In 2021-22, Devin Booker helped steer the Phoenix Suns to a franchise-record 64 wins en route to a First Team All-NBA nomination.
At the time, Booker’s naysayers (myself included) scoffed at the selection, seeing it as the ultimate encapsulation of the voting body’s misguided fixation with players who can quote on quote “get buckets.”
Fast forward to 2023-24, and Booker is pulling off feats that only Wilt Chamberlain has before him, and more importantly, he’s evolved into the player that people thought he was in 2021-22.
The ninth-year pro scored 52, 46, 62 and 44 points over a four-game stretch on the road before finishing with 22 in Monday night’s 118-105 win at Miami.
The Truth About Bucket-Getting
Let’s make one thing clear. I (and most of the people who were critical of Booker being selected to the All-NBA First Team in 2022) didn’t think Booker was a bad player back then. We just thought he was more like a top-25 player than a top-10 player.
A big reason for this is how Booker went about acquiring most of his points. He doesn’t pressure the rim like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or rip the nylon from the 3-point line like Tyrese Haliburton. Instead, a vast majority of Booker’s buckets come from the midrange.
Now, as we’ve outlined countless times before, there is nothing wrong with being a midrange merchant. But if you are going to hang your hat on it, you need to either have a really high release point (like Kevin Durant), have great verticality (like Michael Jordan), or be great at using your strength to create space (like Kawhi Leonard).
At the time, Booker’s midrange style fit none of those categories. He was still highly effective from that region of the floor – 47% in 2021-22 (82nd percentile). But he leaned on it too often (99th percentile in attempts per 75). And if the midrange is going to be your primary means of attack and you want to be viewed as a superstar, you need to be more efficient than that. This was evidenced by the fact that Booker’s scoring efficiency (measured by true shooting) was at just 57.6% in 2021-22 (65th percentile).
So, what did the three-time All-Star do? He did what any great player in NBA history would do in that situation. He got back in the lab and worked on improving his strength and control. Nowadays, Booker still takes a bounty of midrange shots. But they are more efficient now because he’s using his body to get to his favorite spots on the court.
This year, Booker is hitting 50.3% of his midrange jumpers (89th percentile) on similar volume.
That may not seem like a massive improvement, but in a league that’s as stacked as the modern NBA, a couple of percentage points makes all the difference. Now, Booker’s true shooting percentage is sitting pretty at 61.8 (79th percentile).
Booker’s also using his new skills to improve his finishing around the rim. In 2021-22, Booker was converting on just 60.1% of his shots at the rim. In 2023-24, that percentage has ballooned upwards to 65.7%. Some of that is a byproduct of Phoenix’s improved spacing (thanks to offseason additions like Bradley Beal and Grayson Allen).
But a lot of it is a result of Booker’s own individual improvement.
Booker’s ability to initiate and absorb contact has also produced career-high free throw rates, as he’s garnering 9.6 free throw attempts per 100 possessions (97th percentile).
Other Areas of Improvement
Booker’s shortcomings as a scorer would have been easier to swallow if he was an elite passer. However, that was simply not the case two seasons ago.
Being able to consistently execute the corner skip pass (if you’re not sure what that is, take a look at the clips below) is a badge of honor among the NBA’s best passers. It’s a hallmark feature in the arsenals of guys like James Harden, Trae Young and Luka Doncic.
Throughout his career, though, Booker has struggled to consistently make that advanced read. As recently as last postseason, the Denver Nuggets used this facilitation deficiency to their advantage, sending two defenders at Booker and instructing the player guarding the weak side corner to sag off their man and help in the paint.
Simply put, they dared Booker to burn them for leaving that corner shooter open, and he couldn’t do it enough to make them stop. Now, while he still misses that pass from time to time, he’s identifying it and executing it with far more consistency.
This is just one type of pass that you see over the course of an NBA game. But it’s a microcosm of Booker’s growth as a passer and decision-maker. This season, Booker is averaging more assists than he ever has before (9.9 per 100).
And his turnover rate (10.6%) is below his career average (12.8%) despite him playing a career high in minutes at the point guard position – 85% of his minutes this year have been as a point guard (per Basketball Reference).
How Good Is DBook Right Now?
On this Phoenix team, Booker has been tasked with being the unit’s primary on-ball scorer and creator – a role he’s thrived in. On the year, Booker is fifth in offensive DRIP (O-DRIP) in the entire NBA (99th percentile). He’s gone from a 4.1 O-DRIP in January 2023 to a 4.7 O-DRIP heading into Wednesday night’s contest at Brooklyn.
On defense, the Suns – while competing hard under defensive-minded coach Frank Vogel – are deprived of great defensive talent relative to the other contending teams. As a result, Booker is often asked to guard the other team’s best or second-best perimeter player.
And even with the work Booker has put in on that end of the court, asking Booker to both quarterback the offense and play a major role on defense is over burdensome. That’s part of the reason his D-DRIP is at minus-1.7 (seventh percentile).
In the ideal world, Booker should be your fourth-best defender on the floor. That way, he can focus on being the elite offensive engine he’s grown into over the last couple of years. (Despite this, the Suns are still 16th in defensive rating.)
But just because Booker has been miscast on defense by this year’s Suns’ team doesn’t mean we should lose sight of how far he’s come. When Booker was crowned a member of the All-NBA First Team in 2022, in my opinion, it was undeserved.
But now, Booker has transformed himself into one of the very best offensive players in the sport. And after one of the best stretches in league history, he’s playing like a legitimate All-NBA player.