The pride of Grand Rapids (Mich.) and Moss Point (Miss.), Devin Booker, walked into Boston Garden on a Friday night in March, the second night of a back-to-back. It was one more game on the schedule for Booker. But three hours later, the Kobe-phile Booker had 70 points next to his name. He was the youngest player in NBA history to drop 70. He is the first player since Kobe Bryant dropped 81 on the Raptors to hit the 70 mark. Just for housekeeping purposes this is what he did. He played 44 minutes. He took 40 shots and made 21 of them for a 52.5% efficiency. He made 24 out of 26 free throws, 92.3%. It was the most free throws he attempted this year. He made 36.4% of his threes. He had 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals and a block.
Post-game Booker credited Kobe Bryant, recalling an interview when Bryant said he didn’t put a limit on what he could do. He considered 100 points doable. Booker said that stayed in his head as a lesson from his idol: don’t put a cap on your potential. Bryant posted the Booker accomplishment on his Twitter page. Last season, Bryant gave Booker his shoes and wrote Be Legendary. As if prophetic, Booker did exactly that.
Naturally a lot of shade came Booker’s way. He scored 70 but his team didn’t win. He scored 70 because his team intentionally was making sure he scored 70. He scored 70 and he was -6 for the game. Deadspin called it a gimmick.
Whatever. 70 points is 70 points.
Booker is one of the great young NBA scorers. If there is any criticism of his game is that it is still just about points and not much else and his defense is pretty miserable. But putting the ball in the hole is his talent.
In January, Booker had the longest 20+ game scoring streak of his career, 16 games. It started the second game of the 2017 season. He victimized Dallas and the Spurs for 39 points each on consecutive nights. He dropped 33 on Sacramento which included a buzzer beater game winner. He drained 26 on the Knicks and Timberwolves. The Heat felt his 27 point wrath. The Bucks were helpless when he brutaiized them for 27 points in one quarter.
The secret of the 2016 NBA Draft, the perimeter scorer from Kentucky who came off the bench in college and therefore was downgraded in the draft even as Draft Express heralded him as the best shooter in the draft, has made everyone sit up and notice his skill putting the ball in the hole, particularly from long range.
Devin Booker had a lot of anticipation surrounding him starting the 2016-17 year because last season Booker made a name for himself once Eric Bledsoe went down. All Rookie first team, bumping D’Angelo Russell to second team, was a coup for the three point draining Booker who was drafted 13th. This season Booker would be under the light. He would be a starter playing meaningful minutes with Eric Bledsoe. Secondarily, Booker would have to live up to the expectations he set and the hype. Could he? Many players who have no pressure on them post-draft, and shock everyone, fall back to earth when the pressure is on.
His minutes have spiraled to nearly 35 per game and he is making the most of it, taking 6 more shots than he did last year. His percentage isn’t great, just 42%, indicative of a lack of easy baskets in his repertoire. 36% from three is good but no Steph Curry or Klay Thompson 40% wow. Indicative of not getting to the line much, Booker only takes 5 free throws per game, not the 7 or 8 he could be getting if he dribbled through traffic consistently. But he is 20 years old.
A 21 point scorer in his second year is impressive, considering Devin Booker’s backcourt mate Eric Bledsoe is also a 21 point per game scorer. They share well. The tandem form the third best backcourt in the west behind Steph and Klay and Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
Where Booker is way behind the curve is his defense which is pretty atrocious, worse than his rookie year. His defensive rating is worst than other second year players: D’Angelo Russell, Emmanuel Mudiay and Stanley Johnson . That he is a 21 point scorer and only has a PER of 14.2 (Dion Waiters of the Heat has a PER of 14.5) indicates that he hasn’t expanded his game yet other than scoring. He’s not much of a rebounder or a ball mover and he doesn’t create turnovers. He’s one dimensional even though that dimension is dynamic.
Devin Booker is an expert distance shooter but apathetic in the midrange, in the 35% neighborhood. To be a complete scorer he’ll have to put the ball on the floor more, launch a two dribble pull-up. As for pull-ups, 36.2% of them and 38.7% of catch and shoots go in, clearly a weakness that has to get better. He is ranked 48th among shooting guards (Real Plus-Minus) just ahead of Jodie Meeks.
The month of January was the best month of his career. He averaged 25 points, made 46% of his shots and 44% of his threes. Take out his 70 on Friday night, in March he has struggled with efficiency. Before Friday in the Garden, he was just shooting 39%, his worst month since December.
Like his idol Bryant, his favorite team in the league now is Boston. They had no answer for him and were pretty salty about what he did. But who cares what the Celtics think. The Suns have a gem in Booker and they know it. Grand Rapids and Moss Point know it too. As does the whole of the NBA.
photo via llannba