Can Devin Booker Become an Elite Player for the Phoenix Suns?


Devin Booker’s rookie season put him on the national map.

He’s not yet a household name, but a quality jumper and plenty of impressive performances towards the end of the season were enough to land him a place on the All-Rookie First Team. The hype is there, but it's time to take a deeper look at things to decide if Booker really has a shot to become the future of Phoenix.

It's important to remember that the young shooting guard won’t turn 20 until Halloween (well, technically the day before Halloween). There is no guarantee that his game will improve significantly enough to become a leading player on a contender, but it’s exciting to see such impressive production from a player with less grooming than most.

Upon a first glance at the numbers, you might wonder why he’s garnering so many fanatical endorsements. There is no box score statistic that makes him look special, and the advanced metrics are particularly sour on him (his RPM of -4.60, via ESPN, ranked 89th out of 95 shooting guards). When the numbers and the praise don’t align, it's important to ask whether the player is more flash than substance.

Offense

It’s not a secret that Booker’s appeal is in his offense. Coming into the league, he was touted as the best shooter in his draft class. He confirmed the conjecture almost immediately thanks to his quick release and pinpoint accuracy, showing defenders why leaving him open was a mistake.

Like, a big mistake.

Whether standing still or running off of screens, his ability to catch the ball and send it to the hoop with accuracy gave the Suns something that all teams covet: a floor spacer.

Though he didn't enter the top tier of catch-and-shoot players (he converted 41.6 percent of such shots, per NBA.com), he certainly looked the part of an aspiring Kyle Korver or J.J. Reddick.

However, as the year went along, the league got to see a multifaceted offensive game from him (due largely to injuries at the point guard position that forced him into a facilitating role). Suddenly, he looked less like an aspiring off-ball sniper and more like a future scoring machine. He showed more promise than output when left to his own scoring devices.

Despite his natural-looking release off the catch, he often found himself making small mistakes when picking the ball up to shoot. It's not like he was Ricky Rubio shooting the ball out there... except, he kind of was. He shot worse than Rubio on pull-up jumpers (per NBA.com). While he obviously has much, much more shooting talent than a player like Rubio, he found his mechanics slightly off when trying to get these shots off quickly, and that led to abysmal efficiency.

Take a look at how he speeds up his follow through on this fade away, despite having time to get the shot off comfortably. 

Another mistake he often found himself making was over-rotating when moving quickly to either side before pulling up for a shot. Look where his feet are when he jumps for this shot against the Clippers, and then when he lands. 

Though this wasn't a constant problem for him, he made enough small mistakes shooting off the dribble to see a big portion of them miss.

Even a player with perfect form will miss his fair share of shots, particularly difficult shots like these, so a player that makes too many mistakes is going to see his efficiency plummet. Based on his excellent form and consistency on shots just after catching the ball, it'll only be a matter of time (or rather, a matter of reps) before Booker sees those difficult shots fall at a higher rate.

A better pull-up shot could also help him become a more effective pick and roll ball-handler. Per NBA.com's play type statistics, 26.8 percent of Booker's shots came from pick and roll plays. Play type statistics should be approached cautiously, as they only refer to the plays that end a possession and they lend less credit to pass-heavy players (turnovers are factored into play type efficiency ratings, but assists are not). However, factoring in passing may not help Booker's pick and roll efficiency numbers by as much as other players.

He ran the pick and roll less than most point guards, but was asked to facilitate these plays more than most shooting guards. He managed to scrape by with a league-average 0.8 points per possession, but did not show off the makings of a player that will become elite on these plays.

His ball handling is solid, but he occasionally struggled when sprinting with tough defense on him, and we've already discussed how he struggled to shoot off the dribble. While he shot well near the rim, he did not attack with gusto as often as one would like (this may be attributed to a combined lack of elite athleticism and lack of touch when laying the ball up with his left hand). Despite impressive court awareness for a 19-year-old rookie, he sometimes struggled to time his passes after the pick.

Watch in this play how he misses the opportunity to pass between his defenders, instead dribbling himself into a double team. He tries to get out of the jam with a difficult lob that is easily broken up for a turnover.

Again, here he misses his window to hit the roll man with a pass between the defenders. The result is an easily interrupted pass over their heads. The lob can be an effective entry pass, but was not a smart decision in this situation. Part of the blame can be put on Len for having his back turned during the initial window of opportunity, but Booker is given a second chance to make a pass with Len in a good position and does not execute.

A last example is this ill-advised pass off of a pick and fade. Despite having a much easier pass to Mirza Teletovic (a capable shooter, hence the fade instead of the roll), he attempts to get the ball into the corner with a risky pass. Had he gotten the ball to Teletovic a moment sooner, it would either have become a decent look from the wing or an easier pass to the corner. Either situation would have been better than a forced pass leading to a turnover.

This is not to say he is a bad passer, as he has good awareness and court vision that show themselves when he is making safer passes from the perimeter. Rather, he is not a true facilitator. If the pick and roll is going to play a serious part in his future, he'll have to develop more secure ball-handling under duress and a better eye for reading situations like those above.

Booker certainly has the tools to become an elite offensive player. A well-developed jump shot can carry a player far, and his deficiencies are not outrageous. A few tweaks to some mechanics, a few lessons learned from watching film, and he will be more likely than not to become a player capable of carrying an offense.

Defense

Disclaimer: Rather than mention every time a statistic used in this section comes from nbawowy.com, I’m just going to let you assume everything came from there (unless otherwise acknowledged). It’s a phenomenal site for NBA stat geeks.

Booker’s defensive numbers are glaringly poor. Along with his third-to-last ranking in ESPN’s Defensive RPM stat, the players he guarded also managed to shoot the ball 4.8 percent better than usual (per NBA.com’s defensive player tracking statistics). Take a look at how the Suns defense fared with Booker on the court, compared to when he was on the bench.

Phoenix Suns Defense Min eFG% PPP 0 to 3 foot % 3P% DREB%
Booker On 2107 52 1.12 63.5 37.4 76.2
Booker Off 1833 52.6 1.07 64.4 38.2 78.1
Booker On-Off N/A -0.6 0.05 -0.9 -0.8 -1.9

*For those not keen to this sort of thing, a negative number is a good thing in all of these categories except for defensive rebounding percentage (DREB%). 

For reference, the best defensive team in the league last season was San Antonio, allowing 0.97 points per possession (PPP). The worst team was Brooklyn, allowing 1.08. With the difference between the best and worst team at 0.11, it is significant that the Suns allowed 0.05 more points per possession with Booker on the court. While it is true that opponents shot better with Booker off the court, this is directly related to the teammates that he played alongside most frequently.

The most common teammates for Booker to line up next to were Tyson Chandler, Alex Len, and P.J. Tucker, all of them being plus defenders. Booker spent 417 minutes, almost one-fifth of his total playing time, on the court with all three of them, a large amount of time for one 4-man unit to spend together. Consider that Chandler, Len, and Tucker only played 30 minutes as a trio when Booker wasn’t on the court with them.

Phoenix Suns Defensive On-Off Stats DRPM eFG% PPP 0 to 3 % 3P% DREB%
Booker On-Off -4.60 -0.6 0.05 -0.9 -0.8 -1.9
Tucker On-Off 0.50 -0.6 -0.02 0.3 0.5 1
Len On-Off 1.60 -2.7 -0.01 -1.1 -1.3 1.4
Chandler On-Off 2.18 0.7 0.01 -1.2 2.2 1.6

Though none of Chandler, Len, or Tucker rated phenomenally by the measures in the above table, they all had a generally positive impact on team defense (remember, we're looking for lower numbers in all categories except for Defensive Real Plus-Minus and defensive rebounding percentage). These statistics can be a bit cloudy, as quite a few factors go into what may be happening while a player is on or off the court, so it is best to take them with a grain of salt.

However, if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and the advanced stats say that it's a duck, it's probably a duck.

A small sample size is another factor that can lead to numbers being more or less extreme than is reflective of reality, but the difference between Booker with or without his trusty trio are downright bonkers.

Phoenix Suns Defense Min eFG% PPP 0 to 3 % 3P% DREB%
Booker On, Len, Chandler, and Tucker Off 269 56.6 1.20 64.3 43.2 71.5
Booker, Len, Chandler, and Tucker On 417 50.2 1.07 60.8 38.5 79.8
Difference N/A 6.4 0.13 3.5 4.7 -8.3

Remember when I said the difference between the best defense and worst defense in the league was 0.11 points per possession? Yikes. Now, the Suns defense was in the bottom tier of the league last season, and not all of that can be pinned on Booker, but there is essentially no lineup that he played in last season that was even average on defense.

Having Chandler and Len on the court at the same time is detrimental to floor-spacing on offense, but the Suns ran them together a significant amount of the time last season because of the huge liability created by not locking down the post when Booker was on the court, letting guards and wings zip into the post regularly. Nothing is evidence to this more than the fact that Booker was on the court for 93 percent of the minutes that Chandler and Len played together.

As I wrote last weekend, the Suns defense is in trouble this season. Without a player that can reliably protect the rim on defense and space the floor on offense, Phoenix is going to struggle to be productive. The hope is that Dragan Bender or Marquese Chriss can become that player, but don’t count on that happening immediately, as both are widely seen as projects.

As was stated earlier, Booker is still very young. He may never be a good defender, but he has plenty of time to develop into an average (or at least not horrible) defender. However, until that happens, it will be extremely hard for him to become an elite player. Not everybody can be James Harden.

Comparisons

So what is the path that could lead Booker to stardom? The best way to answer that will be to look at what the best shooting guards in the game are doing, comparing both their commonalities and differences from Booker.

To determine the highly subjective group of “stars” for this comparison, I’ve elected to look at the top five shooting guards in ESPN’s Offensive Real Plus-Minus. It seemed like the most appropriate method, as Booker will look to become an elite offensive player, so that standard will be the best one to hold for him. 

Elite Shooting Guards RPM ORPM Assist % TO% % Assisted
James Harden 4.39 5.37 35.4 15.9 29.4
Khris Middleton 3.76 3.13 18.9 12.3 55
Jimmy Butler 4.01 3.12 21.4 9.6 47.9
J.R. Smith 1.34 2.56 8.5 6.3 72
Klay Thompson 1.77 2.38 9.8 8.5 81
Devin Booker -4.6 -0.73 15.8 14 54.5

Though some would argue against bestowing the designation of “elite shooting guard” onto Khris Middleton (those people would be wrong) or J.R. Smith (those people would be right), both players will certainly do for this analysis.

The best comparison of this group is Khris Middleton, though he is a considerably better defender than Booker. Middleton is also a better scorer at the moment, but even modest improvement from Booker would allow him to take the edge in that category. Let's compare how they both shot last season, discussing a few different ways to look at things.

Shot Types (Percentages) Pull Up Freq. Pull Up eFG% Catch and Shoot Freq. Catch and Shoot eFG% Drives Freq. Drives FG% Drives AST%
Khris Middleton 42.9 41.2 29.3 60.6 13.1 50.3 13.3
Devin Booker 36.5 35.3 29.0 56.8 17.0 46.9 5.8

As expected, both players took similar shots, but Middleton was more productive. He was significantly more effective shotting off the dribble, but the difference off the catch was marginal. This holds up when considering shot distance.

FG% 0 to 3 ft. 3 to 10 ft. 10 to 16 ft. 16 ft. to <3P 3P
Khris Middleton 63.5 39.7 44.0 41.5 39.6
Devin Booker 64.1 41.1 37.0 36.8 34.3

Middleton was clearly more effective on shots farther from the hoop, but the similarities between how often they shoot from each distance are noticeable (per basketball-reference.com)

Shot Frequency (Percentage) Avg. Distance 0 to 3 ft. 3 to 10 ft. 10 to 16 ft. 16 ft. to <3P 3P
Khris Middleton 15.2 14.6 12.3 18.9 22.6 31.6
Devin Booker 14.6 21.2 12.9 10.6 21.9 33.3

Booker used more of his looks at the rim, while Middleton shot more from the 10 to 16 range, but otherwise their shot selection was almost identical in terms of distance. It would not be surprising for Booker to start taking more mid-range shots as his consistency off the dribble improves. 

Offensively, Booker is a few steps behind Middleton, but he plays with a similar style. Considering Booker was already better as a 19 year old rookie than Middleton was as a 21 year old rookie, it is reasonable to think that Booker can become an even better Middleton on offense. This trend remains when analyzing play type.

Play Type Frequency (Percentage) Transition Iso Ball Handler Spot Up Hand-Off Cut Off Screen
Khris Middleton 13.6 11.1 18 16.4 10.3 2.1 11.8
Devin Booker 18.6 6.2 26.8 11.4 7.2 4.1 13.3
Play Type PPP Transition Iso Ball-Handler Spot Up Hand Off Cut Off Screen PPP
Khris Middleton 1.24 0.96 0.78 1.06 1.05 0.93 0.98
Devin Booker 1.17 0.81 0.8 0.9 0.68 1.37 0.95

Remember, these statistics only acknowledge how a given play ended, so there is some discrepancy in how they measure a player’s effectiveness. Disclaimers aside, there are again noticeable similarities in how these players are scoring, though Middleton is slightly more efficient (as an aside, each player's frequencies will not add up to 100 percent, as less significant play types were left out of the table). All in all, it seems fair to see Booker becoming a better-shooting Middleton on offense. However, Booker will likely struggle to become a plus defender like Middleton is. If he can’t do that, he will have to escalate to Harden-like offensive heights to become a truly elite guard. If he can improve on his ability to create his own shot, this isn’t out of the question for him.

Until then, a Middleton-level talent seems like a more realistic ceiling.

That’s not a bad thing. Middleton is an outstanding, perpetually underrated wing that has established himself as a fantastic player at a relatively shallow position over the past two seasons. For what it’s worth, Middleton did not become a strong defender until 2014, so it is not completely out of the question for Booker to prove himself to be a late bloomer on defense. Just don’t count on it.

Conclusion

Truly elite players are hard to come by. We so often hear people proclaim that you need one to win a championship that the mere sentiment has become something of a sports talk trope. It's no coincidence that teams give up on trying to win for entire seasons, all in the hopes of landing a top prospect in the draft.

Booker has a long ways to go before he will be ready to carry a team to the Finals, but he has given indications that he could one day be of that caliber. If he can become an average defender while improving his passing, as well as his ability to create and finish his own shots, he has the potential to become a new Harden.

However, most players do not reach their ceilings. A more realistic future sees Booker as a Middleton-caliber player. His floor may be something more along the lines of Bradley Beal, and that is what is truly exciting about him. At 19 years old, Booker has already shown that he has what it takes to become at worst a strong second option for an offense. Anything beyond that is gravy, but it's gravy that is expected. If there is one thing for Suns fans to be excited for, it is watching their young shooting guard for years to come.

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