Booker Has Been a Bright Spot for the Suns
Heading into the 2015-16 season, the Phoenix Suns were projected by many to compete for a playoff berth in the Western Conference. The team entered the season with a young core of players that many thought were set to turn the corner.
In addition to the promising core, the Suns made a couple of key offseason moves. First, they re-signed point guard Brandon Knight to a five-year contract after acquiring him at the trade deadline last season. Then, they signed free agent Tyson Chandler to a four-year deal.
Adding a veteran like Chandler was supposed to be the splashy move that Phoenix needed, as he was expected to mentor some of the team’s younger players. He was also viewed as perhaps the missing piece that could help solidify the defense and help the Suns return to the postseason.
However, this season has been anything but positive for the Suns. News broke prior to the start of the campaign that forward Markieff Morris wanted out of Phoenix before training camp. He was unhappy with the team’s management following the trade of his brother, Marcus, to the Detroit Pistons.
In the early goings, it seemed as though the situation with Morris didn’t impact the team that much. After the first month of the season, the team posted an 8-9 record. It wasn’t a great start, but the team was still ninth in the standings at that point.
Since that 8-9 start, the wheels have completely fallen off. The team has gone 6-31 since December 1, which is the worst record in the league during that span. To rectify the poor showing, the team fired two of head coach Jeff Hornacek’s top assistants in an attempt to get the team back on track.
That move didn’t go as planned, as the Suns went on to lose 14 out of their next 16 games, which prompted management to let Hornacek go too. The team hasn’t fared much better under interim head coach Earl Watson either, as they’ve gone winless in five games with Watson in charge.
One potential factor for the team’s poor play this season has been the injuries to several key players.
Eric Bledsoe (knee) and T.J. Warren (right foot fracture) are each out for the rest of the season, while Knight has been out since January 21 with a groin injury, and a timetable for his return is not yet known. Bledsoe, Warren and Knight are three of the team’s top four scorers.
The three injuries have turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Suns. Injuries create opportunities for other guys, and it gives decision-makers a chance to look at those who wouldn’t normally have a chance to play.
One player who has fully benefited from those injuries in Phoenix has been rookie Devin Booker. After the Suns drafted Booker with the 13th pick in June’s draft, many were questioning the decision given the team’s depth at the guard positions.
Booker didn’t play too much during the first couple months of the season. He averaged just 16 minutes per game through the end of December and was averaging only 6.4 points per game. It’s been a tale of two halves for Booker as the script has completely flipped since the beginning of 2016.
Booker’s playing time has more than doubled to 34.4 minutes per game since January 1. He’s averaging 17.1 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game during this time. He’s been in the starting lineup in nearly every game since Bledsoe went down with his knee injury and hasn’t looked back.
“Everybody knows that the NBA is an unpredictable business,” Booker said at All-Star Weekend. “You never know what could happen so you always have to be ready for your opportunity and that’s what happened to me. Unfortunately, a couple of my teammates went down, but I get the chance to play now so I’m trying to take full advantage of it.”
Booker made a name for himself at Kentucky last year as one of the best shooters in his rookie class. He averaged 10 points per game for the Wildcats while converting on 41 percent of his shots from three-point range. His numbers this season in the NBA are awfully similar to his college numbers as he’s averaging 10.6 points per game while shooting 40 percent from three.
He currently leads all rookies in three-point percentage, and is sixth in scoring. He set the Suns’ rookie record for three-pointers in a game with six back on January 19 after scoring a career-high 32 points against the Indiana Pacers.
He took part in the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night for Team USA and the Three-Point Challenge on Saturday night. On Friday night, Booker scored 23 points after shooting 9-of-14 from the field, including 5-of-8 from three-point range.
Saturday night, Booker advanced to the final round of the Three-Point Contest after defeating J.J. Redick and James Harden in the tie-breaker round as the three each finished with 20 points in the first round. Booker would eventually fall to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in the final round.
Booker said on Friday that his objective this weekend was simple: “Get buckets. That’s it.”
“[You have to] show what you can do,” Booker said of the weekend’s games. “I know our rookie class last year when we were at the McDonald’s [All-American] and Jordan games it was all business – we didn’t take it as fun and games. We’re all cool off of the court, but once you hit the court that’s our job, that’s our business, so we have to take it serious.”
For all of the players involved in the weekend’s festivities, it was a welcomed opportunity to take a break from the regular season. Players were able to chill out and catch up with their friends and families. Now that All-Star weekend has passed, the grind of the second-half of the season picks back up this week.
Booker sounded ready to continue his rookie season and end it on a high note. While he’s likely all but eliminated from the Rookie of the Year race, he wants to continue improving his game and be a leader his teammates can count on moving forward.
“I always have to work on something,” Booker said. “With a lot of our point guards going down, even though I’m young, [I want to] try to be a leader out there. Try to be a leader and get all of my teammates involved still, but at the same time I have to make the right play. Just try to figure that out at a young age.”
While it’s been a tumultuous season for the Suns, the emergence of Booker has left the team with something to feel good about. With so many injuries this season, it’s created more opportunities for players like Booker, Archie Goodwin and others as well.
The Suns have been mentioned as a team that could be very active this week ahead of the trade deadline. The team may be looking at ways in which they can improve for next season, so making a couple of moves may not be out of the question. It’s clear that they will be competing for a draft pick again this season, but the team doesn’t seem to be too far off from returning to the playoffs.
On to the Trade Deadline
Now that All-Star Weekend is officially behind us, the rumors surrounding the trade deadline will certainly begin to pick up. Teams now have less than three days to pull the trigger on trades, so expect to hear plenty of chatter from now until the 3 p.m. EST deadline on Thursday.
The week leading up to the deadline typically involves little to no movement until the final day teams can make trades. Most deals won’t happen until hours before the cutoff time on Thursday. As one executive told our own Steve Kyler: “We don’t do things in the NBA until there is a deadline.”
Trade rumors typically slow down around the All-Star game, but the same names surfaced in rumors today that came up prior to the break:
According to a report by Frank Isola of the New York Daily News, the Houston Rockets and Miami HEAT have been talking about a deal that would involve Dwight Howard and Hassan Whiteside.
Trading Whiteside could become problematic for the HEAT in this potential deal as he’s earning less than $1 million this season. Miami would need to include several other high-priced players in order to match the $22,359,364 Howard is earning this season.
The Atlanta Hawks have long been rumored to be interested in trading Al Horford, Jeff Teague and/or Kyle Korver prior to the deadline. According to the New York Post, one executive claimed the Hawks are looking to break up their team, leaving Horford, Teague or Korver among the players that could be moved.
Boston, Houston and Orlando have all been said to be interested in some of the Hawks’ players.
It was reported over the weekend by the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the Cavaliers are unlikely to re-sign Timofey Mozgov this summer. The team has been trying to play smaller, and trading Mozgov seems like a real possibility now that they may not want him back.
Mozgov is making just under $5 million this season and is on an ending deal, which could make him an attractive option for teams at the trade deadline. One potential replacement for Mozgov could be Kosta Koufos, as the team has been reportedly pursuing him, per Marc Stein.
Be sure to check in with Basketball Insiders all week for all things regarding the trade deadline.
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