There may not be a more polarizing young star in the NBA than Devin Booker. His supporters will point to his unreal scoring ability and improving numbers across the board to show that he’s worthy of some of the “future star” conversation that surrounds him, while detractors will bring up his defensive shortcomings and the fact that his offensive gifts have never translated to winning in a consistent way.
The truth, as it usually does, lies somewhere in the middle. Booker deserves to be named among some of the best individual scorers in the league, but it’s worth considering whether being a not-quite-elite scorer, given his other glaring deficiencies, is someone a team can build around and expect to compete at the highest levels.
Any discussion of Booker’s current skillset has to begin with his three-level scoring, which deserves to be mentioned in the tier just below the absolute best guys in the league. He creates about two-thirds of his buckets by himself, a number that’s consistent across all three levels (at the rim, midrange, and from three) and has improved across the board this year — the exception is from three, where he’s dipped to 34 percent this year in non-garbage time minutes.
His self-created three-point usage has increased each of his first four years in the league and is now up to 40 percent, which naturally gives rise to lower percentages. Catch-and-shoot jumpers are generally much more efficient than pull-up shooting, so Booker’s three-point dip would turn right around if he were in an offensive system with more talent that allowed him to play off the ball more often.
His Synergy numbers back this up, as he has a very solid 55.4 effective field goal percentage on catch-and-shoot jumpers. On pull-ups, that dips to 46.9 percent. For Booker, it comes down to usage; he’s got more than twice as many pull-up jumpers on his résumé this season than catch-and-shoot opportunities.
Scoring got him the max contract extension that will begin next season and take him through 2023-24, but he still has room to grow. These days, being an elite three-level scorer is as much about where those shots come from as whether or not the shots go in — the best guys in the league are hunting threes, layups, and free throws like never before. The peak of this theory is James Harden, who is as allergic as anybody in the NBA to non-paint mid-range jumpers; those shots account for just three percent of his attempts on the season.
For Booker, that number is 20 percent, with a further 24 percent coming from “short midrange,” defined as outside of four feet but inside 14. He’s very good at these shots, hitting 45 and 48 percent, respectively, both solidly above average marks league-wide, but the math doesn’t lie. Even an elite midrange shooter is going to have trouble being efficient on the aggregate, since the value of an at-rim or three-point attempt are so much higher. As good as Booker is in these spots, the math is what it is and there isn’t a whole lot to be done about it.
Taking the next step from not quite elite to elite as a scorer will require him to modify his shot selection somewhat, even if he never fully disengages from the midrange jumpers he loves. Taking half of those long twos and making them threes would go a long way toward helping his overall scoring efficiency. 2018-19 has been the worst year of his career from beyond the arc, so even if some regression up to the mean and a slight dip due to increased usage leaves him in the same spot, he’ll be a far more efficient scorer on the whole as a result.
In pick-and-roll, he’s shown a strong ability to pull up at the three-point line against drop coverage, as he did on two early plays against the Utah Jazz on Monday night.
Big men dropping into the paint have become less prevalent in recent years due to the number of prolific pull-up three-point shooters handling the ball in pick-and-roll, with Booker counted among that class. The issue with Booker is that he’s not as willing as he should be to take these shots in the face of drop coverage, as he showed later in the same game.
There’s no reason this should be a midrange jumper rather than a three; Deandre Ayton sets a solid screen on Royce O’Neale and Rudy Gobert is in his customary defensive position in pick-and-roll, yet Booker takes three extra dribbles and turns a great shot into a worse one. This isn’t necessarily a common problem for him, but it’s still an area that can be ironed out of his game moving forward.
Another reason behind his propensity to pull up for a midrange jumper is his relatively poor handle. In the grand scheme of all combo guards, he’s fine as a ball handler. If he’s going to make the leap to be one of the truly elite scoring guards in the league, he’s going to have to tighten up his handle and ensure that reaching defenders either whiff altogether or get a handful of his arm to send him to the line, where he knocks down more than 85 percent of his attempts.
He’s had some trouble with a loose handle over the years leading to turnovers, but the more important aspect is how he deals with those defenders, turning away from them and opting to try to back them down Mark Jackson style before either passing out or launching a contested jumper.
He makes both shots in the clips above, but it’s telling that he’d rather turn his back to Donovan Mitchell and back in, as opposed to facing up and trying to break him down off the dribble. It severely limits his ability to get past his man and to the rim when he does this.
When we’re talking about Booker’s path to becoming one of the game’s very best scorers, these issues at the margins of his game become more amplified. Reaching his absolute ceiling is of utmost importance due to the other holes in his game, namely on the defensive end. Whether his defensive shortcomings are a result of the gigantic offensive burden on his shoulders or a genuine inability to defend at even a below average level is unknown at this point; he has so much on his plate to create offense for this Suns team that it’s somewhat excusable for him to struggle to the extent he does on the other end of the floor. On a team with a lesser workload, where he’s playing more of a C.J. McCollum role offensively, could he ramp up the intensity defensively to the point that he’s at least passable?
Building around Booker is a tenuous proposition. Would it sit well with him to be more of a secondary creator and off-ball scoring threat? Do you have to pair him with other great defensive perimeter players, or can he eventually learn to pull his weight on that end? How much of his turnover issues are related to the immense usage he has to undertake and the lack of help around him, which leads to teams sending extra guys into his path? Given how the Suns have operated for the better part of the last decade, these questions plague evaluations of Booker moving forward and may never have suitable answers.