Devin Booker has a rep, and it’s the worst kind a prospective NBA star can have. He’s often seen as a no-defense, shot-jacking, empty-stat-hunting young player who cares more about his own numbers than actually trying to win.
The Suns’ abysmal record during Booker’s tenure is evidence enough for some, but his negative image is built on more than just the standings. His 70-point performance in a double-digit loss to Boston in 2017 was met with derision instead of appreciation by his opponents. More recently, he was widely mocked when an offseason training video showed him complaining about being double teamed during a pickup game.
I’m not here to adjudicate that past. But if the purpose of the All-Star Game is to reward the 12 best players in each conference this season irrespective of prior ones, it was wrong to initially leave Booker off the team. At least Damian Lillard’s last-minute injury allowed the NBA to rectify that wrong and name Booker as an injury replacement.
Phoenix’s Devin Booker has been selected to replace Damian Lillard in the 2020 NBA All-Star Game.— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) February 13, 2020
The fact that he wasn’t initially named a reserve, though, shows me that new facts often race ahead of a player’s larger story. Booker was punished for transgressions that occurred outside the statute of limitations. He may be rewarded later in his career when he should’ve been rewarded now, but he shouldn’t need that make-up call.
Let’s be clear: missing out on the NBA’s midseason classic would not have been a grave injustice. To put it in perspective, we’re talking about the difference between the 12th- and 13th-best player in a conference in any given season. Attaching the general manager’s name on an official statement of condemnation did little more than give Booker and a few select fans the briefest of dopamine hits. (The same point applies double to Bradley Beal, whose surrogates are working overtime after he was left off the East team). Injury replacements happen all the time, and history won’t remember the difference.
That said, this year’s Devin Booker does not resemble the rep he’s been given in the past. He’s dramatically upped his scoring efficiency while taking more shots near the basket and wedging his way to the free-throw line. Phoenix’s offense drops from a potent 113.6 points per 100 possessions to a ghastly 100.8 when he goes to the bench, one of the widest swings in the league. His moves are more purposeful, he’s dribbling aimlessly less often, and he’s appropriately wedging his prodigious scoring ability into a larger Phoenix structure despite not having much supplementary floor spacing around him.
He’s still not a great defender, but has put in much more effort on that end than in years past.
And while the Suns still aren’t a playoff team, they have displayed enough core competency to keep themselves in the mix despite numerous injuries and DeAndre Ayton’s 25-game drug suspension. They aren’t world-beaters, but Booker has elevated them to a meaningfully higher level than he did in past years.
That wasn’t enough to initially sway West coaches, who valued winning (Donovan Mitchell) and name recognition (Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul) for the final three pre-Lillard injury guard spots. Reasonable minds can split hairs between these four excellent players, but the fact that Booker was the one who fell short underscores one unfortunate reality of selecting the league’s best players halfway through a single season. A process designed to stay within a narrow context instead encompasses a much larger period of time that punishes some players for perceived past sins and overly rewards others for incumbency.
Because of that, Booker’s meaningful improvements this season were not given the respect they deserve. Consider one key indicator of empty-stat production: ball hoggery. The more one player has the ball, the less others have it, and thus the more they can put up numbers that benefit themselves while sidelining everyone else.
Booker’s ball-hoggery metrics have changed dramatically this season. Last year, more than 54 percent of his shots came after he took more than three dribbles, and nearly 24 percent came after he pounded the rock more than six times. This season, those numbers are down to 45 percent and 16 percent, respectively. His average touch time has dropped from 4.76 seconds — a top-10 mark among players 6’4 and taller — to 4.1 seconds. Less than 20 percent of his shot attempts come after holding the ball for at least six seconds, compared to nearly 29 percent last season.
Adding a real point guard in Ricky Rubio has taken ball-handling pressure off Booker, and new coach Monty Williams’ Flex offense also takes more advantage of Booker’s size on quick post duck-ins than previous systems. He gets many more hoops like this than he ever did in the past.
But Booker himself has also become more efficient in his movements. He is much stronger powering to the basket, requiring less dancing back and forth to get his man out of position. There’s a reason his shooting efficiency is rising to elite levels despite a drop in three-point attempts.
The great irony of Double-Team Gate is that Booker has also become a master at reading traps and making productive passes out of them.
Though his overall assist numbers are flat, the passes he does make are leading to many more assisted hoops than the ones he made last season. His secondary assists — passes that lead to the assist — are up, as are his assist chances and the total points per game his teammates get off his assists. We’ve also seen many more dishes like this that don’t show up in any form of a box score, but are invaluable in triggering the collective ball movement that makes everyone feel more involved in the play.
There’s still room for Booker to improve in these areas, as there is with his defensive effort. But the idea that Booker deserved to miss the All-Star Game because his prodigious numbers were emptier than his peers this season doesn’t pass the muster once you dig deeper. And by the way, those numbers are prodigious.
Devin Booker is the first player in NBA history to average at least 27 points and 6 assists on 60% TS and miss the All-Star game.— Wam Wooper (@scooperhoops) January 30, 2020
But don't worry. He's coming for that All-NBA slot...
Mitchell, Paul, and Westbrook all collected more wins, but only Paul approaches Booker’s singular importance to his team, and Paul isn’t producing at Booker’s individual level. The Jazz still marginally outscore opponents with Mitchell on the bench, while the Rockets outscore opponents by more points per 100 possessions with Westbrook on the bench. (That gap is shrinking, but it still exists). Booker also is putting up better and more meaningful numbers than Brandon Ingram, who is starring on a worse team that relies on him less than the Suns rely on Booker. (It’s unclear if positional designation mattered for All-Star reserve selections. If so, Ingram wasn’t directly competing for a spot with Booker).
Booker’s profile is comparable in rough strokes to a similar snub in Beal, but a deeper look shows that Beal is scoring less efficiently while playing worse defense and making (at least statistically) a less significant individual impact on a worse team. If you think Beal belonged over Kyle Lowry, I won’t argue with you, but Booker’s All-Star case is much more airtight if we’re just considering this season.
And therein lies the rub. All-Star selections are never just about this season in practice even though they’re designed that way in theory. They represent status and legacy, not to mention financial reward in some cases. One-time appearances by non-star players are routinely mocked in hindsight, even though the honor is supposed to only measure a player’s success in the first 60ish percent of that season. The nature of the game itself even becomes a factor: a more subtle artist like Rudy Gobert will look like a fish out of water even though he’s been one of the 12 most valuable players in the West for years now. The convoluted selection process has smoothed over some obvious biases, but it’s also created a voting body that measures value in too many different ways for the entire process to feel coherent.
When all that happens, conservatism tends to win the day. It takes more than half a season to convince most of us that a player has changed, for better or for worse. That’s a sensible approach if the goal of the All-Star Game is to reflect the best players in the NBA independent of time. If it’s any consolation to Booker, chances are he’ll make up the All-Star appearance he initially missed this year with a reputational selection later in his career.
But in literal terms, the goal of the All-Star Game is to recognize the 12 best seasons to date in each conference. Otherwise, why name new All-Stars each year? And by that measure, it was unfathomable not to initially include Devin Booker this year.