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Victor Oladipo, Pacers

Can Suns Devin Booker Follow In Steve Nash’s Footsteps?

The sun hasn’t shined on the Phoenix Suns since it set on Steve Nash’s career. After landing the No. 1 overall pick and drafting DeAndre Ayton last summer, the Suns have an intriguing collection of talent. Now, if Phoenix hopes to see a rebirth, it’ll need Devin Booker to make sense of it all.

Like the primordial Seven Seconds or Less Suns, the current roster has individual talent. Ayton has the potential to be a devastating interior presence while Josh Jackson is an athletic combo forward in the mold of Shawn Marion.

After sending out Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe in consecutive seasons, and letting Elfrid Payton walk, the most glaring hole on a roster full of players reliant on others to get them the ball is at the point guard position.

Though the Suns are reportedly working the phones to find a veteran like Terry Rozier, the best solution might already be on the roster.

Amongst the young talent in the league, there is only a short list of names ahead of the soon-to-be 22-year-old Booker.

Last season, Booker averaged 24.9 points per game on 43.2 percent shooting, including an exceptional 38.3 percent from the three-point line. According to Basketball-Reference, the only other players to reach or exceed his combination of points and long-range marksmanship last season were Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant.

Scoring is simply Booker’s forte. And while his capabilities as a shooter are well documented, it was the burgeoning all-around skills he flaunted last season that gives the Suns some structure to build through—especially attacking the rim off the dribble.

In the play above, Booker is facing a double team from JJ Redick and All-Defensive Second Team center Joel Embiid. In previous years, a likely outcome would’ve been a turnover. Instead, he makes a simple, quick crossover and bursts to the rim for a two-handed slam.

More importantly, it’s his improving ability to read the defense and the pockets of space given to him off the ball or his dribble that make Booker more dangerous than the average shooter:

This past season, Booker added layers to his scoring ability; especially as a distributor, averaging a career-high 4.7 assists per game. He’ll need to do a better job of making the right passes after turning the ball over 3.6 times per game last season but he displayed an ability to read defenses and make the correct pass most of the time.

In the clip above, the Suns run a beautiful Spain pick-and-roll, where Tyson Chandler sets a pick on James Harden. Troy Daniels then sets a pick on Clint Capela, Chandler’s defender. This allows Chandler time and room to make an effective rim run and Booker completes a nice lob pass over Luc Mbah a Moute to Chandler for the finish.

He also showed some ability to read the help in pick-and-roll, making the kickout pass to a shooter when his defender sagged off to tag the big man diving to the rim, stringing his dribble along to thread a pocket pass, or showing the patience to let a secondary action develop after the initial screen.

While these passes aren’t necessarily challenging, they are reads he struggled with in his first two seasons. His growth in understanding the timing of when to make a pass and where to place it has been huge in determining if he can be a playmaker. While Basketball-Reference says Booker spent just five percent of his minutes playing point guard, he spent countless possessions running the offense for Phoenix.

Of course, at age 21, Booker still has ample room to grow, especially on the defensive end. Quite too often, Booker found himself falling asleep on that side of the floor.

In the clip above, Booker makes a multitude of mistakes in just one play. While he has the right idea of helping as Nene heads toward the basket, he leaves himself flat-footed, allowing Nene to make the right read and kick the ball out to Gerald Green, a 37 percent 3-point shooter. Booker made little attempt to close out, making it that much easier for Green to unload.

This time, Booker makes his intentions clear, leaping towards Kawhi Leonard. However, he left his feet, allowing Leonard to slyly move past him, knocking down the open jump shot. Booker should have never left Leonard in the first place, as he collapsed to an already overpopulated paint. He will need to do a better job of reading defenses in order to put himself in a healthier position to succeed.

As a team, the Suns had the worst defensive rating in the NBA. With players like Tyler Ulis, TJ Warren, and Marquese Chriss struggling, it’s fair to say while Booker was a problem, he wasn’t the biggest one.

He might never be an elite two-way player but if he fulfills his offensive potential, he doesn’t have to bee. Phoenix should be better on that end after adding defensive talent this summer; which gives more credence to the notion of playing Booker at point guard.

The Suns drafted defensive menace Mikal Bridges and signed Trevor Ariza last summer and are invested in Jackson as a defensive forward. The trio around Booker and Ayton should be enough to give the Suns at least a fighting chance.

Phoenix is already all-in with Booker, extending him to a maximum five-year, $158 million extension this summer a year earlier than they had to. During his career, their lack of organizational structure afforded Booker the opportunity to stretch his game in new directions.

If the Suns young franchise player can strike the proper balance between creating for himself and empowering others, the Suns might rise in the Western Conference once more.