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Devin Booker Keeps Climbing the Ladder. When Will the Suns Catch Up?

The Phoenix guard had two more star-making performances this week, but, as has been the case for most of his career, they weren’t enough to secure wins. Can the Suns break out of their dysfunction and give Booker a worthy support system?

Devin Booker Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Devin Booker’s first three points in Monday’s game against the Jazz were a pretty clear indicator of how the rest of the night would go. Booker got the ball following a Deandre Ayton block of Donovan Mitchell, and instead of pushing it up the floor for a fast break, he slowly pulled back and moved to the right corner of the court. The rest of the Suns players migrated to the opposite side—as if they were allergic to Booker—and watched as he spent seven seconds lulling a mismatched Derrick Favors to sleep before stepping back for a 3.

Devin Booker steps back for a 3, guarded by Derrick Favors

Booker would end the night with 59 points on 34 shots; the only other Suns player with double-digit attempts was Jimmer Fredette, fresh off his arrival from China, because of course. On Wednesday night against the Wizards, Booker began his night in a similar way. This time, he dribbled straight into a pull-up 3—the rest of the Suns didn’t even get a chance to set up on offense—to start the game and begin his scoring deluge once again. It swished in. Booker finished with 50 points, making him the youngest player ever to record back-to-back 50-point games.

This season, Booker has taken nearly 20 attempts per game, which is five more than the next closest Sun, T.J. Warren, who has not played since late January, and six more than Kelly Oubre Jr., whom the team added in mid-December. During the past 10 games, Booker has averaged 34.8 points—a number that, had he averaged it across the season, would be second only to James Harden’s absurd 36.2 points per game. For better or for worse, the Suns revolve around Booker—and he’s milking the situation for all the points he can get. And why not? When you’re 42 games below .500 a year after you said you were “done not making the playoffs,” what else is there to do?

Strangely enough, Booker’s 59 came just one day after the two-year anniversary of his 70-point game against the Celtics in 2017. For some reason, the ides of March have been kind to Booker’s scoring. Those two performances along with Wednesday’s 50—the highest-scoring of Booker’s career—provide the perfect snapshot of his four years in the NBA: All three were prolific scoring efforts, and all three still resulted in losses.

To be clear: Booker’s brilliance as a scorer is unassailable, and he has already proved effective at draining shots from all over the floor (he made five 3s Monday night and three Wednesday night) as well as getting to the line—against Utah, he finished 16-of-17 at the stripe. This season, he’s taking and making more shots near the rim (0-3 feet) than at any other point in his career and has improved his midrange shooting by almost 10 percentage points over last season.

But the question remains: How much can we value scoring when it isn’t enough? And who is to blame for rendering Booker’s career highlights useless? For now, Booker presents a potential case of a “good stats, bad team guy,” a kind of tag that has been applied to the likes of Nick Young and the Sacramento version of DeMarcus Cousins. In Booker’s case, it’s too early to pass judgment. What typically determines whether players end up with that label is the context surrounding them. A dire situation can buy good will for some time. With teammates and a system like the one Phoenix has in place, losses are both understandable and expected. But if the context changes—whether that’s via player additions or a systematic overhaul—and the win totals don’t increase, that positive perception may change too. At some point, Booker may stop being seen as a victim of his circumstances, and instead be looked at as the cause of them.

Booker hasn’t plateaued or regressed in any way that could be concerning. While his 3-point shooting, which has dropped from 38.3 percent to 32.7 percent this season, has been worrisome, he is averaging career highs in points (26.5), field goal percentage (46.2) and assists (6.7). The absence of a true point guard in Phoenix is the reason for his assist bump—he’s handling the ball a lot more and his usage rate has broken the 30 percent mark—and really, a clear indication of just how much this team has come to rely on his playmaking abilities. Without anyone to play off of, and no other second guy on the roster being ready to perform at his level, Booker has resorted to shooting more, but also playmaking. As Jonathan Tjarks wrote in January, Booker has the skills to be at the very least a lite version of Harden. And when I talked to one of the Suns’ assistant coaches earlier this season, he said the team has Booker practice the types of foul-drawing moves Harden uses.

But what Harden has that Booker doesn’t is a system that caters to him and employs the right players around him to accentuate his elite skills. Booker has the opposite. Though Ayton has had a strong rookie season—and there’s hope in Phoenix that he’ll become the yang to Booker’s yin—the Suns are lacking in the forwards/wings department, where they have consistently drafted poorly and been unable to develop much of anything. And it’s not just on the floor where things appear dire. As Phoenix’s extensively chronicled organizational dysfunction becomes increasingly comical (the image of goats defecating in an office would make anyone laugh), it gets more tempting to wonder how Booker would fare on a team with a clear direction—even on franchises like Atlanta or Dallas, which may be near the bottom now but are at least on a path toward relevance. This is the larger context that’s Booker’s saving grace. For now.

The Suns don’t have to worry about whether Booker might grow displeased and try to leave anytime soon—he signed a five-year, $158 million extension last summer. But unlike his peers, who find themselves in situations with some upside, Booker is part of a franchise that is not in a position to take advantage of any leap he might make now or in the near future. Phoenix will end the season with a 14 percent chance at the no. 1 pick in the lottery (and a 52 percent chance of at least getting a top-four selection), so that outlook could change: Just imagine Zion alongside Booker and the Suns’ future instantly gets brighter. But there’s still a long way to go. As a franchise, Phoenix may not have done anything recently to “deserve” landing the best draft prospect since Anthony Davis, but Booker, who continues to pour in points night after night while racking up loss after loss, certainly does.