$158M NBA Superstar Devin Booker Needs to Turn Points into Wins for Suns

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistMarch 28, 2019

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - MARCH 25:  Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns looks on during a game against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 25, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

On Wednesday night against the Washington Wizards, Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker registered his third career 50-plus point game. And on Wednesday night, he moved to 0-3 in those contests.

Of course, it's not entirely Booker's fault he's winless when he hits the half-century mark or that the Suns have an NBA-worst .265 winning percentage over the course of his career. Basketball is a team sport, and this is a team that hasn't done a ton to help its star.

ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz set the stage for why the team hasn't been in the playoffs since 2010:

"While opinions differ over the primary factors that led to the drought, some consistent themes have emerged in discussions with nearly two dozen NBA insidersfrom current and former Suns players and employees to agents and rival executives who have done business with the organization: an interventionist owner with more authority than expertise, a front office marred by instability, an undermanned scouting department, and a dated facility that isolates the decision-makers from the players and coaches."

And amid all the chaos, Phoenix signed Booker, then 21 years old, to a five-year maximum extension worth $158 million.

On the one hand, it makes plenty of sense.

Among players with at least 4,000 minutes in their first four seasons, Booker is joint-23rd in NBA history in points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball Reference.

The only players who scored more total points before their 23rd birthday? LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Andrew Wiggins, Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard.

And it's not just the scoring that's enticing. Over the last two seasons, Booker is averaging 5.7 assists per game. This season alone, he's at 6.7, one of several career highs he's posting.

He's also never been better in terms of points per game, effective field-goal percentage, free-throw attempts and offensive box plus-minus, per Basketball Reference.

He's trending in the right direction. But even with all the impressive counting stats, apprehension over whether he'll live up to that $158 million deal is natural. Will he have a legacy like the flashier names in the list above? Or, will he be another Wiggins (who probably warrants his own similarly angled article)?

During ESPN's broadcast of Wednesday's game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz, analyst Stan Van Gundy said Booker has "never played in a meaningful game." And again, that's not entirely his fault, but it's fair to approach gaudy numbers with caution when they're coming from a team as bad as the Suns.

After all, someone has to score for Phoenix. And on plenty of nights over the course of his career, Booker has been about the only option. In the Suns' last two games, Booker has 109 of the team's 213 points. That's 51.2 percent of the total. In Monday's game against the Jazz alone, his 59 points accounted for 64.1 percent of the total.

George Mikan and Kobe Bryant are the only players with games in which they topped 64.1 percent of their team's scoring, per NBA.com's Matt Petersen:

Matt Petersen @TheMattPetersen

Per Elias, Devin Booker scoring 64.1% of the Suns' points tonight is the 5th highest % of a team's total points scored by a player in any NBA game ever: Mikan (83.3%) Mikan (67.0%) Kobe (64.4%) Mikan (66.2%) Booker (64.1%)

Booker needs help. And that brings us back to the higher-ups in Phoenix. Owner Robert Sarver and then-general manager Ryan McDonough decided on a hefty investment in Booker, but living up to the money shouldn't be solely the player's responsibility.

Over the course of his career, Booker has had a whopping 31 teammates who've contributed negative Wins Over Replacement Player. That's over half his total of 59 teammates in that span.

What Booker needs, beyond stability, are Pat Beverley-type players (funnily enough Beverley is an upcoming free agent). Guys who aren't worried about numbers and are willing to build a reputation on defense. And preferably, they'd be a little bigger than Beverley, especially since Booker can run the point on offense.

Wing/forwards with Beverley's personality don't grow on trees. Phoenix may have thought it had one in Josh Jackson, but if the Suns can scrounge up a couple more, they could help cover for Booker's defensive deficiencies.

Over his four NBA seasons, Booker has ranked 335th, 213th, 195th and 138th in ESPN's Real Plus-Minus (minimum 500 minutes). And it's his Defensive Real Plus-Minus that's dragged him down.

He still gets lost off the ball from time to time, and he certainly hasn't turned many heads as a one-on-one defender either. That's why the Suns need to surround him with players who can switch and quickly get to the gaps Booker is sometimes responsible for.

Again, this is easier said than done.

But on the bright side, Phoenix already has some semblance of these lineups. The sample size on this is dangerously low, but according to Cleaning the Glass, the Suns are plus-34 points per 100 possessions (100th percentile) when Booker shares the floor with Jackson, T.J. Warren and Mikal Bridges.

The four surrounding Deandre Ayton is a five-man lineup that makes sense in today's NBA. It's mostly positionless (good for switching); it has plenty of shooting with Booker, Warren and Bridges; and it features a big man who looks primed to join the center resurgence being led by Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and a host of others making the position relevant again.

Ayton, when combined with Booker, gives Phoenix one of the league's more intriguing young duos.

On the season, Phoenix is minus-9.6 points per 100 possessions (12th percentile) overall. When Booker and Ayton are on the floor, that number jumps to minus-5.9 (25th percentile). Add Jackson to the mix, and the number creeps up a bit more.

Of course, we're still dealing with minuses here. The Suns have a ways to go. As does Booker individually. But players who can put up 26 points, seven assists and four rebounds don't come around often.

Now, it's time for the organization to surround him with some stability and teammates who make sense in today's game.


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