Coming into the NBA draft this offseason, Devin Booker was seen as the draft’s top three-point specialist. Now, three months into the 19-year-old’s professional career, many people believe that may just be the tip of the iceberg.
With somewhat of a logjam in the Phoenix backcourt, it took some time for Booker to get consistent minutes. He didn’t even hit 25 minutes in a game until after Christmas. However, the season-ending injury to Eric Bledsoe opened up time for Booker and gave him an opportunity to shine.
As the youngest player in the league at 19 years old (with the baby-face to look even younger), it would make sense for Booker to be raw as he adjusts to the league. After all, he was in high school not too long ago. But that has not been the case with Booker.
The former Kentucky sharpshooter has played with poise beyond his years. For most rookies, the game is too fast and too physical. It takes time to acclimate to the pace and intensity of the NBA. The games are longer and the opponents are bigger, faster, stronger and more physical than the competition in college. Some rookies are intimidated. But not Booker. In Phoenix’s first matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers in late December, Booker challenged LeBron James right at the rim and in their second matchup, threw a hard foul on him in transition, earning a stare down from James.
To be sure, Booker still has rookie moments, but he sure doesn’t seem like the youngest NBA player. Instead, as his maturity shines through, he looks like a player who’s been in the league for at least a few years. It’s not just his mindset either. His production is increasing as his role does and previously unknown wrinkles in his game are emerging.
Of course, the three-point shot is still Booker’s calling card. While his percentage has taken a hit with an increase in shots coming against tougher defenders as a starter, it has “fallen” from the ridiculous 50+ percent (in a small sample size) to an elite 42.2 percent (43-102). Notably, his two-point percentage is up at an impressive 46.8 percent as well. The on/off numbers for Booker illustrate his impact on the offense. The Suns’ assist percentage goes up 4.8 percent and their offensive rating goes up 1.2 percent for the season when he is on the floor versus when he sits. Those numbers should keep climbing as Booker gains more experience as the starting shooting guard. But those aren’t even the most impressive stats.
In a game against the Indiana Pacers, Booker shot his way into the history books. With his 32 points (including six threes, a Phoenix rookie record), Booker became the third-youngest player ever to score 30+ points in a game. The only players to beat him were LeBron James, when he was 18, and Kevin Durant, when he was 19. That’s pretty good company. His 32 points also have him as the highest-scoring rookie this season (tied with fellow rookie Karl-Anthony Towns, who had 32 points on Friday).
While Booker’s numbers are still coming up, offsetting his lack of playing time early in the season, he has arguably been the fourth-best rookie in this year’s rookie class. Clearly, Towns, New York Knicks sensation Kristaps Porzingis and Philadelphia 76ers center Jahlil Okafor have had consistent roles and also great production. But after those three, one could make the case that Booker is next in line.
Booker is sixth in points per game at 9.7, behind the three rookies previously mentioned, as well as Los Angeles Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell (12) and Denver Nuggets guard Emmanuel Mudiay (11.3). Mudiay and Russell have had more significant roles on their respective teams for the whole year, but Booker has arguably outplayed both guards since he was handed a similarly significant role with the Suns.
Unfortunately, Booker isn’t getting recognized for his increased production. When the rosters came out for the Rising Stars Challenge, Booker was not included. Part of the reason he was “snubbed” is the USA versus the World format, which is the NBA’s attempt to include as many foreign-born players as possible. If it was just rookies against sophomores like in past years, Booker would have probably been a lock. Also, there are an uneven amount of sophomores included in this year’s game with a 12 to eight split. Lastly, Booker’s lack of playing time early this season really hurt his case. There were only three rookies on the U.S. team—Towns, Okafor and Russell—while five rookies, including Porzingis, made the world’s team. The argument could be made that Booker should have gotten in over Russell, but the assistant coaches that made the decision didn’t see it that way.
The consensus long-term comparison for Booker has been Golden State Warriors two-time All-Star shooting guard Klay Thompson. In some ways, Booker already seems more mature and polished as a rookie (19) than Thompson in his rookie season (21). Also, Booker’s field goal and three-point field goal percentage are better than Thompson’s percentages from his rookie year. Booker’s current season scoring average (9.7) should surpass Thompson’s year one average (12.5) by season’s end, as Booker is averaging 17.2 points per game in January. You never know what a player’s career arc is going to look like, but as of right now, Booker’s is looking up.
So, where can the underrated Booker take this ailing Suns’ team?
We’ll see what happens at the trade deadline, but if this team is healthy next season, Booker likely won’t be starting. However, a trade may be needed to make room for the young sharpshooter, who has also shown an ability to be a playmaker and run the offense while not being an absolute liability on defense. With a year or two under his belt, a solidified role and the time to put on some weight, Booker will be a solid NBA player pretty soon with the potential to be much more.
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