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.