February 15, 2019

The Phoenix Suns’ game on Thursday night against the Denver Nuggets was a typically depressing spectacle for the Suns, who lost by 18 points and struggled to keep up with even a below-average team.

However, amid the sea of losses and bad breaks, there remains reason for optimism in Devin Booker. The 19-year-old rookie out of Kentucky has become a phenomenon in the NBA world and a golden child in the valley.

Booker had a career-high 35 points against Denver. After notching 32 points in the Suns previous game against the Knicks, he joined LeBron James as the only teenagers in NBA history to have 30 or more points in back-to-back games.

So how did this 13th pick make a name for himself in one of the most impressive rookie classes in the last few years? Well, aside from getting good minutes and opportunities on a struggling team, Booker has shown a more developed game at the pro level than what was expected of him.

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For a player whose Nbadraft.net profile included “Has not shown great instincts passing out of dribble penetration” under weaknesses, Booker has shown a high level of passing ability. His assists per game have gone up by about one per game with each month, from 0.5 in November to 4.3 so far in March.

Booker’s improved (or maybe just unnoticed) court vision was on display against Denver. In the play below, he switches his dribble hand to get a better passing angle to Jon Leuer, and cleverly attacks the rim indirectly to get a better lane. The result is an easy dunk:

Ball-handling, especially with his left hand, was also counted among Booker’s weaknesses. Again, in what was an exposition of all of Booker’s non-shooting skills, he showed his talent for attacking the basket: Patience in waiting for the pick to be completed. Alertness in finding the right attack angles. Physical ability in using both hands and changing his speed and direction on a dime.

This doesn’t mean Booker is flawless, or that those criticisms of his game prior to the draft were baseless. Only that these aspects of his game can definitely be improved. The important point is that his improvement in these areas, or rather his development in general, is further along than expected.

Injuries and ineptness have forced the Suns to press Booker into action as the initiator of a lot o offensive sets, where he takes the ball up the floor and dictates the actions. Something that has actually worked better than most people would have expected. As the ball-handler in pick and rolls, Booker shoots 41.5 percent, compared to 42.9 percent for Klay Thompson, the player he’s most often compared to.

With a lost season, the Suns can do things now that they shouldn’t do when they intend to be competitive. Booker has talent, but probably won’t be the lead ball-handler on a championship team. Having him as the secondary creator going forward is likely the best option, and allowing him the trial by fire in practicing that skill will benefit the Suns going forward.

Booker’s most championed value, his shooting, has actually been downplayed as he has taken a broader role. His absurd 50-something percent shooting from deep in the early season has dwindled to 37.9 percent. This is mostly because after averaging 1.4 attempts per game between October and December, he’s shooting about 5.5 threes per game since January.

Even when he’s not taking threes or surprising with his driving ability, he finds ways to score. Here he takes a play out of Kobe Bryant’s book with the contested fall-away from the side.

There have been growing pains for Booker. In February, he shot 33.6 percent from the field. However, he’s shown strong character in overcoming

“He’s not afraid of the moment and the challenge and the opportunity that’s been given to him,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said, per the Associated Press.

The game against Denver showed how Booker deals with challenges. He started the game missing eight of his first 11 shots, but wound up shooting 12-for-24 on his way to a career night. For a young man who’s not even 20, having maturity and composure in the face of difficulties bodes well for his NBA career.

For the Suns, seeing Booker climb at a rapid pace is a silver lining in a bad situation. Despite the chaotic events that the franchise has faced the last few years, the sun is slowly peering over the horizon for this rebuilding franchise.

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Troy Tauscher

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