The offseason established a host of new story lines across the NBA that require closer inspection. Throughout August, we’re giving second thoughts to the most intriguing ones.
A Team USA minicamp invite is a mark of distinction. Thirty-five of the best players in the country, together in one gym, establishing a heightened competitive atmosphere that eventually coalesces into a fraternity. The best basketball players in the United States learn from their peers, and in turn, learn about themselves and where they stand on the world’s stage. It’s like a therapy session out of Billions—less therapy, more unadorned confidence boosting.
Of the participants in Las Vegas for this year’s camp in late July, Devin Booker—who signed a five-year, $158 million extension with the Phoenix Suns last month—was the youngest. He was two days shy of his 19th birthday in his NBA debut back in 2015; his 22nd birthday is exactly two weeks after the start of the 2018-19 season. In short order, however, Booker has become one of the most polarizing players in the NBA, a projective device for what should and shouldn’t be valued in the league today.
Booker is a “good stats, bad team” player, a label pregnant with negative connotations. But whether you see Booker as a future All-NBA player or the beneficiary of a grossly imbalanced roster on the league’s worst team over the past three seasons, you inevitably come back to team context. It creates a feedback loop: His development on a bad team for the first three years of his career can be spun as either a positive or negative. His lows paint his production as empty calories, while his highs reach near-historic levels. Booker averaged 24.9 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 4.7 assists for the Suns last season. Only 15 players in NBA history have averaged at least 24 points, four rebounds, and four assists in their third season in the NBA. The only player to do it who was younger than Booker was LeBron James.
There are few things more tantalizing in the NBA than trying to map out the future of a 21-year-old player. Even after Year 3, you see whatever it is you want to see. A king-of-the-court drill broke out during one of the Team USA practices, with Kevin Durant, Paul George, Victor Oladipo, Khris Middleton, Myles Turner, and Booker participating. Videos of Booker’s performance against Durant and George are on YouTube. Booker holds his own on defense against Durant (who has always been at least marginally less effective against smaller defenders) but had trouble getting his own shot off over a player roughly 6 inches taller than him. Ultimately, none of it matters—this is clipped footage of a 21-year-old trying to beat one of the three best players in the world in a loose game of one-on-one. But from a different angle, it looks like this:
Young Kobe. It’s fitting! Bryant had built a staggering self-mythology of carrying teams single-handedly. There was no need for mythmaking in Phoenix—Booker, one of Kobe’s most successful acolytes, has been the Suns’ best shooter, scorer, slasher, and playmaker for most of his time in the league by default. Booker had the fifth-highest usage rate (31.7) in 2017-18 among players who notched at least 1,500 minutes. Among active players in the league, only James, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Carmelo Anthony, and Durant had higher usage rates in their third season. The Suns simply did not have any other viable options; they needed Booker to score. Phoenix was 9-13 last season when Booker scored 30 or more points, which isn’t good, but it’s a stark improvement over the .276 record the Suns have amassed in total over the past three seasons. Also true to the Kobe manifesto, the team wasn’t much better when Booker prioritized getting his lesser teammates involved. The Suns were 1-11 in the games Booker tallied seven or more assists, and that one win was against the Hawks, the worst team in the NBA at the time. (It took Booker going on an eight-point outburst in 31 seconds within the final minute of the game to earn that W.)
Booker has been given an unusual workload for a young player at an increasingly fungible position—you’re either a star swingman or you’re a 3-and-D role player—and it’s allowed him to explore his creativity. After spending a freshman season at Kentucky pigeonholed as a spot-up shooter, Booker is already a prolific pick-and-roll practitioner, using more possessions per game as the ball handler last season than either Kyrie Irving or John Wall. The reps have increased with every season, and so has his feel. Booker’s best qualities as a passer at this stage of his career might be his eye and touch on lob passes, which should help with the NBA transition for Deandre Ayton, who has the catch radius of Tyson Chandler and the vertical explosiveness of Marquese Chriss.
Players on rookie deals get the benefit of the doubt; players on max extensions do not. Optimism turns to cynicism quickly when money becomes a bigger issue. Booker has one of the most beautiful shooting strokes this side of Klay Thompson, but while his percentages over the past two seasons are above average (37.3 percent on a total of 789 attempts), he hasn’t been able to parlay his mechanics into elite accuracy (for reference, Thompson has shot at least 40 percent from 3 in all seven seasons of his career). And on defense, Booker has been a notorious ball-watcher over his first three seasons, losing assignments and often getting burned on backdoor cuts. He’ll have a Harden reel soon enough should that continue.
But the magic of being 21 is how limitless the future can appear and all the different ways that one can navigate it. Booker has set a baseline for his skills in Phoenix and along the way has put up some historic counting stats. Year 4, however, is when his true path will begin to reveal itself. For the first time in his career, Booker has a team with a functioning roster that more or less makes sense at each position. For once, after dealing with three coaches in three seasons, he’ll have one who has the front office’s full support in Igor Kokoskov. He has the outline of the ideal modern basketball player: a 6-foot-6 initiating wing with limitless range on his jump shot and the ability to run the pick-and-roll and spot up in a second’s notice. These are the tools that every team needs to build around. That outline will be easier to spot and embrace once the shock of his $158 million contract subsides.