Devin Booker, nascent Point God
Booker is the most well-rounded guard in the NBA today, and Chris Paul may have had something to do with it
Smart basketball people love to say that growth isn’t linear; that makes Devin Booker’s evolution as a player even more satisfying.
It doesn’t necessarily show up in the box scores, but every season, Booker comes back with tangible improvements to his game. This summer, Booker put on his floppy hat and spent time in the garden nurturing his playmaking skills. It’s clear that Chris Paul provided the fertilizer.
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For the first time since 2018-19, Booker is the point guard in both name and function, and he’s responded with a career-best 8.3 assists per game. His 38% assist rate is a smidge higher than Point God Paul and the seventh-highest number in the league. Overall, the Suns score 124 points per 100 possessions when Booker is on the floor, in the 95th percentile for lineups leaguewide.
Particularly in the first quarter, Booker has habitually gotten others going first. In the team’s recent loss to Brooklyn (a back-to-back missing three rotation players and introducing Bradley Beal), Booker had four assists before even attempting a shot.
Paul’s stylistic influence is undeniable. Like Paul, Booker has become a legitimate pick-and-roll artiste, playing petrified defenders like a piano. Over time, he’s developed a master’s sense of tempo and timing, tickling the ivories with delicate pianissimo notes before abruptly switching to sforzando. In non-musical terms, that means he’s generating 1.21 points out of the pick-and-roll (including passes), good for the 93rd percentile in the league.
Watch as he gets Keegan Murray on his back and keeps him there for an eternity, waiting for Jusuf Nurkic to clean out interior defenders like the world’s tallest fullback:
Speaking of football, this would be one of those back-shoulder passes commentators gush over, placed between two defenders where only Booker’s intended receiver can get it:
Booker isn’t a skywalker, but he has an uncanny ability to laser twisting, triple-clutch passes from the air (perhaps he’s been watching Tyrese Haliburton clips):
His ability to deliver passes into shooting pockets with both accuracy and velocity is an underrated part of his new passing success. Few players can generate both from as wide a variety of angles and motions.
In fact, Booker has become such an elite passer that the Suns often use him to quarterback in-bounds plays, where he’s throwing players open with perfect touch passes into space:
Despite all that passing, Booker has somehow ramped up his bucket-getting, too. In the second quarter of that Nets game, Booker scored 16 points on seven shots. He’s figured out how to balance his natural scoring instincts with his playmaking duties, and he’s averaging a career-high in points per game.
Booker gets buckets in an old-school way. Only 24% of Booker’s shots come from the three-point line, a rarity for today’s point guards. He’s only attempted six corner threes all season. Booker relies heavily upon the fickle midrange, but he’s shooting career-highs on shots at the rim and above-the-break threes, upping his overall efficiency. He’s also shown a newfound ruthlessness in hunting fouls. The way Booker launches the ball from awkward angles upon feeling the defender’s slightest push sure reminds me of a certain insurance spokesman:
Booker is averaging 8.1 free throws per game, by far the most of his career and a top-10 number. Despite Phoenix’s reputation for being allergic to the line, lineups with Booker are averaging 27 made free throws per 100 possessions, one of the best marks in the league. (I dove a little deeper into the Suns’ tilting of the math here.)
Another beneficial effect of CP3’s tutelage: Booker is posting a reasonable 11% turnover rate, far below the ~14% he compiled in seasons before Paul arrived. That’s average-ish and acceptable, given his ballhandling burden.
Booker is also acceptable on defense, particularly for a player with his offensive load. He’s hardly a stopper, but he’s no doormat, either. Booker is in the right places at the right times, tries hard, and possesses good (not great) off-ball awareness. He doesn’t have major playmaking instincts on that end but doesn’t gamble an outrageous amount. Synergy Sports labels him an “average” defender overall, and Estimated Plus/Minus puts him right around the median. That’s what the eye test says, too.
Booker would be a better defender if it weren’t for the one problematic area of his game that remains: his tendency for fouls. Like Paul, he tries to be overly physical to compensate for meh physical tools. It’s a worthy goal, but Booker too often falls prey to the same predatory moves he uses on offense. Like, what does Booker think will happen here?
Booker has ended with at least four fouls in each of his last six games, and there’s no easy cure. He has to be more disciplined. His career foul rate usually hovers around 3%; it’s at 3.9% right now, the worst mark since his rookie year and an alarming number compared to his positional peers.
Predictably, foul trouble has hampered Booker at times and partially contributed to some of the Suns’ struggles in the fourth quarter. The gum on Phoenix’s shoe is an unacceptable -14.8 net rating in the fourth, the worst in the NBA — and that’s despite a Charmin schedule so far.
That leads us to the final step in Booker’s evolution as a point guard: establishing teamwide consistency in crunch time. Booker himself has performed better than you might expect, given the preceding stat, and several of the team’s worst showings happened with him riding plank due to injury. But Chris Paul-led teams were renowned for consistently overperforming in the clutch (in the regular season, at least). Today, it occasionally feels like the Suns devolve into the dreaded your-turn, my-turn offense, with Booker and Kevin Durant alternating difficult isolations after a perfunctory, ineffectual pick-and-roll (Booker averages about one fewer assist in the second half than the first half despite playing slightly more).
The team has understandably struggled to find chemistry. Chemistry comes from consistency, and consistency comes from health. Booker can’t control his or his teammates’ ligaments and joints. As the point guard, though, he can control the team’s effort and offense. The team’s most recent comeback win against Washington (a rare fourth-quarter surge from Phoenix) featured six different players scoring in the final period, an encouraging sign.
The Suns are still in a tenuous position, but Booker is doing whatever he can to help them reach their ceiling. Stapling the prototypical one-guard’s skills to the stylings of the classic two-guard greats has resulted in a unique point guard who can toggle between mindsets and positions as the situation requires. Having seen a deity of the position first-hand, Booker naturally felt the urge to climb Mount Olympus himself. He’s almost at the summit.
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