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Already anointed, Devin Booker aims to become worthy of star status

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DETROIT – Devin Booker spent his first two seasons burnishing one of the NBA’s best reputations.

The Suns made him their franchise player. LeBron James and Kevin Durant went out of their way to praise him. He became the youngest player ever to score 70 points in a game.

But there was a dirty little secret behind the curtain: Booker played awful defense.

“Having a heavy load on offense, I just tried to rest a little bit,” Booker said. “But you realize, if you want to be that player in this league, you have to play both sides of the ball.”

That player.

The leader. The one capable of carrying his team deep into the playoffs. The true star.

Despite his accolades, Booker isn’t yet that player. His Suns are just 8-15, on pace for their best record in his three seasons. But he has scored more points before turning 21 (a month ago) than everyone besides LeBron, Durant and Carmelo Anthony.

Booker is judged too harshly by his critics, too generously by his advocates. He’s flawed, to be sure, but don’t ignore his potential. Don’t paint the picture of a player who has already figured it out, either.

Evaluating individual players is a circular exercise. Players can be judged on their own, and their perceived production can each be plugged in to predict team success. But a player’s individual value can also be derived from his team’s output. If a team thrives or struggles, it’s worth examining how its players contribute to that result. Form new evaluations of each player, plug those in and re-predict team success. Then re-apportion the team’s results onto each player again. And on and on.

A good player – someone who contributes positively to winning – can play on a bad team. A bad player – someone who contributes negatively to winning – can play on a good team. A single player can do only so much.

But, at a certain point, a truly elite player should keep his team from the dregs of the league

Phoenix has gotten outscored by 8.4 points per 100 possessions with Booker on the floor. That’s obviously not all his fault. His teammates, frankly, are bad. But if Booker was all his supporters crack him up to be, wouldn’t he lift the Suns higher than he has?

Only a few players since 2000-01 (as far back as’s data goes) have been All-Stars while their team was performing so poorly with them on the floor before the All-Star break:


Yao Ming and Kobe Bryant were over the hill and All-Stars only because of the fan vote. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, from the 17-65 Cavaliers who tanked to get LeBron in 2003, is the only All-Star chosen on the merits despite his team struggling so much.

Becoming an All-Star in this Western Conference – where Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Klay Thompson, Damian Lillard and Jimmy Butler are competing for four to six guard spots – is hard enough, anyway. But Booker holds no illusions about the hole in his case.

“I know that comes with winning,” Booker said.

Booker brings up the 60-win Hawks of a few years ago. Not only were Al Horford and Paul Millsap All-Stars, Atlanta’s team success vaulted Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver into their only All-Star appearances.

Booker isn’t shy about referencing other teams. Asked about his leadership, he pointed to the Warriors as a model he’d like to emulate. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green all share various aspects.

But Phoenix has pinned so much of its future directly onto Booker.

The Suns told Booker they wouldn’t trade him, even when Kyrie Irving became available. Then, they dealt Eric Bledsoe, the team’s best and highest-paid player.

This is now Booker’s team.

“It’s a good pressure to have,” Booker said. “It’s a pressure that keeps you on your toes. It’s a pressure that I want. It’s a pressure that keeps you determined.”

Booker fits as first in command, because Phoenix gives more than a quarter of its minutes to players even younger than him – a smidge behind behind the Lakers, but nearly double anyone else. Not only is he older than Josh Jackson, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender and Derrick Jones Jr., Booker is also more advanced than slightly older starting point guard Tyler Ulis.

Ideally for the Suns, this young core – along with future first-round picks, including all Phoenix’s own plus two extra from the Heat – will blossom into a dangerous team.

Booker is trying to accelerate the process, and that starts with defense.

“He’s taking the challenge of trying to guard guys,” Phoenix interim coach Jay Triano said. “I think that was something, before, he just, ‘It was something I have to do.’ And now, he’s coming to the bench, if a guy has made two in a row and saying, ‘Put me on him. Let me guard him.'”

Like all Suns, Booker’s defensive effort has improved since Triano took over for Earl Watson just three games into the season. (How could it not?) Triano calls Booker’s defensive results under his newfound approach “excellent,” but that seems to be more positive reinforcement than anything. Booker is merely trending up from atrocious defender toward regularly bad defender. He’s more engaged off the ball, and he really locks in during clutch situations.

It’s a step in the right direction for Booker as he tries to improve his all-around game. Growth also include better distributing.

Despite a slight downtick in minutes, Booker is averaging a career-high 4.0 assists per game. But he has made an even larger jump in potential assists per game – 8.9, fourth among shooting guards (behind only James Harden, DeMar DeRozan and Jimmy Butler).

Why such a split between his actual assists and potential assists? The simple and partially correct answer: His teammates miss too many shots. But Booker also doesn’t tilt the defense to create efficient opportunities for his teammates quite like an elite playmaker would.

As usual with Booker, context matters, but it doesn’t completely absolve him.

Same with his scoring. He averaged 22.1 points per game last year and his averaging 23.0 this year, shiny numbers that mostly explain his plaudits.

Efficiency matters, too, though. For his usage percentage (28.9), his true shooting percentage (56.8) is only middling. But it’s above league average for the first time, and he’s just 21. Only Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron and Durant have matched Booker’s usage and true shooting percentages in their age-21 season or younger.

Booker is a good scorer, period – and a special one for his age. His 70-point game against the Celtics last season is the crowning achievement of his career so far, unmatched by any active player and not neared ever by anyone so young.

It also heaped loads of attention on him, as a blowout loss to the Pistons on Wednesday perfectly displayed. Booker scored 22 points on 7-of-8 shooting, but Detroit aggressively trapped him throughout the game, and he committed seven turnovers.

Booker returns to Boston, the site of his 70-pointer, tomorrow knowing defenses have treated him differently ever since that game.

“You can’t be a secret forever,” Booker said. “I remember all the open looks I got when I first started playing as a rookie. I haven’t seen one of those since.”

The Suns’ lackluster supporting cast makes it simpler for Booker to remain the center of attention, but that’s not the only culprit. His hype keeps outpacing his production.

Booker is just trying to put his head down and keep up.

Giannis Antetokounmpo to tell his story on 60 Minutes this week (preview clip)

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Giannis Antetokounmpo grew up hocking wares — clothes, sunglasses, whatever — on the streets of Athens, Greece. He easily could still be living there, the tallest salesman in a poor part of a country with high unemployment and real challenges.

Instead, he is a multimillionaire living comfortably in the United States, and is one of the 10 best basketball players in the world — and still improving. In a few years we may well be saying he is the best player on the planet.

Antetokounmpo will be telling his story on the legendary television news magazine 60 Minutes this week, and the show released a clip. Check it out.

This is the best missed free throw to game winner you will ever see

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We’ve all seen this situation before at every level of basketball: A team down three points gets fouled in the final seconds and has two free throws, so the shooter aims to make the first free throw then miss the second and create a rebound he or a teammate can grab then throw back in to tie the game. It works about as often as an NFL Hail Mary — either the shooter makes the shot anyway or the defense gets the board — but what other choice is there?

Nobody has ever pulled it off as well as Paulinho Boracini of the Brazilian league team Cearense.

Intentional or not (and I lean not), he banked the second free throw off the rim toward the corner, ran it down himself and hit the game-winning three.

Damn. That’s impressive.

(If Boracini and Cearense sound familiar, you win the award for “watching too much Knicks preseason basketball” because they played New York in a 2015 exhibition.)

Giannis Antetokounmpo doubtful with ankle injury for Bulls game

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MILWAUKEE (AP) The Milwaukee Bucks say Giannis Antetokounmpo is doubtful for Friday night’s game against the Chicago Bulls with a sprained right ankle.

The All-Star forward got hurt in the second quarter of a 127-120 loss on Wednesday to the Los Angeles Clippers when he appeared to trip over teammate Shabazz Muhammad under the Bucks’ basket.

Antetokounmpo is fourth in the league in scoring at 27.3 points a game.


Anfernee Simons declares for NBA draft straight out of high school (kind of)

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Anfernee Simons spent the last year playing high school basketball. But because he did so as a fifth-year prep after technically graduating from high school last year and turns 19 in June, he’s eligible for the NBA draft.

Following a path taken by Thon Maker and considered by Jonathan Isaac, Simons – as expected – is turning pro.

Jonathan Givony of ESPN:

Anfernee Simons will forgo his collegiate eligibility and declare for the 2018 NBA draft, he informed ESPN.

Simons informed ESPN that he will sign with agent Bobby Petriella of Rosenhaus Sports Representation

Simons looks like a mid-first-rounder, though his range is quite wide considering how large of a jump he’s making. Teams can learn relatively more about him in workouts and interviews.

A 6-foot-4 shooting guard who specializes in scoring, Simons is quick on his feet with a quick release off the dribble – with range from beyond the 3-point arc to an impressive floater game. Those floaters will be important, because Simons isn’t nearly strong enough for the NBA. He’s also a lackluster passer, though because of physicality concerns, no team will count on Simons to run an offense anytime soon, anyway. He’ll have time to develop as a distributor.

By signing with agents, Simons loses his college eligibility. Drew Rosenhaus, a big-name football agent, isn’t certified with the National Basketball Players Association. Petriella’s only NBA client has been Diamond Stone, a 2016 second-rounder who’s out of the league. They’re all in this bold venture together now.

As the NBA considers changing its draft rules for young prospects, Simons will be an interesting case study. He obviously meets the draft-eligibility requirements in the one-and-done era, but he’s also jumping from prep-school competition to the NBA. The league’s strength and nutrition programs should serve him well. His overall development could influence the wider debate.