The 2021 NBA Playoffs have been full of surprises. Numerous young stars have broken out with memorable and unexpected performances. One of those players who’s arrived on the scene with a lighter and hairspray is Phoenix Suns shooting guard Devin Booker. Through 13 playoff games, the two-time All-Star is averaging 27.2 points, 6.9 rebounds and 5.3 assists.
Phoenix’s path to the Conference Finals has been long and arduous. The club has experienced six consecutive losing seasons, including four consecutive seasons of at least 58 losses. The franchise cycled through failed lottery picks like Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, and seemed directionless with the signing of veteran Tyson Chandler followed by the immediate and unsuccessful pursuit of LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015.
Last season, the Suns began to turn a corner after hiring Monty Williams as head coach. They went 8-0 in the NBA Bubble in Orlando and nearly snuck into the NBA play-in game. After acquiring Chris Paul in the offseason, the team took another major leap, finishing second in the West with a 51-21 record.
It’s been a long, winding road for Booker individually. He needed six years to see his first playoff action. Booker’s seen some losses, and has had five different coaches in that time, but the 24-year-old guard has grown incrementally in various ways throughout his career.
The signs of Booker being a star came early. He was a high-scoring player, recording 22.1 points per game in his second NBA season. At the ripe age of 21, Booker scored 70 points against the Boston Celtics. Though the individual feat was impressive, Phoenix still lost the game by 10 points. Around this time, Booker began to receive the label of an empty stats, losing player label. Early on, it was understandable as Booker was a weak defender and not much of a playmaker earlier in his career.
Every season, Booker has made improvements in his game. Once a limited defender, Booker has become less of a sieve on that end. He’s also become a much better playmaker, setting up his teammates much more often. When we talk about NBA scars from failing moments for players, we often focus on the postseason. For Booker, all of his NBA scars come from the regular season where the onslaught of losing streaks and franchise dysfunction created some wounds.
Chomping at the bit to perform in the playoffs, Booker had 34 points, seven rebounds and eight assists in his debut against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. In the Game 6 closeout of the series, Booker was masterful with 47 points and 11 rebounds, propelling Phoenix to the second round.
Booker’s expanded floor game has taken center stage. There was no better moment to see his growth on display than in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Clippers. With Paul out due to testing positive for COVID-19, Booker carried the Suns with 40 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists.
Where the 6-5 guard has improved the most is in malleability. Booker has been able to reduce his usage somewhat to fit in with Paul who is a ball dominant point guard. Booker has it all. He’s excelled from midrange this season, utilizing pull-up shots often. A capable three-point shooter as well, Booker can come off of pindowns or off-ball action. He can attack from anywhere on the floor including in the post and on drives, making him a three-level scorer.
Booker’s also shown some toughness in these playoffs. There was the screen that he set on Clippers center Ivica Zubac that allowed Deandre Ayton to break free for the game-winning alley-oop in Game Two of the conference finals. In that game, Booker also broke his nose in three different places after a collision with Clippers guard Patrick Beverley and stayed in the game.
Booker’s game is reminiscent of the classic two-guards of the ‘90s and early aughts. In terms of shot profile, he gives flashbacks to shooting guards like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Mitch Ritchmond. Booker is a throwback player in a league that is constantly changing. As the NBA has shifted more towards shots from the three-point line or attempts at the rim, the midrange has become its own unique weapon, especially in the postseason since NBA defenses often try to take away shots in the paint or from three. Only a handful of stars around the league rely on it. Booker has made it his signature shot. He’s second in the league in attempts per game (6.5) from midrange per NBA Stats. 20.3% of Booker’s points are coming off of midrange scores.
The days of Booker being an empty stats, bad team star are over. He’s become one of the more complete offensive guards in the NBA, helping a balanced Phoenix squad overachieve in every possible way. Though it’s easy to give Paul all the credit for his veteran know-how and track record of improving teams or Williams for his impact on the team as head coach, Booker’s taken the necessary steps to round out his game and steer his team to reach potential heights that would’ve been hard to imagine just five months ago.