When the Phoenix Suns got off to a hot start and Devin Booker appeared to be maturing into the player that Suns fans have always claimed he could be, I was hesitant to move off my belief that Booker is nothing more than a great stats, bad team guy who puts up gaudy counting stats while doing nothing of value to help his team win.
Well, it’s November 14 as this goes to press, the Suns are 6-4 and just gave the Lakers all they wanted and then some in a hard-fought loss on the road, if the season ended today they’d make the playoffs, and Booker is setting career highs in just about every stat you can name other than points and assists.
Turns out all Booker needed was to play on an NBA team instead of a G-League roster playing an NBA schedule.
Booker is not an NBA-caliber player now because he’s riding the coattails of guys like Ricky Rubio and (!) Aron Baynes instead of having to carry human garbage fires like Josh Jackson and Dragan Bender.
No, Booker is an NBA-caliber player and legit All-Star in the making because with actual teammates to put him in a position to succeed, he is making the most of those opportunities and playing like…well, like a guy who’s putting up .174 WS/48 and 3.3 VORP/82 in ten games so far on a rapidly improving genuine playoff contender.
Needless to say, this has been one hell of a revelation to those of us who spent the last four seasons slamming Booker precisely because he had gaudy counting stats but absolutely nothing in his advanced-stat profile to even remotely suggest he was anything other than a gaudy scorer who was forever doomed to put up big numbers on trash squads.
It’s not a perfect metamorphosis (he still couldn’t guard my dead grandmother defensively), but for an offensive evolution for a guy whose role has always been to get buckets at that end of the floor, it’s more than good enough.
Consider the following ordered lists of Booker’s advanced stats from his rookie year to 10 games so far in 2019-20.
WS/48: .043, .035, .063, .076, .174.
BPM: -3.1, -2.3, 0.4, 0.8, 2.3.
VORP (prorated this year): -0.6, -0.2, 1.6, 1.2, 3.3.
TS%: .535, .531, .564, .584, .660 (!!)
Funny how having one of the best pure passers in the league as your point guard, as Booker does now with Rubio, does wonders for your scoring efficiency.
Is it still way too early to project a 6-4 Suns team off to a hot start all the way out to the 49-33 record that a .600 winning percentage buys you in the NBA?
Of course it is. But on the other hand, the Suns have a plus-6.2 point differential, which projects to 58 wins per 82, and even when you adjust for the breakneck pace of the league, they’re still posting a +5.9 Net Rating. This is not a team that looks due for any kind of major regression if they keep that up (if they lose a couple of games by 30, that can change in an instant, but they just went on the road against the Lakers and only lost by 8.)
I’ve got to give credit where it’s due. Monty Williams is not a great coach, but he’s a competent coach, which is a big improvement for the Suns.
Likewise, Aron Baynes is one of those guys who was a fan favorite in Detroit and Boston for exactly the same reason he’s becoming one in Phoenix, because competence and leadership mean winning tends to follow him wherever he goes.
Rubio can’t shoot, but who needs Rubio to shoot when he can pass the ball to Booker, who is hitting 51 percent of his 3-point shots on a team that is both smart in terms of shot selection (9th in 3PAR, below league average in midrange jumpers and long twos) and efficient in making them (3rd in 3P%)?
Every good team needs a guy who understands his role as a primary scorer, settles into it, and has teammates who are the best possible support for a primary scorer’s best self.
The difference between Devin Booker in the first four years of his NBA career and Devin Booker now is precisely that. He finally understands his role, and he’s thriving in it.
And I owe a lot of Suns fans an apology. Sorry, guys, I didn’t realize Booker could actually play team basketball! I was wrong and it’s been a whole lot of fun watching Booker make me look stupid.