It’s All-Star season again. The best players in the league may not want to play in an exhibition in the middle of a pandemic, but they all want to be selected. That’s especially true for young stars like Devin Booker who are still trying to make a name for themselves. The Suns guard made his case in a 132-100 victory over the Blazers on Monday, carving up their defense with 34 points on 12-of-17 shooting and four assists. The interesting thing about Booker, who made his first All-Star Game last season after just missing the cut in previous years, is that his biggest competition is his own teammate.
The Suns traded for Chris Paul in the offseason, and the 35-year-old has more than lived up to expectations. Paul looks the same as ever, orchestrating the offense, setting everyone up, and picking and choosing his spots as a scorer and defender. Phoenix has taken on his identity, going from the 10th-fastest pace in the NBA last season to the 29th this year. Even in his prime, Paul never liked to get out and run. He wants to walk the ball up the floor and control as much of the game as possible.
It’s hard to argue with the results. The Suns are the no. 4 seed in the Western Conference with a 20-10 record, only one game behind the Lakers and Clippers, who are tied for no. 2. They have separated from the middle of the pack. They have the fifth-best net rating in the league (plus-5.7) and are far ahead of the next two teams out West—the Nuggets (plus-3.8) and Warriors (plus-1.4).
Despite the arrival of another lead guard, Booker hasn’t taken much of a step back. But he has adjusted his game to make Paul more comfortable. The biggest change is his drop in assists, from 6.5 per game last season to 4.3 this season. Going from Ricky Rubio to Paul as his backcourt partner meant that Booker would have to give up some control of the offense. There’s no point in trading for Paul to play him off the ball. Booker has become more of a pure scorer, averaging a career high in 2-point percentage (55.6 percent on 12.3 attempts per game) and is just off his career high in 3-point percentage (38.7 on 5.7 attempts).
He’s a bucket-getting machine. Only 11 players in the NBA this season have reached his marks in efficiency and volume from 2-point range. That list includes some of the biggest, strongest, and most athletic players in the league. There are only two who are shorter than 6-foot-6: Booker and Kyrie Irving. Neither has great size or speed compared to their peers, but it doesn’t matter because they are so skilled at creating space with the ball in their hands and knocking down contested jumpers.
Booker had everything going against the Trail Blazers on Monday. He scored 17 points in the first quarter. He used his size (6-foot-5 and 206 pounds) to score over smaller defenders, like Damian Lillard, in the post:
He ran around screens off the ball and drained jumpers:
And he thrived in the pick-and-roll, punishing even good defenders like Derrick Jones Jr. off the dribble and finishing at the rim:
Then, in the second half, after the Blazers’ defense started keying in on him, he moved the ball. He may not pass as often with Paul around, but he can still do it at a high level. It no longer matters what his first defender on the pick-and-roll does. Booker can manipulate the entire defense to create open shots for his teammates:
There are only a handful of players with Booker’s offensive versatility. He has the rare ability to slide between playing on and off the ball without losing a beat. His Steph Curry–like flexibility has allowed the Suns to take the next step this season.
Booker makes the most out of his relatively limited opportunities with the ball, letting Paul (who is no. 8 in the NBA in average time of possession per game this season) dominate the rock for most of the game. Booker is no. 5 in points per touch among players who average at least 50 touches per game this season, one spot ahead of Kevin Durant:
Points Per Touch Leaders
|Player||Touches Per Game||Points Per Touch|
|Player||Touches Per Game||Points Per Touch|
All those players are part of star duos or trios. The key to making those partnerships work is having stars who can score without holding the ball. Time with the ball is zero-sum; there are only so many touches to go around. That’s even more true on a team like Phoenix that plays at a glacially slow pace.
Booker doesn’t need Paul to set him up. He’s more than capable of running the offense on his own. He’s actually been more efficient without Paul (63.1 true shooting percentage) than with him (60.0) this season. And that’s with his usage rate in those minutes increasing from 28.7 to 32.3. The Suns’ backcourt has one of the most bizarre lineup splits in the league:
Paul and Booker Lineup Splits
|Paul + no Booker||329||plus-14.1|
|Booker + no Paul||304||plus-13.3|
|Booker + Paul||592||plus-1.8|
Part of what’s happening is that Phoenix has a dominant second unit. It has started Frank Kaminsky at power forward over the past few weeks, which means it’s bringing Jae Crowder, Cameron Johnson, Cameron Payne, and Dario Saric off the bench. Both Booker and Paul have thrived when facing opposing reserves in lineups with so many quality players around them. The biggest drag on their combined performance is Deandre Ayton, who has not taken the step forward that many expected in his third season. He has one of the worst net ratings among players in their rotation (plus-3.9 in 950 minutes) despite usually sharing the floor with both Paul and Booker. Their net rating goes from minus-0.7 in 537 minutes with Ayton to plus-33.4 in 55 minutes without him.
Coach Monty Williams will have to figure out that issue in the playoffs. The Suns’ long-term ceiling depends on the development of Ayton, the no. 1 pick in the 2018 draft, so Williams will have to balance getting him postseason experience while still trying to win.
But that dynamic means that Phoenix is winning in the regular season primarily because it can keep an elite guard on the floor for all 48 minutes, much like Houston used to with Paul and James Harden. And that brings us back to the All-Star Game. Read the ballots of writers who cover the league, including my colleagues Kevin O’Connor and Dan Devine, and you will see them choosing between Booker and Paul for one spot. They both picked Paul by a narrow margin because he controls the ball more, averages more assists, and has a bigger defensive impact.
If Paul makes the All-Star team over him, it would likely be frustrating for Booker. For one, Paul is no longer an All-Defensive terror. The list of his most common defensive matchups this season isn’t much more impressive than Booker’s. Mikal Bridges gets the toughest perimeter assignments on most nights. Second, the reason Paul plays like more of a traditional point guard than Booker is because Booker can dominate in an off-ball role and Paul can’t. Booker is essentially being punished for being the more versatile of the two star guards. He’s sacrificing control of the team’s offense to help his team win after years of being criticized for putting up empty stats on bad teams. That’s the sort of thing coaches usually reward when they choose reserves.
The NBA is a scorer’s league. And the fact that Booker is averaging 1.5 times as many points (24.7 per game) as Paul (16.6) is important. It will be even more important in the playoffs, when many games become shoot-outs. Booker is the one who will have to put the Suns on his back when it matters most. Phoenix is his team. It would be nice if he got some credit for it.