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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 NBA.com’s data goes) have been All-Stars while their team was performing so poorly with them on the floor before the All-Star break:

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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.

2019 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Is Jarrett Culver’s upside worth being a top five pick?

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Over the course of the next two weeks, as the 2019 NBA Draft draws closer and closer, we at Pro Basketball Talk will be taking deep dives into some of the best and most intriguing prospects that will be making their way to the NBA.

Today, we are looking at Jarrett Culver.

Previous draft profiles:

Jarrett Culver is the second member of Chris Beard’s first real recruiting class at Texas Tech to go from totally under-the-radar to a guaranteed first round pick.

It started last year with Zhaire Smith, a sensational athlete and developing shooter that found his way into Tech’s starting lineup before eventually finding his way into being the No. 16 pick in the first round of last year’s draft. Most expected that Culver, who averaged 11.2 points and just 1.8 assists while shooting 38.2 percent from three, to soak up the role that Smith played for the Red Raiders, but that isn’t what happened.

Instead, Culver became what Keenan Evans — the 2018 Big 12 Player of the Year turned two-way player for the Detroit Pistons — was for the Red Raiders. He didn’t just become a better scorer and a talented wing prospect, he became their point guard.

And that is where the intrigue lies for Culver when it comes to his potential at the next level.

He has the size you want out of an off-guard and, at 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, is big enough to be able to guard small forwards in the NBA, but he doesn’t have the game of a typical 3-and-D player. As a sophomore, he averaged a team-high 3.7 assists for Texas Tech, but he wasn’t exactly what you would call a point guard. In fact, he was often essentially playing the four, with a trio of smaller guards on the floor around him. What Beard did was build an offense that was heavy with motion principles early in a possession, but as the shot clock wound down, the ball would end up in Culver’s hands, where he would be put into an isolation or a ball-screen action and allowed to create.

That is what he does best.

Shot creation.

Culver is excellent in triple-threat situations. His ability to shoot off the dribble consistently improved throughout his college career, and he’s generally at his best when he is allowed to get into a rhythm jumper off the bounce. He needs to quicken up his release in the NBA, but he has some wiggle room given the way that he gets his shot off. He’s not the most explosive athlete, but he can dunk on defenders when he gets a lane to the basket and his long strides and improving frame allowed him to be able to get to where he wanted to get to in the lane despite the fact that his first step is not all that quick.

But where Culver improved the most during the offseason was with his ability to operate ball-screens. He obsessively studied tape during the summer to learn the proper reads and proper passes to make when running a ball-screen, and the improvement showed. He forced teams to have to stop going under the screen against him because of his ability to step-back and make off-the-dribble threes. He can throw one-handed, live-dribble passes to shooters in either corner. He turned Tariq Owens into a serious threat on the offensive end of the floor with his ability to hit him on lobs while also knowing how to create the space and passing lane for a dump-off.

He’s grown into being a high-level, well-rounded offensive weapon, and there is quite a bit of value in a player that can be a secondary shot-creator without having to play as a point or off-guard.

Now, there are some limitations as well.

Culver has averaged more than four threes per game in his two-year career, and he’s shooting just 34.1 percent from beyond the arc. He’s better as an off-the-dribble shooter, which actually is not exactly ideal for a player that is going to be spending quite a few possessions playing off the ball. He’s added some muscle since last season — and a growth spurt in the last year makes it seem possible that his body is not done developing — but he is still pretty slender and is not great at dealing with physicality on either end of the floor. There are some real concerns offensively about how he will handle the athleticism NBA defenders have, and the 5-for-22 shooting performance he put together in the national title game against De'Andre Hunter doesn’t assuage those concerns.

There are also some question marks about his defense. Personally, I think he’ll be fine. He’s never going to be a total lockdown defender, but I don’t think that he will be a liability. He’s not going to be the guy opposing coaches target. He has spent the last two years playing within one of the best defensive systems in college basketball, but one that is built on exceptional game-planning and coaching as much as raw talent. So while it may have left Culver somewhat over-hyped on the defensive end, to me it is also proof that he can execute a game-plan and do a job on that end.

Put it all together, and what you have is a guy that can do a lot of things really well. You have a guy whose combination of skills should allow him to be a valuable piece in an NBA rotation. What you don’t have is a player that is likely to end up being an NBA superstar. These comparisons aren’t perfect — they never are — but I think he’s going to end up being somewhere between Caris LeVert pre-injury and Evan Turner.

He’s a safe-bet to be a rock-solid starter in the NBA, potentially as early as this season.

But I’m not sure just how much upside he has.

Rumor: Al Horford thinks 4-year, $100 million contract awaits him in free agency

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Things have already gone sideways for the Boston Celtics. Kyrie Irving is set to leave, reportedly for the Brooklyn Nets. Al Horford opted out of his contract with the team this week, and reports have it that the integral big man is looking to go elsewhere.

Horford had $30 million left on his contract at age 33, so there had to be some belief that he would get a job elsewhere for more money than the Celtics would be willing to pay. Now, according to a new report, that is exactly the case.

It was floated on Tuesday night that Horford already knew that somebody was looking to sign him to another long-term deal. New York Times writer Marc Stein tweeted as much late Tuesday night, saying that Horford and his camp believe there is a deal around $100 million waiting for him in free agency.

Via Twitter:

It is — and we can’t stress this enough — freaking June. It’s literally and figuratively too early for this.

We all laughed last season about the arbitrary deadlines of free agency creeping forward. Deals were already done well before it was permitted to actually sign free agents in July. But this… is getting ridiculous.

Horford is a leader, the glue that apparently kept the Celtics from breaking apart last season. Reports surfaced this week that Brad Stevens’ dedication to former Butler Bulldog Gordon Hayward was at least one reason for the team chemistry starting to unfurl.

Whichever team grabs Horford will be getting a player who still has much left to give, and who can help guide a team into the playoffs. Whether he’s heading to a contender or an overpaying bottom-feeder, we don’t yet know.

This league just keeps getting weirder and weirder.

Daryl Morey denies that Chris Paul requested trade in James Harden dispute

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Things are not all that great for the Houston Rockets. They were bounced in the second round by the Golden State Warriors, and Chris Paul and James Harden appear to be at each other’s throats.

There been reports that Paul and Harden have each issued ultimatums to team management asking the executive branch to instigate a trade. This of course essentially means that the Rockets need to look for a trade partner for Paul.

The problem is that Paul has a massive $125 million left on his deal. It was an insane sum when Paul signed it, but the thought was that even a declining CP3 would be able to help the Rockets as they went all-out expecting a Warriors decline.

But Rockets GM Daryl Morey has refuted the idea that either player has issued an ultimatum. Morey told Marc Stein of the New York Times as much, and reiterated this stance on ESPN radio on Tuesday.

Morey is a veteran general manager, and openly noting that a player has requested a trade cuts his leverage. It has been widely reported that Morey has been looking for trades for Paul and his gargantuan contract for some time, with no apparent taker as of yet.

Now is the time to jump on things in the West. The Warriors are weak, particularly with injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. Who knows what that roster will look like next season (and beyond)?

Houston has been the perennial contender against Golden State in the playoffs, but now they appear to be bursting apart at the seams. Morey is one of the best general managers in the NBA, and he has a history of taking big risks and turning wheat into gold. But until he can offload Paul’s contract, things will be tenuous in Texas.

Report: Brad Stevens’ dedication to Gordon Hayward caused chemistry issues with Celtics

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Things are not all well in Boston. The Celtics are already in a free fall when it comes to free agency, and it’s not yet July. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford are reportedly poised not to return to TD Garden next year. Now, a team that was aiming for the NBA Finals next year could be in serious trouble.

Things have quickly fallen apart for Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens, who are left with a team that also has an apparent enemy in one of the biggest agencies in Klutch Sports. Boston reportedly backed out of serious offers in trade negotiations with the New Orleans Pelicans in part because they felt as though Klutch client Anthony Davis would not re-sign after one year.

Basketball is a game of chemistry, and the Celtics seemed to lose theirs over the course of the year. At least externally, it appeared Boston was disintegrating. Now, according to a report from Jackie MacMullan, we have some confirmation of this rift.

Via NBC Sports Boston:

“You hate to pick on Gordon Hayward because he was coming back from injury and he was doing the best he could, but I really think that’s where it started,” she said. “They were force feeding him on his teammates, Brad [Stevens] knew Gordon well, he wanted to get his confidence back.

“I would contend that Brad Stevens would have done that for any player on that roster that had a catastrophic injury, he would want to fill him with that same confidence, but that’s not what happened,” MacMullan continued. “He gave the benefit of the doubt over and over to a player that wasn’t ready, to a guy who had history with him, and it rankled that locker room, and it bothered that locker room.”

The Celtics have a roster on paper that should have been good enough to get them deep into the playoffs. But Hayward returned and never really looked like himself, and Stevens devoting his faith to his former Butler Bulldog was obviously misplaced.

Chemistry issues for Boston we’re not all to blame on Stevens and Hayward. Irving is perennially mercurial. Given a situation where he got his own team (whatever that means) he didn’t lead the way folks were expecting.

Unless something drastic can be done — and don’t put it past Danny Ainge to get wild — Boston could be taking a step back next season.

Their saving grace, ironically, could be a fully healthy Hayward who has more reign to do what he wants and an unrestricted role on offense. We’ll see how that goes.