn’t just getting buckets off his perimeter shot.

The Suns guard has transformed into a pick-and-roll enthusiast. In his third season, he’s displaying a tighter, lower handle that enables him to get into the teeth of the defense. Booker scored with volume over his first two seasons, but he wasn’t all that efficient. Now, he’s a less volatile scorer, and he’s finding ways to fill the box score on a nightly basis, whether it’s with his improved passing or his ability to get to the line. He’s drawing free throws at a career-high rate (0.34) that puts him in the same range as Russell Westbrook.

It’s quite a drastic development for Booker, considering he logged only 11 pick-and-roll possessions as a freshman at Kentucky, per Synergy. Without many playmaking chances, he looked like a potential premium shooting specialist in the mold of Thompson. And, to be sure, Booker still has Splash Bro blood.

But Thompson doesn’t handle, pass, or draw fouls like Booker. Maybe if Thompson leaves Golden State, we’ll find out he’s capable of more. After all, Booker has largely been afforded the opportunity to try new things because he was drafted by a rebuilding team. In the NBA, Booker ran 524 pick-and-rolls as a rookie, 761 as a sophomore, and 350 in 30 games so far this season. That’s 8.9 per game pick-and-rolls in the NBA, compared to only 0.3 per game at Kentucky. It’s not as if Wildcats coach John Calipari was oblivious to Booker’s ball-handling upside. The team just called for other players to handle the responsibility. The Suns are giving Booker the keys to drive.

James Harden is suddenly a more appropriate comparison for Booker, which makes everything happening around the Suns star all the more interesting. Harden progressed in Houston, mostly as a result of his increased opportunity, but also because of a roster that provided him with maximum floor spacing. Booker runs a huge load of pick-and-roll, like Harden, but doesn’t have the same spacing luxury. The Suns rank 29th in 3-point percentage; of regular rotation players, only Booker, Troy Daniels, and Dragan Bender shoot 3s better than the league average of 36.4 percent. Tyler Ulis has been the starting point guard for 27 games, and often keeps the ball out of Booker’s hands while not spacing the floor effectively. Marquese Chriss, Bender, and Alex Len are figuring things out in the frontcourt (Chriss has been especially impressive as of late). T.J. Warren and Jackson get buckets at forward, but neither of them are shooters. The fit around Booker is mediocre, but that’s the tradeoff with giving opportunity to young players. Phoenix has one of the youngest rosters in basketball, per age weighted by minutes played. With Jared Dudley and Greg Monroe plastered to the bench, Tyson Chandler is the only player older than 27 to play in more than 15 games.

Is going full youth movement the best approach? I’ve spoken with a handful of longtime executives who think the one area that the 76ers missed while Sam Hinkie was general manager was not adding veterans to support his young roster. The Sixers were tanking, of course. That was part of the plan. But the same idea could apply to the Suns, who deliberately sandbagged the 2016-17 season by icing Bledsoe during the final 15 games. One team executive made the point that veterans can be placeholders, while younger players are put in lesser roles until they can grow into more featured ones. Veterans add stability, which can be valuable for any player’s development. In other words, this exec would like to see veterans added (or Dudley and Monroe to play more), so that the younger players could play more limited roles, or play significant roles in the G League.

Mixing in veterans with younger players brings to mind the Kings. Despite signalling a rebuild by trading DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento has the 14th-oldest roster in the league. George Hill takes the ball out of De’Aaron Fox’s hands. Zach Randolph averages 10 more minutes than Skal Labissiere. Kosta Koufos exists, while Georgios Papagiannis plays in the G League. It has to be frustrating for Kings fans. But it’s not a bad thing to have Fox (and Frank Mason III) developing within a multi-ball handler offense alongside Hill, or for Labissiere to get eased in rather than possibly ruining the raw big’s confidence by tossing him in before he’s ready”?. There’s truly no one right way to develop players. Both teams are doing it; they’re just doing it differently.

I tend to prefer Phoenix’s philosophy. The organization needs to focus on continuing to maximize Booker by surrounding him with potent shooters. But the same reason Booker was able to run so much pick-and-roll to accelerate his development is the same reason he’s surrounded by young guys who aren’t ready to carry Phoenix into the playoffs. We’ve seen Donovan Mitchell explode, because Utah gave him the chance. Players can expand their games by doing things that might make them uncomfortable. Players like Bender, Jackson, and Chriss may eventually become ideal floor partners for Booker if they develop their jumpers. It’ll take time.

What’s more frustrating is the fact that the rest of the roster doesn’t align with the development of their cornerstone. Booker is ready to win, but the Suns aren’t close. Suns general manager Ryan McDonough is armed with all of their future picks, two first-rounders from Miami, the first-round pick they got from Milwaukee in the Bledsoe deal, and all of their talented young players. They’ve drawn interest from free agents. The next time an opportunity comes to trade for a superstar, they’ll be near the top of the list with assets to offer, and now they have a budding superstar to hold that star’s interest.

But they had that chance this summer with Irving, and passed on it. Their decision could turn out for the best. Had they unloaded their asset ammo on Irving, who holds a player option in the summer of 2019, it might have ended up as a pricey two-year rental. It’s not as if other stars won’t become available in the future.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the non-trade for Irving, Booker finds himself in a situation that resembles Irving’s in Cleveland before LeBron James came home. Irving had all the opportunity in the world, like Booker, but with less-than-ideal personnel around him. Phoenix will need good fortune on their side so that when the next star becomes available, either through trade or free agency, he’s interested in joining forces with Booker, much like LeBron was with Irving.

If Booker keeps getting better and better, and the team nails their roster additions to come, it may only be a matter of time until the Suns become a destination franchise rather than an unwanted pit stop.