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Devin Booker’s 2019-20 season could go a long way in hushing the critics

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Devin Booker has the unfortunate case of Empty Stats Syndrome. He’s great, but his team stinks. Unfortunately, that means he gets the heaviest criticism. This season could change that.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Phoenix Suns
Devin Booker is one of the NBA’s purest and best sharpshooters. So, why the hate?
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Only three players in the entire NBA averaged 26 points, four rebounds and at least six assists per contest a season ago: NBA MVP runner-up James Harden, LeBron James ... and Devin Booker. (NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo did qualify with PPG (27.7) and RPG (10.3), but technically finished with 5.9 assists per game last season.)

If you want to dive deeper into his continuous progression offensively on one of the league’s worst teams, Booker’s OBPM (offensive box plus-minus) has jumped constantly from -0.6 during his rookie year to 3.8 last year. His total box plus-minus has jumped from -3.1 as a 19-year-old rookie to 0.8 and his VORP (value over replacement player) has gone from -0.6 to 1.6 last year.

Is he a great defender on the perimeter? Not exactly. His defensive win shares (0.3), defensive box plus-minus (-2.4 to -3.0 last year) and individual defensive rating (112 as a rookie to 118 last year) have consistently dropped, but when you’re playing with a bunch of young guys like yourself on a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since LeBron’s last season in Cleveland the first time around, that’s usually not a good recipe for success.

(Only 25 players in the Basketball Reference database had an individual defensive rating or 118 or worse last season and 11 of them averaging less than 10 minutes a game.)

Only the Cleveland Cavaliers coincidentally enough had a worse team defensive rating than Booker and the Phoenix Suns’ 114.2 rating last season. They gave up a league-worst 53 points in the paint per game and also a league-worst 15.5 second-chance points per contest, per the NBA’s stats site.

Between the atrocious quartet of seasons the Suns have had during Booker’s four seasons in the league and the viral video that saw Booker criticizing Joakim Noah during an open gym run where Noah called for a double team on Booker in the right corner, the 2018 3-point contest winner could use a season that truly vaults him closer to the upper echelon of NBA stars.

Khadrice Rollins wrote a good piece for Sports Illustrated on what Booker needs to improve on heading into the first season of his five-year, $158 million extension he signed with the Suns last summer.

He used the continual improvements of James Harden on the defensive end of the floor over the last couple of season to further explain how Booker can still get plenty of buckets like Harden does, but become more of a plus on the other end of the floor.

Most of you wouldn’t consider Harden a stout defender thanks to various clips of him either being blown past or appearing not to give much effort on that side of the ball. But contrary to popular belief, Harden has shown some amazing tendencies on the defensive end that radiated to his teammates and helped make the Rockets one of the best defensive teams in his MVP season and a top-10 defense after the calendar changed last season.

Harden’s defensive prowess is rooted in his ability to switch onto bigs and hold his own in the post as an on-ball defender and rebounder, along with his quick hands that created the third-most deflections per game last season behind George and Robert Covington.

Harden has grabbed at least 5.4 rebounds per contest in the last four seasons and has become one of the game’s premier playmakers, dishing out at least 7.5 assists (including 11.2 per game three seasons ago) in the last four seasons, along with averaging no less than 1.5 steals per contest in that same span.

The steals are in rooted to those quick hands Rollins mentioned, along wtih Paul George and Robert Covington being two of the league’s best perimeter defenders due to their ability to switch and guard all five positions effectively.

Nobody’s expecting Booker to becoming a George or even someone like Jimmy Butler overnight where he’s getting 20-25 points relatively with ease, along with guarding the best wings in the game constantly, but defensively is where Booker can turn some heads in his development into one of the game’s best players.

Buckets aren’t the issue with Booker. They never have been. You saw him wear blue for a season. You know that shot form is pure, despite his 3-point percentage dipping from 38.3 percent on 7.1 attempts per game two seasons ago to 32.3 percent on 6.5 attempts last season.

Despite that decline in one of his most-known traits on the floor, Booker found other ways to have a positive offensive impact. His FTr (free throw rate) jumped from .312 to .362 last season, along with shooting 86.6 percent from the line, while his TS% (true shooting percentage) hopped up from .561 to .584.

On top of all that, Booker basically became the Phoenix point guard a season ago, registering a 34.1 AST% (assist percentage), which basically means that 34.1 of all the assists for the Suns while he was on the floor came from him. That number jumped 9.7 percent (24.4%) from two years ago to this past season.

With the addition of FIBA World Cup MVP Ricky Rubio to the Suns this offseason, Phoenix now has a veteran guard who can not only defend the point guard position more effectively than a good chunk of the league’s lead guards, but will be vital in taking some of the playmaking load off Booker’s shoulders this season, allowing the former Wildcat to avoid double teams more and do what he does best: put the orange sphere inside the orange circle.

Add in the youthful and powerful Deandre Ayton at the center position and that’s three-fifths of a potential starting lineup that you can really work with if you’re new coach Monty Williams.

Along with easier opportunities to score, Booker can focus on aspects of his game that many people wonder whether or not he’ll ever be good at it.

Kevin Love had the same narratives and a similar case of Empty Stats Syndrome when he dominated the offensive end in Minnesota before being moved alongside LeBron during his second Cleveland stint. Former teammate Kyrie Irving had similar critiques before the second LeBron coming and hitting one of the league’s all-time clutch shots three years ago.

Many great offensive players in the past and in the present of the NBA have been in Booker’s boat.

“Is he really that good, or is he a really good player on a really bad team?”

This season could tell us whether or not Booker is really that good.