Editor's note: Welcome to the first edition of what will in all likelihood become a weekly email back-and-forth discussion with Chase Thomas and one of his favorite NBA writers and thinkers, Scott Rafferty, who is a writer at The Step Back, Rolling Stone and the Sporting News. This week, the duo tackled one of basketball's most interesting questions surrounding one of its most electric scorers: What does the right team around Devin Booker look like?
CT: OK, Scott, Devin Booker may have just strained his left adductor, which is apparently a real thing, so he's going to miss some time, but he did drop 46 in Philadelphia a few nights ago. The conversation surrounding the 21-year-old has always been polarizing. On one hand, he seems like he's playing in the wrong era, on the other, it's hard to find guys in today's game who can do what he does. Right now, his team is 9-17 -- 9-14 since Jay Triano took over for Earl Watson -- and he figures to be a cornerstone piece in Phoenix for a long time. If that's the case, what does Phoenix do going forward? What does the right team around Booker look like?
SR: The thing I keep coming back to with Devin Booker is that he was seen as a pure shooter entering the 2015 NBA Draft. He was basically expected to do one of two things as a freshman at Kentucky — either catch-and-shoot the ball or take a couple of dribbles into a pull-up. Outside of that, he didn't do much offensively.
So the fact that he's now averaging 24.3 points per game as a go-to scorer in the NBA as a 21-year-old is super impressive. He's developed much quicker than anyone expected, and he is making noticeable improvements to his game each season. While he does still have some flaws, I think it's easy to forget just how much his game has changed in such a short period of time.
Still, like you said, he's built differently from other shooting guards in today's NBA, which doesn't necessarily make him the easiest person to project. Is he best suited as some point guard's Bradley Beal? Is he on pace to become a more modern version of DeMar DeRozan? Or is he capable of being a primary scorer and facilitator on a competitive team? The problem is I don't think we'll get a clear answer until the Suns surround with him the right talent or trade him. The first option could take a while and the second is unlikely to happen considering Booker is the closest thing they have to a franchise player.
CT: You're right, which I think hurt his draft stock in a way. His role on that Kentucky team was just catch-and-shoot at an elite level, and he did that. I'm not looking at his collegiate numbers right now, but I'm pretty sure he shot 93 percent from deep in Lexington. So we only saw him as a shooter, not a playmaker, because that just wasn't his role on Coach Cal's team. Part of me wonders if he would have gone higher had he gone to Florida and had a Bradley Beal-type role where he was asked to do more and was seen as more of a well-rounded guard who could be a franchise guy rather than a complimentary player on a good team.
I feel like we don't talk about his 24.3 PPG numbers enough. Like you said, he's getting better every season in an organization that can hardly be described as a functional one. (Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver would be a tad more harsh, I suspect.) He's shooting 38 percent from deep, has a 39.7 USG%, and you can almost guarantee he's going to get to at least twenty points with several treys every night. Just look at his game logs, where it's littered with thirty-plus-points nights. Just don't look at his DRPM.
I love the Beal comparison, as I mentioned above, because I think there are a lot more similarities there. Even saying he's kind of like DeMar DeRozan if he shot threes would be fair -- super efficient, just from different spots on the floor. Beal is fortunate enough to play next to an All-Star, elite defender in John Wall, while Booker is, correct me if I'm wrong, playing next to Not Mike James most nights? Booker has already played with a lot of point guards, and Phoenix hasn't found him the right backcourt partner. Who is that? With Josh Jackson, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender in the fold, you'd think the right guy for Booker at this point in his career is a long, defensive-minded lead guard with a pass-first instinct. With Eric Bledsoe in Milwaukee, I'd look at somebody like Malcolm Brogdon, or, perhaps more feasible, Dejounte Murray. It's just got to be somebody who can lower the Suns' defensive rating from 30th in the League.
SR: But I think that number is also the reason he is so polarizing. On one hand, Booker is a 21-year-old who is a threat to go off for 30 points on any given night, doing so as effortlessly as anyone in the league when he's rolling. On the other, he's an obviously talented scorer whose big numbers in the scoring column aren't overly impressive given his situation and the fact the Suns can't win games.
That's sort of what Golliver is getting at here:
"While he’s clearly talented, fresh and exciting, his shiny scoring exploits are dimmed by his ultra-green light and by the fact that he’s yet to play in a meaningful game because his team is so bad."
All of that is true. Booker is super talented, but he does have the ultra-green light in Phoenix and he hasn't yet played in a meaningful game, which may or may not be an indictment on him. (It isn't). So how do you evaluate someone like that? Does it matter as much that he continues to improve as a scorer if the rest of his game isn't progressing at a similar rate? Because, as Golliver also explained, he isn't the most complete player yet.
The reason I'm more optimistic than pessimistic about his potential is because nobody expected Booker to be as good as he is already this quickly. If he can go from spot-up shooter at Kentucky to being a three-level scorer in the NBA within three years, maybe he figures the rest out sooner rather than later as well. The question for me is if he develops more into the Beal-type of DeRozan-type in the coming years. Because as much as I love DeRozan and feel as though he gets more criticism than he deserves, he's not necessarily the easiest player to build around. The difference with Beal is he could fit into most teams because of how comfortable he is operating with and without the ball in his hands.
CT: So who do you think is the real Devin Booker? Or perhaps a better question: What will Booker have to change in his game for him to become less problematic and more appreciated?
The meaningful game point from Golliver is fair, although, I'm not going to hold that against the former Wildcat. Denver's unicorn NIkola Jokic may never play in a meaningful playoff game -- I should note, meaningful in the context of at least a Conference Finals appearance -- but basketball fans, for the most part, have rallied around him in spite of the cast of characters he's been surrounded with in Mile High City. Sidenote: By going down this rabbit hole, I'd like to pose a different question: Who would you rather have for the next decade leading your backcourt: Booker or Jamal Murray?
I completely agree on the Beal and DeRozan fronts, but what scares me for Phoenix is that neither of those players can be the best player on a contender. They're elite complimentary players on a contender, and, if that's where Booker ultimately gets to, that's still a huge win for Phoenix considering where they drafted him in the lottery. Perhaps for Booker to take his game to the next level he'll need McDonough to find his own Jokic or some other wing or big that can scale that 30 percent USG% down so that, maybe, just maybe, Booker can use decreased burden offensively on the defensive end of the floor.
Final thoughts on one of the most confident basketball players I've ever seen?
SR: To be honest, I still don't know the answer to that question because I think his game will continue to be nitpicked until he's in a situation where his team is competitive. Because as explosive as he has been this season, the Suns are still being outscored by 6.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the court. And they're only scoring at a rate of 103.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, which puts them between the Trail Blazers and Hornets in offensive efficiency.
Is that a cop-out answer? It probably is. I just feel like we won't know how good Booker really is until he's in a position where he can either complement an equally talented player or elevate slightly more capable teammates. (I'm not saying the Suns should trade Booker by the way. He was a fantastic pick by them and he's the closest thing they have to a star. I just hope they can surround him with the right talent sooner rather than later).
The Booker vs. Murray question is interesting to me because it's almost a discussion about uncertainty vs. certainty. We've seen more from Booker overall, but I think it's clearer what type of player Murray could develop in to, at least when it comes to how they fit into a given system. Still, I think I'd go with Booker because I like his long-term potential more.
Who would you prefer to have?
CT: Yeah, that seems to be the inescapable conundrum for so many young, promising players drafted into subpar situations. (We're, like, three months away from just calling this The Victor Oladipo Theory, by the way.)
We probably won't, and with the way the Suns have operated since drafting the kid, it wouldn't be wise to assume that he's going to experience that in Phoenix sooner rather than later. Remember, Phoenix hasn't been to the playoffs since the 2009-10 season. Booker on a playoff team would be fun, but it's so hard to forecast the future of this team with an interim coach in place, an odd cap situation, and a plethora of young players who just haven't hit the way Booker has thus far.
To wrap this up, my brain says Murray, but my heart says Booker. I trust Murray more as a shooter, his ability to finish at the rim, and see him as a better bet to be a solid No. 2 Guy on a really good playoff team. Booker may never reach the playoffs in Phoenix, and I could totally see him excelling as a No. 3 or No. 4 option in his late 20s playing next to somebody like Giannis in Milwaukee.
I will say, though, I'd prefer to watch both play basketball for the next decade.