Phoenix hasn't been a fun basketball place in the last two years, and this season was no exception. Any playoff hope this year was lost when the Suns lost guard Eric Bledsoe for the season with a torn meniscus. Life grew sadder when Brandon Knight went down with a groin injury at the end of January.
But when one door closes, another opens. In came baby-faced Devin Booker, the Suns' 19-year-old lottery pick, to seize the opportunity.
There's been a tough learning curve for the youngest player in the NBA. He's shot just 39 percent from the field since Knight's injury as he absorbed the bulk of defensive pressure. Nevertheless, he's put his talents on full display, stringing together a few impressive games along the way.
The 6'6 wing shooter was expected to struggle to get open with the pair of ball-handling guards sidelined, but Booker instead took the reins of the offense himself and showed he had more tools than we knew. His shooting ability was his known commodity coming out of college, but he's found some surprising comfort with the ball in his hands as a distributor and scorer coming off screens with the ball.
With Knight injured, Booker averaged 3.7 assists to 2.4 turnovers, not bad for someone who assumed an unexpected feature role. His ideal role isn't as a primary ball-handler, but he has a knack for finding open guys and making full use of playing with a pair of 7-footers in Tyson Chandler and Alex Len. He sees openings typically reserved for point guards and knows where and how to place the pass for an easy score.
Off the dribble, his head is up and he's looking to make plays. He has some natural playmaking skills, and though it will never be his primary position, it's a reason to keep him on the floor when his shots aren't falling.
Still, it's Booker's ability to score that will eventually earn him big money. Booker's been lethal when his feet are set and he's able to catch and shoot, firing off a 63 percent effective field goal percentage in such situations.
He doesn't wait for the shots to come to him, though, because he can also score off the dribble. Booker makes full use of his 6'8 wingspan, keeping the ball far away from defenders. He's able to move swiftly off screens, weaving with speed without getting the ball tapped out on his way to the cup.
Though he's not shooting all that well off the dribble now, he should in the future. Booker's shot mechanics are sound, as he remains squared to the rim and balanced while fading. Off-the-dribble two-point jumpers can be dangerously seductive, but being able to hit them when necessary helps when defenders get comfortable with his offensive style.
As Booker adds slashing to his arsenal, he'll be even tougher to defend. Leaving him open anywhere on the floor is a bad idea, and teams will have to gamble guarding him off screens.
Those are elite-level skills beyond his three-point shooting, which is otherworldly. If his production holds steady, he'll become just the fourth teenager to shoot greater than 38 percent on more than 100 shots in NBA history, joining Kyrie Irving, Jrue Holiday and Bradley Beal.
Teams know where he's going, yet nearly 42 percent of his attempts are either considered open threes (defined as when the defender is 4-6 feet away) or wide open (defender is six or more feet away). Booker is a smart player who knows how to get himself open and revise plays as needed. Overplay him one way and he'll go the other. He knows where his bread is buttered and how to get in those positions.
Booker is gifted offensively, but his defense needs work (as any 19-year-old's should). There is hope that can improve in time. Booker's wingspan is long and he has the foot speed to stay in front of his man pretty easily. Even if he isn't the quickest at his position, his long arms can make up for the half-step he gives up. If he continues to bulk up, he has a promising defensive future.
With Booker leading the way, the Suns' future looks much better than its present. Booker is 19, Len is 22, T.J. Warren is also 22, Knight is 24 and Bledsoe is 26. Phoenix also has three first-round picks (its own, Cleveland's and Washington's) upcoming this year, two of which could be in the lottery.
This season has been a disaster, but something good came of it. The Suns learned that they have more than just a shooter in Devin Booker.