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Phoenix Suns

Devin Booker has taken a page out of James Harden's playbook — and it's working

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Devin Booker (NBA Getty Images)

Devin Booker did something recently that we've only seen from Michael Jordan, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James in the last 35 years.

In six straight games, the 23-year-old recorded at least 25 points and eight assists.

The scoring shouldn't come as a surprise. Booker was good for 24.9 points per game last season and he's averaging around the same this season. The assists, however, should. Prior to this season, Booker had dished out eight-plus assists in only 16 career games. He has 14 such games this season alone.

It's helped Booker average 7.0 assists per game, up from 4.7 last season. He is turning those into 16.8 points per game for his teammates, putting him ahead of Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry and a number of other All-Stars in that category.

Booker has been so successful in that role that the Phoenix Suns waived Isaiah Canaan, who started the season at point for them, at the end of November to give him full control of the offence. The transition hasn't come without its growing pains - Booker is among the league leaders in turnovers per game - but Phoenix has found much more success with their young star taking over the playmaking duties.

"Through this summer, I worked on all aspects of my game," Booker recently told NBA.com. "I watched a lot of film, reading defenses and watched the players who have had success with it, including James [Harden] - you know, guys that have the ball in their hands most of the game and have that role of making plays for other people.

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"I knew coming into this season that I'd have a greater role in that area, so I worked on it."

Deandre Ayton, whom the Suns selected with the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, has been huge for Booker's development in that regard.

A lot of the hype surrounding the Bahamian coming out of college centred around his physical tools. With the size of a traditional centre and the athleticism of a forward, many believed he had the makings of a dynamic pick-and-roll big in the NBA.

Ayton has been just that through the first half of his rookie season, and it's helped him form immediate chemistry with Booker, as Booker generates the bulk of his own offence in pick-and-rolls.

When opposing centres hedge or double Booker in those situations - something that happens a lot due to how versatile of a scorer he is - Ayton has shown that he can make plays for himself on the short roll. He's knocked down his midrange attempts at a decent rate and has been almost as efficient as Giannis Antetokounmpo scoring in the restricted area.

The same goes for when big men switch onto Booker.

Rather than always looking for his own shot, Booker now has a 7-footer who can pick his own mismatch apart in a variety of ways on the low block. According to NBA.com, only six players in the entire league have scored more points in the post than Ayton this season. Their names? Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Much like those players, Ayton has great hands for his size, which makes him both an easy and massive target when combined with his 7-foot-5 wingspan.

Ayton also has a go-to move in the post that he's already burning defenders with - a fake over his left shoulder, followed by a smooth right-handed hook.

Ayton is an alley-oop threat as well, much like former Suns centre Tyson Chandler.

If he's given space when he turns the corner, Booker can pull-up from midrange, where he's been practically automatic in his career, or take it to the hoop. If the help defense scrambles to take those options away, he can lob the ball to Ayton on the roll knowing he will go get it.

Prior to Sunday's loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, Booker had assisted his centre more than any other Sun on the season.

"He's a big who can catch the ball," Booker said about Ayton. "So on these rolls, he can catch it on a pocket pass, he can catch the lob and he finishes it. He's a big, strong body, and I think he's coming into his own and progressing every game."

To complement Booker and Ayton, the Suns have been surrounding their one-two punch of the future with three perimeter players for almost every second they're on the court together.

That greatly simplifies Booker's options as the primary ball handler because it means any extra attention the defence pays to him or Ayton in the halfcourt leaves someone wide open on the perimeter. It's resulted in almost half of his non-Ayton assists setting up 3-pointers.

T.J. Warren and Kelly Oubre Jr. have benefited the most from those passes. They are both comfortable shooting from deep and they can each punish teams for being overly aggressive on closeouts by putting the ball on the floor.

Whereas a lot of those possessions end with Warren pulling-up for his patented floater...

...Oubre is the type of player who will challenge anyone and everyone at the rim.

The Suns are still the worst team in the league, but we're starting to see the makings of a winning formula. Not only have they been significantly better offensively with Booker and Ayton on the court this season, they've been surprisingly competitive in the minutes they've shared with Warren, Oubre and Mikal Bridges.

While teams are still getting the better of them - much of which has to do with the Suns hemorrhaging points whenever Booker and Ayton are in the lineup - Booker's evolution as a passer make him a considerably easier player for the franchise to build around moving forward because he's becoming an offence unto himself, much like a young Harden or Westbrook.

"I have a long list of Devin Booker's job description," Suns head coach Igor Kokoškov told NBA.com. "One of the things is he's got to playmake, he's got to pass, he's got to score, he's got to play defence."

"It's not easy," Kokoškov continued. "When you have such a gift to score - he's one of the best scorers in the league - and also to keep involving the other guys and your teammates in the game. That's something that's a challenge for him to manage those two things; when to pass or when to score."

It won't prevent the Suns from selecting another potential star in the 2019 NBA Draft should they end up with one of the top picks, but it sets Booker up to be the driving force in their climb back up the Western Conference standings in the years to come.

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