Devin Booker is expanding his game beyond getting buckets


Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

“Once teams found out that I could actually play a little bit, I started seeing teams’ best defender,” Devin Booker told The Ringer. “So just going in with the focus of taking care of the ball, that was my next step.”

This is the way you always hear superstars talk about their games — always looking for that extra edge, always looking for ways to improve. There is an intense lack of satisfaction, a need to find challenges within the game. Booker, in his third year, recognized that the only way for his team and himself to improve was to become a better playmaker, and he’s done just that.

In 35 games this year, Booker is already only 39 assists shy of what he recorded in the 76 games he played in his rookie season and more than halfway through the 268 dimes he dropped in his sophomore season. He’s assisting on about 25 percent of all teammate field goals when he's on the floor while rebounding better, shooting better from nearly every spot on the floor and doing so with just a small uptick in turnovers.

The numbers look great on paper, but watching Booker develop into a playmaker has been one of the most under-discussed storylines in the NBA season this year. He’s seeing the floor extremely well and making the kind of plays you’d expect from an experienced point guard.

Watch Booker operate in this high pick-and-roll set. As he comes off the screen, he has a favorable matchup with the slower Al-Farouq Aminu but spots Tyler Ulis sliding down into the short corner with no one within 15 feet of him. The skip pass shifts the whole defense, and Ulis ends up with a nearly uncontested 12-footer.

Plays like this, however, are exactly what's helping Booker’s transition from volume scorer to complete offensive player. Even in his rookie year, Booker was more than willing to show the league that he was a capable scorer in isolation, and here he starts off on the right wing with P.J. Tucker on his hip. Booker’s first step is explosive, and he’s already starting his gather after a single dribble. Watch the Rockets' defense once Booker is airborne. In a situation in which Booker could have thrown up a floater before help defenders had an opportunity to jump, he uses the attention he’s drawn from the defense to feed an open Alex Len under the basket. This is what player evolution looks like.

Since returning from injury, Booker has been a machine, scoring 27 points per game with six assists and four rebounds. For the season, he is averaging 25.2 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists, numbers that have only been averaged over the course of a season once in Phoenix’s franchise history: Charles Barkley’s MVP year.

Booker is a long ways away from holding a Podoloff, but he’s becoming a cornerstone for a young Suns team that is a year away from being a year away from being special. It’s impossible to not talk about Booker’s 70-point explosion against Boston last season, but what’s most impressive about this year is Booker’s consistency. He has 14 games in which he’s scored at least 30 points, two of which he’s eclipsed the 40-point mark. He’s the fourth youngest player in NBA history to reach 1,000 points, and at this rate, he’s going to challenge for these kinds of milestones for the rest of his career.

Booker has game, and it’s not going unnoticed by guys he grew up idolizing. LeBron James was big on Booker during his appearance on the Open Run Podcast: “If it’s someone that’s under the radar right now that I believe is really, really, really going to be an All-Star in this league, it’s Devin Booker from the Phoenix Suns.”

Only seven players in NBA history have averaged 25 points per game at age 21 or younger, including James, and Booker is just getting started. As long as he continues to expand his game, as long as he continues to seek that extra edge, he’s going to continue to earn the respect from the NBA’s best and the intrigue from fans around the world.

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Phillip Barnett firmly believes in the healing power of a good snickerdoodle cookie. You can follow him on Twitter @regularbarnett.

PLAYERS: Devin Booker
TEAMS: Phoenix Suns
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