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It’s Nothing But Bad News For Devin Booker Haters

5:58 PM EST on November 27, 2023

Devin Booker of the Suns celebrates on the floor against the Knicks
Rich Graessle/Getty Images

As a longtime member of the Devin Booker Is Empty Calories club, I must announce, through gritted teeth, that our days are numbered, if we have any days left at all. The Suns guard began to immunize himself to our slander in the spring, with one of the best shooting performances in postseason history: Through nine games, he averaged 37 points on 62/51/87 shooting splits. Those last two games, played on a bum foot against the eventual champion Nuggets, dragged those numbers down just a hair, but the overall takeaway was inarguable. Booker's scoring wasn't just a high-volume, low-efficiency sideshow for those gnarly bygone Suns teams; it was a diverse arsenal that could shore up a good Suns team under postseason pressure.

Similarly, the best night of Booker's career is no longer an anonymous 70-point eruption in a 10-point regular-season loss. It was Game 3 of their second-round series against Denver, where he scored 47 points on a supremely ethical 20-of-25 from the field, with only two free throws. It's not often that someone sharing a basketball court with Kevin Durant makes his shotmaking look ordinary. Booker's handle is tight enough to probe what ever gaps the defense allows him, and it flows so smoothly into his jumper. At 6-foot-6, Booker's already got an advantage over most backcourt foes, and he really pops off the floor to get into his high release. He can lean and drift and fade with all the studied comfort of a Gen Z-er who overdosed on Kobe mixtapes in his formative years. A defender can do everything right and still end up completely at the mercy of Booker's own accuracy.

The Suns offseason sent Chris Paul packing and brought in Bradley Beal, forming a hydra of midrange bucket-getters, and also vacating the role of floor general. This meant that Booker entered the season as the team's de facto point guard. I figured the Suns' offense would resemble playmaking by committee, with each star's scoring gravity creating little advantages that could be exploited to pry open bigger advantages. What I neglected to anticipate: the frequency with which Beal and Durant show up in street clothes, and a rather abrupt playmaking leap from Booker, who looks now like a one-man offensive system. Maybe it can be explained by a few seasons of osmosis from CP3, but Booker is now moving the ball beautifully, beating any past allegations of tunnel vision. Give him a solid screen and there will be a clean look at the end of the possession, whether it's via his midrange marksmanship, a nimble pocket pass, or a clean skip pass to the corner. In his nine games so far, Booker is averaging nine assists a night, and his 48-percent assist rate is double his career average. The Suns harvest 24 points a night from Booker assists.

All this offensive polish was on display on Sunday night in the Suns' win over the Knicks. No Durant, no Beal, and no real shooting rhythm for Booker that evening. And still, no problem: He lined up 11 assists, 10 of which were threes, layups, or dunks. This latest iteration of Devin Booker can carve up a defense with a series of simple decisions, even when his best teammate is Jusuf Nurkic (who, to his credit, has been pretty solid thus far).

As it turns out, the simple and repeatable solution to the Knicks defense is to bring Julius Randle's man into the action, and then toy around with Randle's baffling mix of sloth, low awareness, and miserable instincts. Booker drilled the game-winning three with Randle in dazed semi-pursuit. As one savvy Knicks observer joked, the ref did a better job of getting into Booker's space than Randle. Perhaps it took him hanging a buzzer-beater on the team I root for, but I think I have turned the corner on this guy. There was, obviously, something repellent about a young chucker cosplaying late-stage Kobe on catastrophic Suns teams. What I've begrudgingly come to accept is that this description is no longer adequate for Devin Booker; he might just be one of the best players in the NBA.

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