He Scores Like a Young LeBron James. Would He Still Shine on a Better Team?

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns high fives fans as he walks off the court following the NBA game against the Dallas Mavericks at Talking Stick Resort Arena on October 17, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona.

Source Christian Petersen/Getty

Why you should care

Because Booker has a LeBron-like tendency of putting the ball in the basket. 

It’s March 28, 2019, and Devin Booker is just 22 years old — younger than some of the NCAA players about to be selected in the NBA Draft after March Madness. And yet, the 6-foot-6 shooting guard is putting on a scoring clinic in the pros: pulling up for deep-threes, draining mid-range jumpers and blowing past defenders on his way to easy baskets.

Sure, the Washington Wizards players are hardly there, playing with all the defensive intensity of an old man’s game at the Y. Still, by the end of the night, Booker is capping off a 50-point night — his second in two days, making him the youngest player in NBA history to turn in such high-scoring performances consecutively. Adding to a 70-point game in 2017, those offensive outbursts put him in other rarefied company.

At 22, Booker already has three 50-point games — as many as Shaquille O’Neal, Dwyane Wade and David Robinson had their entire careers

In fact, that’s more than the Hall of Fame likes of Hakeem Olajuwan, Dirk Nowitzki, Patrick Ewing and Oscar Robertson ever had. And it’s on pace with what LeBron James — who currently sits seventh in league history with 12 —  had by 22. Which is why NBA watchers would do well to peep Booker heading into the upcoming season. Already entering his fifth season in the league, the Grand Rapids, Michigan, native and former Kentucky Wildcat has a chance to be something special.

Problem is, his team ain’t all that.

The biggest reason casual fans may not have seen Booker play (outside of the occasional YouTube highlight reel) is that he’s played those seasons for the Suns, who have finished last in the Western Conference in every season except for his rookie year … when they finished second to last behind the Lakers.

Lest you think he is just some chucker on a losing team, note that he finished with career highs in effective field goal percentage (52 perecent), points (26.6) and assists (6.8) per game in the 2018-19 season. That regular season scoring average was the same as Kawhi Leonard, the reigning MVP of the NBA Finals.

Yet if you’re looking to drink some of the haterade, there are advanced stats to back your case (there are always stats to back your case).

Serhat Ugur, founder of the analytics site NBAstuffer.com, notes that while the Suns were much better offensively with Booker on the floor, they suffered defensively: allowing 115 points on 100 possessions, about four points worse than when he was on the bench. His “net rating” – offensive rating minus defensive rating – was negative 6.9 points, the worst among the 40 players who averaged at least 33 minutes per game.

“Looking at the off-season moves his team made, I personally don’t think we will see a brighter scope in 2019-20,” Ugur says.

Still, playing on piss-poor squads, plus three different coaches in just four years, certainly hasn’t helped Booker. The Suns will continue to be bad, but at least he is playing beside newly-signed point guard Ricky Rubio, a wily veteran and passing savant who should at least help game flow. And though his contract keeps him in Phoenix until the 2023-24 season, superstars have shown more willingness in recent years to shove their way out of town for better situations.

If Booker can’t win with Phoenix, perhaps he will get his proper recognition as one of the league’s brightest young players by becoming trade bait for a championship-hungry team in the near future.

Maybe that’s a shot he’ll take.

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