Devin Booker is young, but the Suns star is already boasting an advanced game
At only 21 years old, the talented guard has turned a real corner in his third season
In this view, which also happens to be my view, the Phoenix Suns shooting guard, who is due to return soon from a strained groin muscle, is a soon-to-be All Star, and a natural scorer who is quickly expanding his overall game. At an age that's younger than many players who will be selected in the 2018 NBA Draft, Booker is 12th in the league in scoring, averaging 24.3 points per game, and he's adding 4.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists. He was the youngest player to compete in the three-point contest during NBA All-Star Weekend during his rookie year, and he nearly bested the Splash Brothers. Last season, at age 20, he dropped 70 points in a game -- just the 11th 70-point game in NBA history. Booker has vastly outperformed his draft position (13th in the 2015 draft) and looks to have the potential to become an All-Star for the next decade.
By just about any measure, he's a star.
Except by the measures that advanced statistics gurus pay the most attention to, that is.
Booker represents a conundrum of the modern-day NBA fan: How should we think of a player whose traditional statistics tell us is dominant but whose advanced statistics tell us is far less so?
Call them the Traditional Stats All-Stars. They are the players who fans can't decide are stars in substance and performance or only stars in reputation. You know the names: Guys like Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Pau Gasol, who are all likely Hall of Famers but who the more math-minded basketball minds cast doubt upon their actual value. Or younger players like D'Angelo Russell, Victor Oladipo (until his breakout year this season with the Pacers, at least) and most of all, the Minnesota Timberwolves' newest max-contract player, Andrew Wiggins.
Booker has been considered one of these players since he burst onto the scene as the Suns' first-round pick in 2015 and made the All-Rookie First Team. Sure, he could score. But what else could he do? His defense was a sieve. It was as if he saved all his energy for the offensive side of the floor. His game was far from complete.
I asked Booker about this the other day, as he was working his way back from the first big injury of his career. (He's due back around Christmas.) He's aware that the advanced numbers haven't looked kindly upon his career so far. He also knows that there's more to great basketball than advanced statistics.
"You're a young player, kind of a go-to option, you're getting teams' best defenses, and we're on a young team and we're struggling," Booker told me. "Advanced stats are always better on a winning team. Everyone looks good. Defense is a team thing. You see it with Golden State -- once a team starts succeeding, everyone looks good. That's how the NBA works."
So it begs the question: How does Booker's progress compare with other Traditional Stats All-Stars?
And if you're a Suns fan, you're going to like the answer.
Let's start with Wiggins. He's the poster child for the traditional vs. advanced argument. Traditional statistics tab him as a rising star, enough to warrant a five-year, $148 million contract extension. His scoring averages took a jump each of his first three seasons, from 16.9 points per game to 20.7 to 23.6, before regressing this season as he's settled into a third option behind Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns.
However, Wiggins doesn't rebound well at all. His scoring comes from volume over efficiency. He's not a great mover of the ball and his defense is often atrocious -- so bad that the statistical analysis web site FiveThirtyEight.com named him the NBA's "least defensive player" last season.
You'd hope that, as a young player matures, he gets a better understanding of how to be a winning NBA contributor. But according to some advanced statistics, Wiggins has actually regressed. Take win shares. In his rookie season, Wiggins was worth only 2.1 wins to his team, per BasketballReference.com, which ranked him 227th in the league. The next season, he improved to 4.1 (116th in the NBA) then 4.2 (98th in the NBA) -- not enough to warrant a max contract, perhaps, but a marked improvement. But through the first quarter of this season, Wiggins ranks 250th in win shares.
Same with the VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) statistic which attempts to show a player's worth over an average NBA player. Wiggins has, for all four seasons of his career, hovered near the bottom of the NBA in this metric: 418th his rookie season, then 358th, 469th and 458th so far this season. That means despite posting great counting statistics and getting that big-time contract, Wiggins could be one of the least valuable players in the NBA, according to this metric.
How does this compare to Booker?
In Booker's rookie season, a year after Wiggins' rookie season, he appeared to be very Wiggins-like. Booker ranked 234th in win shares and 448th in VORP -- virtually identical rankings to Wiggins in his rookie season. In his second season in the league, Booker continued on the path that some people believe is stardom (see: the 11th 70-point game in NBA history) while others believe is the land of the overrated. Despite averaging more than 22 points per game as the Suns' primary scoring option, Booker's defense dragged him down, and he ranked 222nd in the league in win shares and 373rd in VORP -- hardly any improvement. The case for Booker becoming a Traditional Stats All-Star, the most backhanded compliment in today's NBA, was becoming stronger.
This season, however, it's been a different story. Even as he's upped his scoring output to 24.3 points per game, Booker has improved his efficiency, with higher shooting percentages from two, three and the free-throw line. Most importantly, according to his coach, has been Booker's defensive focus (although that has yet to show up in advanced metrics like defensive rating).
This season, Booker ranks 80th in the NBA in win shares and 65th in VORP. It's not elite yet, like his traditional statistics are -- but it's a whale of a lot better than his first two years in the league.
His head coach raved about the steps Booker has taken to turn himself into a more complete basketball player.
"He's a very basketball-intelligent, and a very intelligent kid," Suns interim head coach Jay Triano told me. "He hears [the criticism from advanced-stats people] and knows it. I think that's why this year he's taken a special attention to making sure he's not that person and he does work better at the defensive end. It's focus. Sometimes you see that with a lot of offensive players: 'I can lose my focus here, but I'll be locked in at the other end.' That's the big thing. We put in a defensive system, and with this system he knows where he's supposed to be, and he's a smart enough basketball player to know, 'Hey, if I'm in this spot, I'm in good enough of a position to do what I'm supposed to do.' And he's taken on the challenge late in games -- 'I've got him -- I've got the best guy on the other team. I want him.' That's a step that he didn't have before. That's part of where we know he's started to change: 'I want this challenge, and I want to prove to people that I can guard guys.' And he's done very well at it.'"
It's an important thing for basketball pundits to remember: Just because a player is this type of player today does not mean he cannot become that type of player tomorrow. Kawhi Leonard became an elite three-point shooter after entering the NBA. LeBron James went from the guy everyone saw as someone who shied away from big moments to the best clutch player in the league. I would not be surprised in the least if Booker sheds his label as a player who is much worse in an advanced statistics world than in a traditional statistics world. I've known him since his one-and-done season at Kentucky, and he's always been a preternaturally mature young man with a high basketball IQ. If he's struggling in one part of his game, he'll work his tail off to fix it. Triano has witnessed that progress up close.
"It's hard for us, when you see him every day, to be like, 'Wow!'" Triano said. "Do you ever see your kids grow up? When you see them every day, it just kind of happens. I don't know if I've stepped back and said, 'Wow,' but there have been moments in games where you say, 'Holy smokes -- his game and the way he's playing has been at a different level.' For us the big thing is he's worked on his complete game this year. He's become more attentive to the defensive end of the floor, his ability to make passes to other players. And his efficiency because of that is higher than it's ever been."
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