During his one season at Kentucky, Devin Booker prepared for life as an NBA shooting guard -- the position everyone, including the team that drafted him, expected Booker to play almost exclusively.
He worked on flying off screens away from the ball, J.J. Redick-style, and watched film of Bradley Beal, Klay Thompson and Kyle Korver. But none of those guys were doing stuff like this on the regular as 19-year-old NBA rookies.
Umm, holy crap. Booker slithers in an "S" curve around Tyson Chandler's pick, freezes poor Kenneth Faried with a cruel hesitation dribble, and springs forward into a soft runner when Faried retreats in fear of a Booker-to-Chandler alley-oop. Rookie shooting guards are not supposed to feel that game at that level. Injuries to Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and Ronnie Price forced Booker to play as something like the Suns' de facto point guard, and his ability to manage in that role has given the team something to hold onto amid a lost season.
"I don't think anyone envisioned him doing this as the youngest player in the NBA," Ryan McDonough, the team's GM, told ESPN.com. "We saw him as a traditional shooting guard. To see him run the pick-and-roll, and make plays at this level -- that has surprised us."
Is Booker surprised? "Hell no," he told ESPN.com, laughing. Booker played point guard in high school, and he credits his father, Melvin, a star at Missouri, for nurturing the idea that IQ and feel were just as important as natural athleticism. "I was never the fastest, or the guy who could jump the highest," Booker said. "But I always wanted to be the smartest."
Booker has averaged 17 points per game since Jan. 1. He burst into the national consciousness this month with three 30-point explosions, and a steady 11-assist, zero-turnover performance in a shockingly competitive game against the Warriors in Oakland.
His shooting percentages have dropped under the heavier burden, but that's fine -- and expected. Booker is playing out of position in mish-mash units for an injury-ravaged team, and he's surviving. He has kept his turnovers under control, and upped his free-throw attempts. Booker's shooting efficiency should leap back up once he offloads some ball-handling duties to Knight and Bledsoe, and the Suns stop strangling the lane by playing Chandler and Alex Len together.
This isn't a typical springtime case of a gunner, unleashed by a lottery sad-sack, putting up empty numbers. Booker has played mostly within himself, and shown skills that will translate into a secondary role once the Suns play meaningful basketball again. "Some people in the media might see a 'good stats, bad team' player," Earl Watson, the Suns' interim coach, told ESPN.com. "But us basketball teachers, we can see skill."
Opposing scouts and coaches whose teams have faced Booker over the last month almost universally rave about him. He is probably already a better point guard than Knight, which is scary, considering the Suns flipped the Lakers' top-three protected pick in a three-team deal for Knight last season during those manic final minutes before the trade deadline. He has a better lob chemistry with Chandler, and an advanced understanding of where a defense will rotate -- and when.
That looks like a simple play, but it's not -- especially for a 19-year-old wing masquerading as a lead dog. The rote pass there goes to P.J. Tucker in the right corner once Tucker's man, Draymond Green, abandons him to help in the lane. Tucker is the first open man in the chain. But the Warriors know that, too, and Booker knows that they know. He sees Ian Clark rotating toward Tucker, and away from Knight, and he skips the middleman with a flying chest pass to Knight that catches Clark leaning the wrong way.
"We saw signs in Summer League," Watson said. "I could tell he was more than a spot-up shooter. But he wasn't as good as he is now. His versatility is amazing, and that's going to make him more dangerous."
Even with Knight back, Booker is often running the show, attacking head-on against set defenses digging in to contain him. Once Knight and Bledsoe are at full strength, Booker can slide off the ball more often and catch it only after one of the Suns' high-priced point guards has compromised the defense. He can rain catch-and-shoot 3s, or blow by defenders rushing to close out on him after darting in to help on Bledsoe's drives. He can let someone else do the heavy lifting and feast on easier shots -- the same kind of relief Zach LaVine is finally, mercifully experiencing as an off-guard next to Ricky Rubio in Minnesota.
Booker doesn't need the ball to be effective, but he can be effective off the dribble when he gets it. That kind of wing player is rare, and very valuable. He draws a ton of attention zipping through a maze of picks away from the ball, and he's canny about changing his route on the fly if he notices his defender guessing in a certain direction. Cheat over a pick, and he'll fade into the corner instead of curling all the way around toward midcourt. And if deception doesn't do the trick, Booker might just shove you off-balance.
He misses that layup, in part because he has no left hand yet, but the speed with which he makes his decision is really all that matters for the Suns today. Hesitation is death in the NBA. If Booker comes flying open off a pick, he can catch and shoot in an instant with a lethal quick release. If he's not open, Booker realizes it almost before he even has the ball, stays in a crouch, and shifts immediately into a drive. He keeps the offense moving.
He has shown glimpses of a post game against smaller defenders, and Watson is hopeful that will become a legitimate weapon.
Recent stats aside, It's too early to project stardom for Booker. The Suns cannot proceed in their haphazard rebuild confident they have a future top-20 player on their roster. They can perhaps project Booker as a younger Bradley Beal: an ace shooter who can catch the ball on the weak side for a nice secondary pick-and-roll, and morph in a pinch into a lead ball-handler -- including on bench-heavy units.
What that means for Knight and Bledsoe is unclear. The Suns will be able to play all three together against some lineups, but a ton of opposing starting units have at least one physical wing who would eat Knight and Booker alive. Booker has been predictably terrible on defense this season, and he's just not strong enough yet to deal with starting small forwards.
He's dead last in ESPN's defensive adjusted plus-minus among shooting guards, and opponents are blowing away their expected shooting percentages with Booker on them, per NBA.com. Like most rookies, Booker is struggling to track the ping-ping-ping of the ball without losing his man.
Some guys have their heads on a swivel because they are one step ahead of the defense, downloading everything into their personal database as it happens. Other guys have their heads on a swivel because they can't figure out what in the hell is going on.
"You can tell he's trying to process everything," Watson said. "The NBA is about patterns, and he's still learning the patterns. He's going to have to be a master in the film room. And you can't take him at 19, and give him the strength and weight of a 25-year-old."
"He needs to get stronger," McDonough said, "and figure out defensive rotations better."
There is reason to hope Booker can become a league-average defender. He tries hard, and he seems to enjoy physical play. He's nimble, with good balance, and you can see him grasping at the first and second rotations on most standard NBA sets. He's ready to start, now.
The cleanest choice is probably to bring Knight off the bench, provided Bledsoe can approach his peak form after years of knee trouble. The even cleaner move might be to trade Knight, but his trade value has never been lower after starting a fat new contract with a messy, injury-riddled season.
Knight's point guard instincts remain shaky; watching him try and find Chandler on lobs has been painful, and it sometimes seems as if Knight thinks you get an extra point for heaving with your foot on the 3-point arc. But he's a serviceable score-first type who can hit 3s off the bounce, and run wild against second-units in the mold of Jamal Crawford.
The potential of starting Booker over Knight underscores how long this process might be for the Suns. They have accidentally become the team they thought they were ahead of the 2013-14 season, when they traded Marcin Gortat to embark on a naked tanking scheme. They almost made the playoffs instead, and they've spasmed all over the transaction map since.
All that roster churn has left them in the place in which they thought they had started three years ago: near the bottom of the standings, about to pick near the top of the draft, and sitting on a bundle of extra picks snared from other teams.
It has been fashionable to say that happy 2013-14 season brainwashed Phoenix into wildly accelerating its team-building timetable, and there is some truth to that. Chandler is the vestigial organ leftover from the failed pursuit of LaMarcus Aldridge, which followed the failed pursuit of LeBron James, which preceded a baffling series of moves that effectively exchanged the Lakers' pick and Isaiah Thomas for Knight.
But the top-four in minutes from that 2013-14 team were 27, 28, 28 and 30 years old. It's not as if the Suns busted up some budding under-23 juggernaut to chase present-day wins. The Morris twins stand as the only impactful young-ish casualties from that group, and their whole situation became a mess, partly of the Suns' making. They've since restocked with more young guys and future picks, including two from Miami in the Goran Dragic deal, which could turn into a sneaky home run down the line.
Phoenix would be better off with the twins in Chandler's place, but the presence or absence of the Morrii is not determining the course of anyone's franchise.
Their departure has left gaping holes at both forward positions, and those holes have this rebuild looking like a long slog. Starting Booker and T.J. Warren on the wing sounds nice, and the Suns will probably do it, but it's a fast path to an awful team defense in 2016-17. Phoenix has zero power forwards under contract for next season, unless you count Tucker, and they must know they cannot reasonably play Chandler and Len together.
Len has surged in tandem with Booker, but he's shooting only 43 percent -- borderline unthinkable for a 7-footer. Len should develop into a solid two-way center, but that is not guaranteed.
McDonough has a strong draft record in Boston and Phoenix, and he should get three shots in the first round in June. Hire the right coach, target younger and potentially undervalued forwards in free agency, resolve the Knight/Bledsoe situation, and keep building the type of fun team that might attract a bigger name when the time is right.
That has been easier said than done in Phoenix, but the Suns can end this nutty season comfortable with at least one thing: Booker is good, and he's their shooting guard of the future.