Devin Booker can get a bucket. We’ve all seen the ease with which he can do it. But entering his fifth season, the first year of his five-year, $158 million extension, the Kentucky product will need to elevate his game to another level if he wants to finally crack a spot on the All-Star team and possibly get the Suns in the postseason for the first time since 2010.
Last season Booker extended his game as a passer. He had shown improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 and Year 2 to Year 3, but the leap he took in Year 4 to average 6.8 assists per game after becoming the de facto point guard in Phoenix was impressive, especially since it coincided with another rise in his scoring and jumps in field-goal percentage and effective field-goal percentage.
Booker’s playmaking ability is almost sure to take another step forward this upcoming season, although it might not be reflected in the box score the same way with the addition of Ricky Rubio to run point. But Rubio’s addition should also mean easier looks from deep for Booker, which is welcome after last season's dip in three-point shooting from 38.3% in 2017-18 to 32.3% last season.
But Booker's never struggled on offense. While becoming a better creator and more lethal three-point threat are both positive for Booker, they are two parts of his game that seemed destined to improve no matter what.
Where Booker can make some serious strides going forward are on defense and with a clean bill of health.
Over the last two seasons, Booker has missed 46 games after missing just 10 his first two years. Booker isn’t alone when it comes to missing games, but considering he’s the only potential All-Star on his team right now, his absences mean even more. Maybe in a season or two if Deandre Ayton turns into a powerhouse down low, the Suns could afford to miss their leading scorer for a quarter of the season. But right now, with all the responsibility he has in making that offense go, Booker can’t continue to miss that much time regularly.
In addition to the wins that would come from Booker's availability, it would also help team chemistry going forward. With such a young roster that still needs to learn how to play together, it will be key for the team’s best player to be on the court as much as possible. This season is not likely to be the one where the Suns suddenly put themselves into playoff contention. But with a healthy Booker and strides from Ayton, along with the potential leap Kelly Oubre Jr. could make in his game, 2020-21 could be a big year in Phoenix. But it all starts with this season and just how much growth this team can make as a unit with Booker leading the charge.
And one of the main ways Booker will need to lead the charge going forward is by making a bigger impact on defense. The Suns had the second-worst defensive rating in the league last season at 114.2. Booker’s 115.1 defensive rating was one of the worst individual marks in the NBA.
Obviously, that number doesn’t fall entirely on Booker. But at the same time, he is at least partially responsible for one of the worst defenses in the league, and if he can make a major improvement on that end of the floor, there’s no telling how it will permeate through the rest of the squad. Sure, it would be great if Booker could be expected to lock up the opposing team’s top guard or wing player and then drop 30 on a nightly basis, but it’s not realistic to ask him to make that kind of leap in one year.
Booker doesn’t suddenly need to turn into Tony Allen or Klay Thompson or Paul George or Kawhi Leonard overnight, but he can learn a lot from the James Harden school of defense that would take his game to a better place.
Most of you wouldn’t consider Harden a stout defender thanks to various clips of him either being blown past or appearing not to give much effort on that side of the ball. But contrary to popular belief, Harden has shown some amazing tendencies on the defensive end that radiated to his teammates and helped make the Rockets one of the best defensive teams in his MVP season and a top-10 defense after the calendar changed last season.
Harden’s defensive prowess is rooted in his ability to switch onto bigs and hold his own in the post as an on-ball defender and rebounder, along with his quick hands that created the third-most deflections per game last season behind George and Robert Covington.
With some added attention to rebounding and a harder effort to get into passing lanes, Booker can jump from being among the league’s worst on defense to being serviceable in practically no time. He doesn’t need to suddenly become one of the best defensive players in the league, but a few steals could go a long way, as would closing out a few extra possessions with defensive rebounds.
It’s nothing fancy, just committing to do more of the simple stuff: run a little closer to his man when he’s off-ball, fight a little harder on each box out and get a hand out to make passes harder to receive. More activity on defense doesn’t always mean better defense, but Booker’s activity would likely lead to a better result, as well as energize his teammates to match his increased effort.
The team is already going to follow his lead on offense. And naturally, that will make playing defense on a consistent basis more difficult because he’s tasked with so much responsibility, and it could be part of the reason why he has had to miss so much time the last two seasons.
But if Booker can combine his scoring with better health and more defense, the sky's the limit. He already takes his offensive game up another notch each season. Now it's time to start showing growth in other places.