25-under-25: Devin Booker at No. 3

25-under-25, Phoenix Suns

Devin Booker seized his moment the first chance he got in the NBA spotlight. After the 8-0 bubble run, what’s next for the star of the Phoenix Suns?

Ever since he entered the 2015 NBA Draft pegged as a spot-up shooter, Devin Booker has spent the first five years of his career defying expectations. And yet, even as he’s morphed into more of a James Harden-lite than the Klay Thompson archetype he was originally projected to be, even as he’s built additional layers his game with each passing year, even as he’s carried himself like a premier hooper on and off the court, it somehow hasn’t been enough.

Not enough to carry the Phoenix Suns to a winning season or even the playoffs. Not enough to establish himself as a winner outside of the Valley. And until last year, not even enough to be more than a “looter in a riot,” a “good stats, bad team” player or an “empty stats” guy.

To most people, he was the guy scoring 70 points in a loss, not the leader of a franchise who scored 70 points playing with a G League supporting cast.

Then came the NBA bubble, and everything changed — or at least, the perception on the outside did.

In reality, what Devin Booker accomplished in eight games in Orlando over the summer was hardly surprising for those who had been following him closely over the last few brutal years in Phoenix.

True enough, he took full advantage of his first time having actual help around him in the national spotlight, elevating his game substantially in those eight games compared to the 62 that preceded the bubble (and in fewer minutes at that):

  • Pre-Bubble Devin Booker: 26.1 PPG, 6.6 APG, 4.2 RPG in 36.1 MPG, 48.7 FG%, 36.0 3P%, 91.6 FT%, +0.7 plus/minus
  • Bubble Devin Booker: 30.5 PPG, 6.0 APG, 4.9 RPG in 33.8 MPG, 50.3 FG%, 31.3 3P%, 94.0 FT%, +10.8 plus/minus

But Book embracing and flourishing in the spotlight was predictable, if not outright expected. It was the culmination of a five-year struggle to command the respect his individual game demanded, a long-awaited coming-out party for a high-octane scorer and gifted playmaker who had been playing with G League-caliber players up until last season.

“I feel like the culture has definitely changed, even from the bubble to now or the season to the bubble,” Booker said. “Overall when you walk in this gym every day, it feels like an environment you can get better in.”

The new arena and practice facility help, and general manager James Jones and head coach Monty Williams deserve a ton of credit for changing the culture in Phoenix. But none of it would be possible without a foundation like Booker, the singular talent who pushed against the grain of losing for years without drowning and was still branded a loser for his trouble. Indeed, a lesser talent or weaker mind would have succumbed to the numbing incompetence of cycling through five head coaches, two GMs and over 70 teammates through his first five seasons.

Instead, Booker built up his own arsenal season-by-season. Mid-range prowess, post moves, step-backs, leaps in playmaking — you name it, he added it to his repertoire. In his first All-Star season last year as a 23-year-old, he posted 26.6 points, 6.5 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game on a career-high 61.8 percent true shooting. The Suns boasted a 2.7 Net Rating when he played but sank to a minus-3.8 Net Rating when he sat, by far the biggest drop-off on the team.

“Devin is a problem,” his new teammate Chris Paul put it succinctly. “There’s a lot of guys that are shooters or they just take you off the dribble or they’re athletic — he’s got all that.”

Winning is the next step for Devin Booker and the Suns

Despite Booker’s individual growth, problems outside of his control like injuries, Deandre Ayton‘s 25-game suspension and the rugged Western Conference threatened to turn his first season with a legit supporting cast into another failure. But the bubble provided his first opportunity to play games with playoff implications, and the results spoke for themselves.

Not only did Booker put up incredible numbers, but the biggest dig at his true impact — i.e. team success — was met with a resounding 8-0 record, broadcasting to the rest of the NBA world that the Suns’ culture was changing. The domino effect came into focus in the offseason when Chris Paul accepted Phoenix as a trade destination and other respected, established vets like Jae Crowder, E’Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway followed suit.

Everyone seems to be on the same page as far as what comes next for Devin Booker and the Suns’ quest to return to relevance.

“The winning is what seems to propel guys into a different class, and I think that’s what Devin wants, that’s what we want,” Monty Williams said. “He’s proven on a night-in, night-out basis that he’s elite in a number of categories. If you look at the stats, historically, he’s put himself in classes of players that are first-ballot Hall-of-Fame, greatest-of-all-time type of players. But I think the winning is what will put him in a different class as far as being a consistent, elite, All-NBA type player.”

Williams isn’t wrong. Every scoring benchmark Booker has hit at a young age has put him in the same company as all-timers like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.

It’s not just scoring either; Booker just became the youngest player to ever average a 26-6-4 stat line on 60 percent true shooting or better. The only other three players to do so before the age of 25 — Michael Jordan, LeBron and Harden — all posted inferior true-shooting percentages. There have only been 14 seasons in league history featuring a 26-6-4 stat line on 61 percent true shooting: LeBron (four times), Harden (four times), Stephen Curry (twice), MJ, Damian Lillard, Larry Bird and Booker. Any guesses on who was the youngest of the bunch?

Parameters like this can often come off as selective cherry-picking, but no matter the metric, Booker’s scoring, facilitating, efficiency and knack for delivering in the clutch stand out:

Given his upward trajectory, Williams said he wants Booker to be an All-NBA player and MVP candidate this season. To get there, he has to put up big numbers and lead a Suns team that not only makes the playoffs but becomes a real threat in the Western Conference.

“I’m obviously very excited to get out there and start competing with these guys, but as far as the expectations, the hype, the projections, what people are saying about us, it’s still the same mentality we had in the bubble,” Booker said. “We’re focused on getting better and we don’t really care what people are saying.”

For Chris Paul’s part, he’s not expecting Booker to make some otherworldly leap again. As the best teammate Booker has ever had, CP3 knows neither one of them has to go it alone. It’s time for Book to have the superstar-caliber help he’s deserved for years — though nobody in Phoenix is ready to let their foot up off the gas anytime soon.

“I think his presence, his demeanor — one thing about Book is that he commands respect from everybody from just how he plays the game and how he carries himself,” Paul said. “All the other stuff will take care of itself because he puts the work in.”

There’s still more work to do, as Williams reminded his team via text that as much as the culture has changed and there’s excitement in the air, this was still a sub.-500 team that missed the playoffs last year.

But Paul brings postseason expectations with him. It’s gut-check time for Deandre Ayton in a potential breakout year. Mikal Bridges is far more than a role player, with plenty of room to grow. The same goes for Cameron Johnson. Crowder, Moore and Galloway add to the Suns’ shooting, defense and versatility on a team that suddenly has depth.

All the pieces are there for Book to finally earn his rightful place among the NBA elite. And in typical Devin Booker fashion, his focus remains where it’s been for years, on a target that’s been unreachable until now.

“Just win basketball games — that’s my main objective.”

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