Devin Booker can get buckets.
With 90 seconds left in a game against the Washington Wizards on March 27 of last season, Booker scored on a lay-up to tie the game at 118-118 to give him an even 50 points. It came just two days after he dropped 59 on the road at Utah, which made him the youngest player in NBA history with back-to-back 50-point games.
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Of course, neither of those holds a candle to the night in the spring of 2017 when he went for 70 in Boston, crossing a single-game threshold that only five other players in league history have ever reached.
Getting buckets - it's a concept as old as the game itself.
When Dr. James Naismith invented basketball in 1891, the primary objective of the game was simple: put the ball in the peach basket.
Naismith's original set of rules consisted of 13 separate items, which ranged from passing to traveling to fouling out to the time played. Four years into his career, there's no denying that Booker is well on his way towards mastering that fundamental objective laid out by the Canadian physical education teacher 128 years ago at a YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts. But there's also no denying that Booker has thus far fallen short of consistently living up to another one of Naismith's objectives, the one that ultimately carries more weight than any other.
The 13th and final rule among that original list? How to win games.
Lots of points and lots of losses
When Booker scored that historic 50th point in the aforementioned game against the Wizards back in March, it came on a cherry-picked lay-in after Bradley Beal missed a wide-open 3-pointer that would have made it a five-point game.
Why was Booker all alone after Beal's miss?
On the previous possession, Booker himself turned it over while sizing up his defender down two points following a steal by one of his teammates. Unaware of a second defender trailing, Booker coughed it up and landed on his backside, watching the events play out on the other end.
Though Booker took advantage of Beal's miss to score his 50th point, the Suns went on to lose that night to a Wizards team playing on the second-night of a back-to-back that had just been routed the day before by a Los Angeles Lakers team in the midst of a tailspin.
It was a familiar feeling for Suns fans, watching their budding star go off in a losing effort. When Booker erupted for 59 two nights earlier against the Jazz, it came in a 32-point loss. When Booker caught fire for 70 against the Celtics, 51 of them came in the second half ... in a game the Suns trailed by 23 at the half.
Three 50-point games. Three losses.
It's somewhat been the story of Booker's career, as he has a scoring average of 21.4 points per game through four years while playing on teams that finished with 23, 24, 21 and 19 wins.
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If you line up every player in NBA history that's averaged 20 points per game for their career through the age of 22, very few have struggled to win games as Booker has thus far in Phoenix. In fact, of the 42 players that have done it, only four did it while posting a worse win percentage than Booker.
Shareef Abdur-Rahim spent the better part of his career compiling gaudy numbers for lottery-bound teams in Vancouver and Atlanta, making one All-Star team before finally making his lone playoff appearance in his 10th season as a role player for the Sacramento Kings in 2005-06.
Sidney Wicks similarly struggled to win as a 22-year-old rookie, a theme that stuck with him throughout his career. Though he made the All-Star team each of his first four seasons, all four came for a Portland team that didn't sniff a playoff berth. Over a 10-year career, Wicks appeared in the postseason just once and not until his sixth season as the fifth-leading scorer on a Boston team that won the title the previous year without him.
Walt Bellamy averaged over 31 points per game as a 22-year-old rookie on an expansion team before eventually transforming into a Hall-of-Famer that made seven playoff appearances. Of the four, his circumstances are so wildly different they should almost be thrown out entirely.
Jerry Stackhouse might be the best comparison to Booker of all. A 6-foot-6 gifted scorer with a seemingly endless back of tricks, Stackhouse eventually made a pair of All-Star teams and nearly led the league in scoring, flirting with a 30-point season while finishing behind only Allen Iverson in the scoring race in 2000-01 and leading the Pistons to 50 wins.
Of course, there's more nuance to Booker's game than merely "hey, here's a young guy who scores a ton, but hasn't figured out how to win yet."
Evaluating Booker through the lens of only points and wins underscores the greater issue at hand: why hasn't he won yet?
Contextualizing the defensive shortcomings
It's foolish to label Booker as a scorer and nothing else. You don't do that to a young player that just averaged a career-high 6.8 assists per game while playing the majority of the season out of position. It's also a gross mischaracterization to point to his shooting percentages as warning signs of an inefficient chucker given he also got to the free throw line at a rate better than 10 of last year's 12 guards who made the All-Star team.
Simply put: he's a brilliant offensive player that's only going to keep improving.
The other end of the floor?
That's a different story.
Remember that group of 42 players to average at least 20 points per game by his age? Booker ranks dead last among all of them in Defensive Box Plus-Minus. That's a fancy way of saying that of all the high volume young scorers that have ever come along, every single one of them has been more impactful on defence than Booker.
The only other one among that group to average less than one block and one steal per 36 minutes is Derrick Rose, who by 22 was a league MVP and winning 62 games for a team that also had the best defence in the league. So yeah ... not exactly where Booker is at with the Suns, who have been one of the NBA's worst defensive teams in each of the last four seasons.
Of course, it's unfair to pin all of this on Booker. He is, after all, only one piece of the puzzle in Phoenix.
Booker's supporting cast
Imagine a world in which Booker flies off a screen and launches a trey from a perfectly placed pass from Luka Doncic.
Imagine a world in which Booker runs the floor and finishes for an easy two off a dish from De'Aaron Fox.
Imagine a world in which Booker goes 4-17, but the Suns win anyway because Jamal Murray or Buddy Hield goes for 35.
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All of those scenarios could have been the reality for Phoenix. Normally it's far too easy and convenient and even lazy to play that hindsight "what if" draft game except for when it becomes a repeated pattern.
The Suns struck gold when they selected Booker with the 13th overall pick in the 2015 draft. He's far exceeded the expectations for a player drafted that late in the lottery and if re-drafting today, would probably go inside the top 3. When it comes to pure scoring chops, it's hard to do any better than the Suns did in nabbing Booker at No. 13.
The same can't be said for many of their other picks over the last decade.
Forget about the decision to draft Deandre Ayton first overall last year, an entirely defensible selection at the time even with Doncic there for the taking and Doncic's national team coach with Slovenia, Igor Kokoskov, manning the sidelines for the Suns.
And for now let's put aside this year's decision to trade down from No. 6 in order to take Cam Johnson with the 11th overall pick, a much-maligned selection by draft pundits who projected Johnson to go outside of the lottery.
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Let's instead skip back to 2017 when the team drafted Josh Jackson fourth overall, one spot ahead of Fox. While Jackson has struggled to find his footing in the NBA and was traded this offseason to the Memphis Grizzlies, Fox looks like a future All-Star and might just be the best point guard in the league someday.
The Suns entered the 2016 draft with three first-round picks, including two in the lottery. With the fourth overall pick, they selected Dragan Bender, who in three seasons failed to develop and is now on the Milwaukee Bucks on a minimum deal. Bender was selected just ahead of Jamal Murray, who just inked a max extension as the second-best player on a 54-win Denver Nuggets team, and Buddy Hield, who is coming off a year in which he averaged over 20 points per game alongside Fox.
They sent the other two picks (13 and 28), along with Bogdan Bogdanovic, to the Kings for the rights to that year's No. 8 pick, Marquese Chriss, who - like Bender and Jackson - is now no longer with the franchise.
Booker was the prize in 2015, which makes what happened prior to nailing him all the more painful.
The Suns entered the 2014 draft with three first-round picks used to select TJ Warren, Tyler Ennis and Bogdanovic. None of them are still on the roster.
In 2013, Phoenix opted for Alex Len with the fifth overall pick. He's no longer on the team while players selected within the 10 picks to follow include CJ McCollum (10th), Steven Adams (12th) and reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo (15th). They also had the 30th pick, which they traded to acquire Archie Goodwin and Malcolm Lee. The latter never played for the Suns while the former rated as one of the least productive players in the league during his three seasons in Phoenix.
In 2012, the Suns drafted Kendall Marshall with the 13th pick. He lasted one year with the Suns and played for four teams in four NBA seasons.
In 2011, they picked Markieff Morris, who was eventually traded to the Wizards midway during Booker's rookie season. Morris was the 13th pick in the draft. The 15th pick that year? Kawhi Leonard.
All told that's 11 first-round picks from 2011 to 2017 not including Booker, none of whom are still on the Suns roster entering the 2019-20 NBA season.
What happens next?
There's plenty of time for Booker to buck the narrative that he's not a winning player even if it's difficult to imagine a legitimate run towards playoff contention this year in a loaded Western Conference. Phoenix is currently pegged for 29.5 wins by oddsmakers, which might seem underwhelming but would be a significant improvement upon last year's 19-win team.
There's room for optimism as Booker, Ayton and Mikal Bridges should all improve while the additions of Ricky Rubio and Dario Saric should relieve some pressure in the form of a legitimate point guard and playmaking wing.
And yet we've seen this movie before. Those same oddsmakers pegged the Suns for 29 wins entering last season following the additions of Trevor Ariza and Jamal Crawford, and instead of showing signs of a team on the rise, Phoenix quickly lost its footing in the desert quicksand.
With Booker on the team, the Suns have yet to reach .500 at any point in December or beyond. They started 7-7 in his rookie season before losing on Nov. 25 to fall to 7-8. That's the latest into a season they've flirted with a winning record. In each of Booker's four seasons, they've been over 20 games under .500 by the All-Star break and squarely out of the mix.
|Season||Under .500 for good||All-Star break W-L||GB of 8th at All-Star|
Whatever happens this season won't make or break Booker's future. He's far too talented and far too young to paint with such broad strokes, especially considering he's starting fresh with yet another head coach, already his fourth following stints with Earl Watson, Jay Triano and Igor Kokoskov.
Although Monty Williams may represent yet another change, he arrives in Phoenix as a universally respected voice with previous NBA head coaching experience and acumen for connecting with younger players. Stars he's coached either as a head coach or assistant include Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. With Williams on the bench and Rubio in the backcourt, Booker at the very least enters this season with more stability and structure than he's had at any point thus far in his career.
Booker can't do it alone. Nobody can.
And yet at some point it's reasonable to place the burden of success at the feet of the franchise player. Entering the first year of a five-year max contract paying him $158 million, Booker is unquestionably the man for the foreseeable future in Phoenix. He's now being paid like a superstar and every penny coming his way is well deserved. But with that bag also comes the eventual expectation can he can be the focal point of a winner. Fair or not, it comes with the territory.
Will this be the year that Booker adds wins to a diet that features tons of scoring?
Or will those outbursts result in more of the same for the Suns, empty calories for a diet with little nutritional value in the form of winning.
The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the NBA or its clubs.