Devin Booker has all the potential to be the NBA’s next great scorer, but that won’t happen if he fails to fix his finishing problem.
The Phoenix Suns had a lone bright spot last season. Devin Booker, in just his second year, captivated us with a scintillating scoring ability that we didn’t foresee. As a rookie, he averaged a modest 13.8 points a night and shot 42.3 percent from the floor in 27.7 minutes. It wasn’t bad. As a sophomore, the points saw an astronomical rise to 22.1, and Booker managed to boast the same exact field goal clip.
He improved slightly from three (36.3 percent from 34.3) while dipping from two (44.7 from 46.4), but Booker more than made up for it by totaling 441 foul shots in his 78 games. By the end of Phoenix’s dreadful campaign, the 20-year-old compiled 1,726 points, tying him with Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal as the second-youngest players ever to crack 1,700 points in a season, according to Basketball-Reference.
Those numbers are why we can speculate and consider Booker the next point generating superstar. He’s already adept at getting to the line and is only going to improve as a shooter, but there’s an inability to finish around the basket that’s going to hinder Booker’s progress.
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According to NBA.com, Booker attempted 351 shots inside of five feet last year, connecting on 187 of them. That works out to a clip of 53.3 percent. Of the 36 players who had at least 250 shots from that zone, Booker had the fifth-lowest clip. Under him was Ish Smith, Tony Allen, Jeff Teague and Dion Waiters. For argument’s sake, let’s say that Booker converted on 60 percent of those looks. He would’ve made 211 shots, 24 more than the actual number. Times that by two, and Booker adds 48 points over the course of the season, bringing his total to 1,774 and his nightly average to 22.7. It’s a small increase, but what’s harder to quantify is the opportunities it’d create.
When the defense is facing a dynamic finisher, they’re going to focus their energy on stopping him. The rotations are going to be harder, and the defense is going to have him kick it out to the three-point line. Booker’s (or whoever) man would also be sagged off a bit more to prevent him from getting the step. If said player is money from mid-range, that cushion makes them just as lethal.
The former Wildcat did an excellent job balancing his offense and countered that piddling clip by shooting more jumpers, and he’s on his way to mastering the middle zone. Booker’s not “money” just yet, but he’s getting there. It’s discouraging looking at inefficiency on what are supposed to be easy shots, but there’s a silver lining. Booker isn’t forcing his way into the paint, and he’s comfortable with whatever the defense is giving him; pushing the issue on a consistent basis is the last thing Phoenix would want.
Thanks to his size, it’s bizarre seeing Booker struggle around the basket. Basketball Reference estimated that he spent 79 percent of his minutes at shooting guard last year, making him a bit oversized thus creating matchup problems. Contrary to his peers, Booker’s not a phenomenal athlete, and that also plays a role in his struggles.
Luckily, nothing about this situation is too serious. It’s like being sick with bronchitis and having a fever; there’s no cure but it’s going to get better with time, and there are some steps you can take to expedite the process. Booker can solve a lot of his issues in a summer or two depending on hard he works at it. Some of it is skill related. The rest is because of inexperience. For every hour he spends on the court working out, he’ll need to spend the same amount of time in the film room studying how defenses play him and how he can make the easy play.
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The first thing I noticed is that Booker takes a lot of wild shots. It’s not from just one spot either. (You’ve got to love the consistency!) Some of those attempts look like ones you’d see at an LA Fitness on Saturday morning; runners from the right elbow that hit the left side of the backboard. Or a reckless drive into three defenders where the ball hits the rim, but everyone knows the guy should’ve passed it. I know, it’s not the ideal scouting report for an NBA player.
I doubt the coaching staff cares as much given their circumstance. The Suns want Booker to become the guy. They’re going to let him shoot as many times as necessary. Chucking up wild shots in traffic is more of an IQ thing than a skill thing. The assistants need to sit with Booker and help work on his awareness when it comes to passing. He doesn’t worry about that because he’s a score-first player, but it’s the key to a well-balanced offense.
On the play above, Nick Young and Timofey Mozgov do an outstanding job of crowding Booker, who proceeds to launch an ill-advised floater. Remember that it’s always easier to read the game on replays when you can reverse it as many times as you want. If you’ve ever played basketball, you know that sometimes you just miss making the proper read. Booker could’ve slipped a pocket pass to Tyson Chandler because Mozgov was playing his drive, but he decided not to. If Booker felt he could score, so be it — after all, it’s late in the shot clock. Even before that, there was enough room to launch a pull-up three since Young went over.
The last thing is T.J. Warren in the corner, and that’s the ideal play. Luol Deng is inside the restricted area, and that’s because Warren shot horribly from three last year. All Booker has to do is elevate and fire a pass over, and Warren then decides what he wants to do.
That wasn’t the most egregious mishap. You could also argue Booker got fouled, which happens a lot, but we’ll get to that later.
Sometimes, you just can’t give the benefit of the doubt. The following clips are going to be intense exercises in faulty decision-making, and attempts like these are what kills Booker once he gets into the paint.
The entire play is just a debacle. It’s early in the shot clock, so there’s no reason for Booker to force a contested layup with three people around him. C.J. McCollum did what any defender is supposed to and forced Booker to ride the baseline, which led him into Maurice Harkless’ help and he was the difference-maker on the attempt. Dragan Bender also assisted the Blazers by pulling Mason Plumlee to the restricted area.
My biggest thing is that the Suns don’t even have five players on that end. With 20 seconds left, pull the ball out and regroup — not to mention it was a bobbled pass. Patience is something he’ll have to work on. When Booker has a smaller guy on him, it’s vital he works to get the best look possible.
This is the same as the play above it except it’s like 15 times worse. You see Booker try to score on a one-on-three fastbreak and it doesn’t end well. Maybe he got lost in the moment. The pace of that game was frenetic, and Russell Westbrook did his job as a floor general by controlling the tempo. However, only three players in the NBA will consistently finish despite being outnumbered on the break: Westbrook, John Wall and LeBron James. Booker isn’t a freight train, nor is he one of the two most athletic point guards ever to play the game.
Those are just three instances. Booker isn’t a repeat offender, but that’s where he leaves a lot of his points. I do not doubt that he’ll recognize these mistakes and work to correct them, but the Suns have to nip these habits in the butt now before they become unfixable.
I’m doing my best to hand out constructive criticism. The last thing I’d want to do is sound like I’m straight-up hating on Booker. For as many times he makes a wrong decision, there’s a suspect call that should’ve resulted in free throws. A lot of variables are thrown into play when it comes to officials calling fouls. Each ref is different, and they all call the games differently. Sometimes they’ll let the teams play physically. If that’s the case, they’re only calling blatant fouls.
Although Booker gets to the line a decent amount, he doesn’t get the respect of his higher-tier peers because he’s young and on a bad team. (The latter point almost certainly plays a role. It’s sort of like you have to earn your foul shots, whereas better teams don’t have to work as hard.)
The first clip I showed you could’ve been a foul on Swaggy P. On the play below, both Booker and Tim Frazier made contact with each other. If Kyrie Irving were taking that shot, maybe it’s a foul, but I think it was a good no-call. That ambiguity justifies my point.
Regardless, Booker needs to play through the contact and not worry about hearing the whistle. Instead, concentrate on getting the best look possible and don’t just throw the ball up hoping the official will help out. It’s just not likely. Unlike the previous points, that’s a skill that he can work on. A stepback would be perfect there. If Frazier takes that away, Booker could easily post him up because he’s got a significant height advantage. Those moves will come in time, but it’s never too early to start perfecting them.
This is a given, but Booker must also convert on open layups. There are no excuses for rolling the ball off the rim when no one’s around you.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Devin Booker wins the scoring title in the not-so-distant future. He’s almost got the whole package, and, unfortunately, being a lackluster finisher from around the basket is what’s holding him back. As the 20-year-old grows, these problems should go away, but only by him making a conscious effort to improve. Even if Booker doesn’t, he’ll be good for 22 a night. The only thing is he’d be selling himself short.
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