Phoenix Suns: Setting the Devin Booker narrative straight

Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images
Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images /

Devin Booker is more than an empty stats player on a bad team, but until the Phoenix Suns put real talent around him, he won’t be able to prove it.

As you may have heard by now, Devin Booker put up 59 points in the Phoenix Suns‘ most recent game, a 33-point road loss to the Utah Jazz. As you also may have heard, it was peak Suns, with their young star becoming the first player in NBA history to tally 50-plus points in a 30-point loss.

Empty stats, big numbers on a losing team, overrated — the conversation surrounding Booker and the lowly Suns is so tired it should come with its own Spongebob meme by now, but the unfortunate truth is, until Phoenix stops being one of the most dysfunctional, incompetent organizations in the NBA, he won’t get a chance to prove he’s more than that.

The Utah game was the epitome of the annoying Devin Booker narrative that will persist until the Suns are competitive again. After all, context isn’t important to those tuning in for the waning minutes of a rout just to see a player gun for 60 points in garbage time.

Never mind that Booker didn’t ask to return to the game after he checked out with 56 points at the 5:12 mark and his team down by 22; he was a loser for giving miserable Suns fans a reason to keep watching.

Never mind that he had 47 points through three quarters and his team was still within 14 points before the final score exploded in the final frame; he was an empty stats guy on a bad team who put up numbers in garbage time.

Never mind that Phoenix was missing most of its established NBA players like Kelly Oubre Jr. and Tyler Johnson (as well as T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson), leaving the team with a supporting cast of five(!) rookies and mostly G League talent; he wasn’t doing enough to help his team win.

Never mind that he finished with four of his team’s 12 assists, 59 of his team’s 92 points, or shot 19-of-34 compared to 14-of-42 for the rest of his teammates; he was an inefficient ball-hog whose inability to get his teammates involved holds the Suns back.

And never mind that the Suns’ next-highest scorer was Deandre Ayton with nine points; he has enough talent to lead this team past the 30-win mark for once.

Suns fans have heard it all before, and it’s not going away anytime soon. Context is important, but it won’t matter until this franchise stops finding itself in headlines that elicit laughter like “Suns lose by 33, despite Devin Booker’s 59 points.”

It’s unfortunate, because Booker’s night really was historic. He now has the most 35-point games in franchise history (13), passing Connie Hawkins. He’s now tied with Tom Chambers for the most 50-point games (two) in franchise history. He joined Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and James Harden as the only players in NBA history with multiple games of 59 points or more.

It was also the most efficient night of scoring at least 59 points when accounting for all three shooting percentages, and in scoring 64.1 percent of his team’s points, Booker ranks behind only Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game for the highest percentage of his team’s points in a game since 1959.

Averaging a career-high 26.2 points, a career-high 6.7 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game on a career-high 45.7 percent from the field this season, Booker joins Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and Damian Lillard as the only players posting a 26-6-4 line while shooting at least 45 percent from the field.

And he’s doing it all despite shooting a career-worst 32.6 percent from 3-point range.

The continued development of his playmaking (13th in the NBA in assists) and ability to get to the line (a career-high 7.1 attempts per game, ninth) has expanded his ceiling significantly. He’s deadlier than ever within the 3-point arc (52.2 percent on 2-pointers), and though his long range efficiency has plummeted, like many of the criticisms of Booker’s status, this is more on the Suns than him.

He’s still shooting a respectable 39.1 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, but of his 389 3-pointers this year, only 161 of them (41.4 percent) have been of the catch-and-shoot variety. Such is life when you’re also the team’s lead facilitator and have to take 57.1 percent of your 3s on pull-ups.

Booker is much more than a spot-up sniper of the Kyle Korver or J.J. Redick variety, but giving him easier looks from downtown will be a priority for the Suns moving forward once they, you know, actually add a starting-caliber NBA point guard.

That position has been filled incapably by rookies, G League talent and Booker himself since Eric Bledsoe left town, which has made it difficult to evaluate the Suns phenom in relation to team success. Throw in four head coaches, two general managers, a painful number of draft busts and 50-plus teammates, and it’s actually incredible this flower has grown in a desert full of weeds.

We briefly saw what Devin Booker is a capable of as the best player on a competitive team when the Suns actually had a healthy Tyler Johnson and Kelly Oubre Jr. (real NBA players). After a brief adjustment period for the new arrivals, they had turned a corner of sorts in late February, winning five of seven games and boasting victories over the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks, West-leading Golden State Warriors and playoff-desperate Los Angeles Lakers.

Seven games is a tiny sample size, but it was no coincidence that with Johnson — a low-usage point guard who took care of the ball, took pressure off Book on both ends and could facilitate — and Oubre — a slashing week capable of drawing the defense’s attention — on the floor, Booker’s work load lessened, he got more catch-and-shoot opportunities and more energy for defense, and the team was competitive in every single game.

Unfortunately, this was lost on the outside world, because nobody outside of Phoenix and the opposing fanbase was watching. It was easy to chalk it up to late-season flukes, with contenders not taking the Suns seriously. Who was available, how the team was progressing, who’s been missing since — none of that matters on the outside when you have the luxury of only having to watch this awful team play 3-4 times a year.

The city of Phoenix insists Booker is the next great scorer in this league who will lead this franchise out of the desert and back to the promised land, but the Suns still haven’t won 30 games in a season over his first four years in the league — a fact his critics are well aware of, as they point to his defensive flaws, turnover rate and propensity for going off on nights where his team loses by 20.

Those still suffocating in this Phoenix bubble on a nightly basis know the 22-year-old shooting guard is on a superstar trajectory. The scoring benchmarks he’s passed at this age usually have him in the same company as Hall-of-Famers like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Michael Jordan.

Between Booker, Ayton, Oubre, Mikal Bridges and this year’s lottery pick, the Suns have a promising young core to build around too.

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Unfortunately, until the rookies develop and the Phoenix Suns actually put NBA-caliber talent around him, Devin Booker won’t have the opportunity to prove anyone wrong. And the tired narrative will continue on.