“I love Devin Booker, man. He loves the game, and he’s like a dog. He’ll talk shit. He’ll rough you up. He’ll get up into you. You better watch out for that boy, because he is nice. He’s next. I’m telling you”. This was Kevin Durant speaking about Sun’s star shooting guard Devin Booker on the Bill Simmons Podcast back in 2017. This is not the first time future first-ballot Durant has raved about the Kentucky product. In fact, Durant insisted on his Thunder drafting Booker back with the 14th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. “We called Devin Booker,” Durant told The Hoop Central. “We wanted him in OKC.”
The all-star sharpshooting Booker is, by far, having a career year posting a stat line of 26/4/6 for a second consecutive year in a row, but better yet on much more efficient shooting from all areas. Booker could join LeBron James and Oscar Robertson as only players with multiple seasons averaging 26 points and six assists a game before the age of 24. Booker has been flirting with a 50/40/90 season averaging 48% from the field, 36% from three-point land, and a remarkable 91% from the charity stripe. He has never been the issue in Phoenix considering all his stats have improved year in and year out. He’s taken on more of the responsibility of scoring and more importantly, ball-handling duties with inconsistent point guard play being a major concern in the desert dating back to the days of Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic.
The real concern the Suns will have to deal with at hand is what they’re going to do to keep Booker happy in Phoenix from here on out. Back in 2018 Booker signed a five-year/$158 million contract that kicked in at the start of this season. The Suns drafted highly-touted DeAndre Ayton out of Arizona who took a leap this year statistically but he was suspended 25 games for violating the NBA’s anti-drug policy. That can be detrimental to a young team trying to establish a foundation between two of its young stars. Prior to getting drafted by the Suns, when asked about the idea of playing with Booker, Ayton stated “That’s Shaq and Kobe 2.0…We could really make something happen in Phoenix”. The comparison comes off as a reach especially from a teenager who has not touched the floor let alone shared the floor with Booker, but the potential is there. DeAndre Ayton averaged 19 points and 12 rebounds on 54% shooting from the field. The pick and roll and pick and pop ceiling between these two future stars is definitely something worth noting.
We can see why Durant wanted Booker in Oklahoma City seeing the pick and roll/pop ability to go with perimeter shooting gave him flashes of ex-teammate James Harden. Even though Booker is one the league’s underrated passers a guy like Ricky Rubio is someone that can bridge the gap and form a balanced attack between Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton when he’s running the show.
Before the Suns inked Ricky Rubio to a three year/$51 million deal the Suns gave the keys to the offense to Devin Booker. Granted, with him being the best player on the team he earned the right to be taking the most shots on a game to game basis. But then he was asked to run the whole offense considering he was the most talented ball-handler on the team and it would help generate offense for himself, not just others. For a brief period of time, the Suns had pass first journeyman Elfrid Payton calling plays with Booker off-ball back when they traded for him in 2018. Speaking about being traded to the Suns and the idea of playing alongside Booker during a Q&A with Alex Kennedy of SLAM Magazine Payton expressed “I’m very excited to play with him. He’s a really great talent – someone who can shoot the ball extremely well, someone who can really score from anywhere on the court. I’m looking forward to trying to make the game even easier for him”.
Though the time shared in the same backcourt was temporary in the eleven games Payton and Booker played together; Booker averaged 28/4/4 on 42% from deep while attempting 20 or more shots in eight of the eleven games played together. The sample size is quite small, but the common denominator here is the pass-first mentality that Payton and now Suns starting point guard Ricky Rubio possess. It’s not a coincidence that in 2018 Booker has career highs in three-point attempts made a game (2.7), three-point attempts (7.1), and three-point percentage (.383). The sample size was just proof that Booker was able to unleash the off-ball dimension of his game playing off of Payton. Rubio being an upgrade at point guard compared to Payton, and Booker can mirror some of the things Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen did on the offensive end.
With the selfless Rondo quarterbacking the Celtics’ offense spoon-feeding, Allen had open perimeter jump shots in all sorts of sets Doc Rivers used to design back in the late 2000s that used to free Allen up. The Ricky Rubio signing was also very vital because, given the talent and ceiling, you didn’t want Booker to become the next high usage rate guard that had to deal with the burden of the offense having to go through him in order for points to be scored on a nightly basis. That’s the same load that weighed on guys like Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, James Harden, Dwayne Wade at one point in their careers. Ricky Rubio taking that ball-handling burden off of Booker will help DeAndre Ayton as well because Rubio is far from shoot first like Booker so Ayton can always rely on him for touches in the post as well as shots.
The Western Conference has been shaken up quite a bit with stars linking up to form mini super teams over the past couple of years. For example, the Minnesota Timberwolves trading for skilled point guard, D’Angelo Russell, who Booker had itched the Suns to sign last offseason. Will Booker’s elite numbers and recent contract extension be enough to keep him happy in the desert, especially with his good friends in Karl Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell enjoying each other’s company after also dealing with constant regular seasons watching the playoffs rather than partaking? The Suns must continue to build around Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton, and Ricky Rubio with three and D players like Kelly Oubre, Cameron Johnson, and Mikal Bridges. The question won’t be offense with the Suns, but with other young teams on the rise such as the Sacramento Kings, Dallas Mavericks, and New Orleans Pelicans will the Suns be able to keep it cool on the defensive end?