Devin Booker shedding 'empty stats' label with defensive effort during Suns' surprising start

SAN FRANCISCO -- Chief among the myriad of early-season NBA surprises has been the ascent of the Phoenix Suns to not only basic basketball competency, but also a clear pathway to being truly competitive. The franchise which has averaged fewer than 22 wins over the past four seasons is off to a conspicuous 3-2 record, including an early statement win over the Los Angeles Clippers. Their losses were each by one point to two of the league's top teams -- first on the road to the Denver Nuggets, in overtime, and then to the Utah Jazz.

Needless to say we're seeing a different brand of Suns basketball so far in 2019-20, even with last year's No. 1 overall draft pick Deandre Ayton playing only one game before receiving a 25-game suspension. First-year head coach Monty Williams was honest about what needed to be fixed when he took over the reins this offseason. Before addressing the team for the first time, he talked with players, members of the organization and even fans in Phoenix to get a sense of how he could get things moving in a positive direction.

It came down to two things: Basketball (which has been quite ugly in recent years) and culture. Williams wanted to make improvements without taking away from what the team has done well.

"From a numbers standpoint, defensively we weren't that great. Offensively, we were 29, 30 -- we were low (the Suns finished 28th in offensive efficiency last season). So just from a numbers standpoint, we had to improve habits that we felt like were gonna help us or give us a chance to win games," Williams said before his team's 121-110 victory over the Warriors on Wednesday. "You know, everybody tries to improve culture, but we have good guys. So that's where our culture starts. It's not about me implementing some day-to-day ritual. It's about having good guys, and we have that, and that helps our culture."

The offense has improved significantly, but truly astonishing strides have been made on the defensive end. Last season the Suns were second-to-last in the NBA in defensive efficiency, allowing 114.2 points per 100 possessions. This season that number has free-fallen to 100.2 in the first five games, good for eighth in the league. The turnaround is even more incredible given the strength of the competition they've faced early on.

Williams credited Suns general manager James Jones for defensive-minded offseason additions like Ricky Rubio, Aron Baynes and Jevon Carter. But he also mentioned the pride that the team's unquestioned star, Devin Booker, has taken in getting stops.

"I think having Aron and Ricky and Jevon, guys like that -- but I also think you see Devin just going after guys defensively. He doesn't back away from matchups," Williams said. "I watch a lot of teams, their matchup on him doesn't guard him -- they put other guys on Devin. Devin guards his position every night. I have to try to coax him out of it sometimes to try to keep his energy at a high level, and he's like, 'Nah coach, I want that guy.' That's what I love about him. So I think the guys James [Jones] brought in help our defense for sure, but I think Devin's mentality to guard his position every night is a leadership quality that our team can follow."

Booker has put up gaudy offensive numbers over the past three seasons -- last year he joined James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard and Michael Adams as the only players in NBA history to average at least 26.5 points, 6.5 assists and two made 3-pointers per game while playing over 60 games in a season. Yet Booker's reputation is generally that of a good stats-bad team type of player. Nobody is quite sure if Booker's tremendous offensive output can eventually translate to wins -- largely because the Suns haven't won in any relevant way since he got there.

One way to change that reputation is to get better on the defensive end. It's a familiar story with exciting young offensive players on bad teams -- Karl-Anthony Towns has taken similar criticism, and Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders said that defensive improvement will help take Towns to the next level. So far this year, Booker's defensive metrics (not necessarily the best measure of overall effectiveness) are similar to last season's. However, as Williams suggested, Booker's impact on the defensive end comes more with effort and leadership than his ability to get consistent one-on-one stops.

He has enough strong defenders behind him now to cover up his mistakes, but when the team sees its franchise player aggressively guarding the best player on the other team in the fourth quarter or getting a big defensive stop, there's a psychological buy-in that transcends numbers.

So when you hear pundits talking about Booker "making the leap" this season, which they will if the Suns continue on this path, they'll largely be talking about his effort on defense. That, and winning, are the quickest ways to eradicate the "empty stats" label he's acquired over his first four NBA seasons. If he and his team keep it up, Booker should make his first All-Star appearance this coming February in Chicago.

"I think he wants to prove that to everybody, and I want to help him," Williams said of Booker. "I want to help him get rid of some of these labels that have been put on him, some I think unfairly. That's my job as a coach, to make him look as good as I can."

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