Ideally, an early max rookie contract extension should be both a milestone and a formality. It’s not often that an NBA player earns that level of financial commitment after just three seasons, but when he does the deal is usually a path-defining decision that doesn’t require much internal debate or negotiation between the parties.
Such is life for the Suns and Devin Booker, who announced Saturday a five-year maximum rookie extension worth $158 million. The 21-year-old shooting guard, best known for his 70-point explosion against the Celtics in 2017, averaged 24.9 PPG, 4.5 RPG and 4.7 APG last season, all career-highs.
Despite his dependable scoring and nuanced offensive game, the fact that Booker received a max rookie extension so early in the summer says more about the Suns than it does about him. Phoenix simply had no shot at creating leverage in the negotiation given that Booker is set to play for his fourth coach in four seasons and has yet to play for a 25-win team. The Suns couldn’t pitch him on winning, culture or an enhanced role, so their only move was to back up the Brinks truck. Thankfully, Phoenix appeared to learn its lesson from the misguided handling of Eric Bledsoe in 2014, choosing to bypass hardball negotiations in favor of a swift deal that keeps everyone happy and helps ease the painful memories accumulated during a shameless multi-year tank.
Booker, who was the No. 13 pick in 2015 following one season at Kentucky, has emerged as one of the rising stars of his draft class. Only four active players—LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Karl-Anthony Towns—averaged more points at a younger age than Booker by their age-21 seasons. Pegged as a sharpshooter during the pre-draft process, he has blossomed into a relatively efficient all-around scorer by refining his shot diet. He’s traded long twos for threes, shown growth as a finisher, and earned more trips to the foul line—everything one would expect to see from a possible future scoring champ.
Granted a massive role on a Phoenix roster lacking in talent and cohesion, Booker has learned how to consistently create shots for himself and others without much in the way of help. His individual offense has yet to translate to team success, given that the Suns have ranked in the bottom-10 in offense in each of his three seasons. However, it’s usually unwise to pin the blame on an atrocious team’s only true bright spot. He really hasn’t had much to work with when it comes to complementary weapons.
While maxing Booker was an easy decision for Phoenix, it’s worth pondering whether he is a max-level player in a vacuum. On a team with more talent, structure and pressure to win, Booker’s usage and scoring would surely diminish. He’s a fine playmaker but not an exceptional one, succumbing often to carelessness.
The real questions arise when it comes to his defense, where he has consistently rated as below average. Although that’s somewhat expected given his youth and his major offensive responsibilities, Phoenix has played stingier team defense with him on the bench during all three of his seasons. Might he only be worth 75 to 80% of a max if he had been drafted into a more functional environment that asked for less volume shooting and greater two-way impact?
For Phoenix, though, there is significant symbolic value in setting a course by building around Booker. Countless players have expressed dissatisfaction upon leaving the Suns in recent years and numerous lottery picks have gone to waste under GM Ryan McDonough. Booker is the best thing the franchise has going for it, and he’s still younger than some incoming rookies. It’s far safer to bet on him to continue improving his scoring efficiency and defensive impact than it is to flirt with an alternative reality in which he becomes frustrated with the constant turnover around him and finds a way to muscle his way out of town.
This signing marks the start of the Suns’ next chapter. After bottoming out for three seasons, Phoenix has surrounded Booker with five lottery picks: Josh Jackson, Deandre Ayton, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss and Mikal Bridges. While their roster is still exceptionally young, it’s time for the Suns to make meaningful progress in the standings and work their way towards the outskirts of the playoff bubble.
Booker, with his fat new contract in hand, should enter this season prepared to play the first meaningful basketball of his pro career.