For some reason, not a lot of people are talking about the Phoenix Suns. My guess is we’re all waiting for Bradley Beal to get healthy so we can see what this team really looks like. In the meantime, however, the Devin Booker-Kevin Durant duo is lighting the league on fire.
Durant, the league’s second leading scorer at over 31 points a game on better than 52% 3-point shooting, missed his first game of the season on Friday. No biggie. Booker went for 40 points as the Suns, now winners of six straight, blew past the Grizzlies to run their in-season tournament record to 3-1 and are leading in the race for the wild card spot.
Booker’s presence is in keeping with a season-long theme: If he’s on the floor, the Suns roll. Even without Durant, they outscore opponents by over 112 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass, with what would be the league’s top offensive rating.
There has just been no answer for Booker, who’s averaging just under 30 points on scorching 52/45/93 shooting splits. The Suns are 7-1 when he plays. He’s one of two players who rank top seven in both scoring and assists. The other is Luka Doncic.
The scoring is no surprise. Booker was one of the purest bucket getters in the league even before he just sort of decided to become more of a 3-point shooter, much the same way CJ McCollum, another master mid-ranger, did later in his career. The stroke was always there. The range is no problem. This was a very natural and predictable progression for Booker, who made 15 of his final 18 shots on Friday.
The development is the playmaking, and again, I hesitate to call it a development since to me that word implies some major leap in ability. Booker has always been a natural with the ball. The creation wasn’t missing so much as it just wasn’t a consistent necessity before. Now that Chris Paul is gone, this “development” is mostly about opportunity, and Booker is certainly making the most of it.
This isn’t some new development on a league-wide scale, either. The Paul-type floor generals are almost entirely fazed out. These days the pass-first equation has flipped to score first, and then, once a defense has over-leveraged itself by reacting to the threat of said scorer, the pass opens up.
This generally happens one of three ways: By getting into the paint and collapsing the defense, which leads to kick-out 3s, by dragging multiple defenders away from the basket before swinging to an open shooter or initiating a ball reversal, or by getting downhill with a pick-and-roll partner. Booker, who forces defenses to gravitate to him as the certified bucket he is, has all three covered.
Those last two passes to Jusuf Nurkic is where I see the most development. It’s not to downplay the drive and kicks or the reversals out of double teams, but those passes, on some level, make themselves once the defense has sold out for a scorer of Booker’s caliber.
This is the blueprint that Jayson Tatum, without having to be a Trae Young or Doncic-level passer, has used to become an impactful playmaker. Anthony Edwards is doing the same thing. Those guys are hoping to get to the level Booker is at as score-first playmakers.
The interior passes, on the other hand, tend to reflect a higher degree of difficulty as they come in more traffic, and they also display the poise and patience Booker has shown to let plays develop until the last second, maximizing separation with a subtle stall step or an extra dribble as his recipient fully opens up. Sometimes he goes full Steve Nash in keeping his dribble alive way past the normal time range.
This is not a guy who’s in a rush:
These are the nuances that really start to distinguish a high-level playmaker, and again, Booker has been showing plenty of this in recent years. It’s just happening all the time now. At this point, there isn’t really anything Booker hasn’t mastered, or at least come pretty damn close to mastering, on the offensive end.
He scores efficiently at all three levels, both off the catch and dribble. He gets to the free throw line eight times a game. Factoring both scoring and assists, he ranks north of the 90th percentile as both a pick-and-roll and post-up point generator, per Synergy. You absolutely cannot defend him with one guy, which is a problem with Durant next to him, and Beal eventually to come.
Booker’s 127.9 points per 100 shot attempts, per Cleaning the Glass, is a career-high, as is his 64.9% true shooting and 36.5 usage rate. Booker’s 43.3 assist percentage — which means he assists on 43.3% of the shots his teammates make when he’s on the floor — is the top mark among all combo guards. In just seven games in November he’s had assist tallies of 15, 13, and 10, and his plus-10.4 per-game point differential is the best of any player taking at least five shots per game.
The man is a beast, and he might not even be the best player on his own team. In fact, he probably isn’t. The Suns aren’t perfect, but this Booker-Durant combination is so lethal that they don’t have to be.