Is Devin Booker Better Than D’Angelo Russell…or Just Different?

One of the most intriguing story lines coming into the 2016-17 year was #2 draft pick D’Angelo Russell. Last season ended with the love-himself-a-lot Russell and his immaturity on center stage ala the infamous video of teammate Nick Young’s personal proclivities. It made the social media rounds and cast Russell into the role of a villain in violation of the teammate code. He was called “snitch” which was the kindest thing professional athletes lobbed Russell’s way. But the fact is, despite his off-court failings, Russell’s rookie year just wasn’t good enough. Not like Devin Booker.

Devin Booker was the  best rookie guard of the 2015-16 season, agreed upon by the writers. The 19 year old averaged 13.8 points and 2.6 assists for the Phoenix Suns. He elevated himself up the guard ladder even as the much heralded and hyped D’Angelo Russell was considered elite talent. Russell himself had a quality year of 13.4 points and 3.3 assists. But he never lived up to the point guard rep that preceded him in the draft, a Magic Johnson imagery that was soon proven to be false.  Conversely, Devin Booker entered the draft with zero hype so he had nothing to live up to. No one dared compare him to Kobe Bryant who was also a #13 pick. So for Devin Booker, it was a clean slate from day one.

At the end of last year, Devin Booker was the lone guard voted onto the first team NBA All-Rookie team. He was surrounded by forwards and centers (Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Jokic, Jahlil Okafor). D’Angelo Russell was voted onto the second team.

Because they play in the same division, Booker and Russell will be forever compared. Their work places are 400 miles apart, they are close in age, eight months apart (Russell is older), and both are scorers from southern high schools. Though it’s not a competition, whoever develops quicker and is able to lead his team to the playoffs will say a lot about who has the better career.

Consider their matchup last night. Devin Booker had a career high 39 points and dominated Russell offensively but when Russell entered the game in the fourth he made things happen. He had a steal that lead to an assist and  a Nick Young play. He made a three to give the Lakers a 10 point lead.

 Suns vs. Lakers, Nov. 6th Points FG% 3-Point% Assists Turnovers
Devin Booker (Suns) 39 44.8% 42.9% 7.0 3
D’Angelo Russell (Lakers) 11 18.2% 33.3% 6.0 4

Russell’s major weakness is he doesn’t possess top level explosiveness so he is unable to split double teams and he can get trapped on the wing as the clock runs down. Booker’s weakness is he is a volume shooter that goes on incredible streaks but also hits dry spells. He doesn’t go to the rim as often as he should. But to be fair about it,  the Suns need Booker to take a lot of perimeter shots.

Sixteen months ago, on draft night, it was the coronation of D’Angelo Russell. Devin Booker didn’t have any of the pub. When he came out of college after just one year and at 18 years old, Draft Express evaluated Devin Bookers shooting talent as superior but NBA scouts ranked Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay higher as guard talents.

“He has gorgeous shooting mechanics, a quick compact and repeatable motion complete with an effortless release and textbook follow through. His size, high release point and ability to create separation off the dribble makes him a very capable shooter. He has outstanding footwork and balance. He already shows range out to the NBA 3-point line and hit 41% of his shots beyond the arc. Booker is a very intelligent prospect showing impressive maturity and fundamentals.” (Draft Express)

That was Booker’s main advantage over Russell, Booker’s ability to score in a variety or ways, over a variety of defenders ala his idol Kobe Bryant.

Russell’s persona and Booker’s are diametrically opposed. Booker, the serious one, represented the Phoenix Suns at the NBA Draft while Russell was far from the New York stage, as his image had taken a tumble.

Russell’s team this year is very young with quality scorers coming off the bench. The Lakers have a plethora of ball handlers. Julius Randle plays point forward as does rookie Brandon Ingram. Everything isn’t on Russell to deliver. The Lakers lead the NBA in bench point, 51.2.

Booker is the bright spot for the Suns along with T.J. Warren. In Sunday night’s game, Booker took 29 of the Suns 91 shots, nearly 32% of their possessions, while Russell took 11 of the Lakers 90 shots, 12%.

Suns vs. Lakers, Nov. 6th Touches Passes Contested FG%
Devin Booker (Suns) 51 22 38.1%
D’Angelo Russell (Lakers) 46 26 0.0%

Because Booker is a shooting guard and not a point guard, there was a lot of throwing shade pre-2015 draft. The narrative is hardly unique. Shooting guards are mercurial. They are selfish. They have tremendous arrogance and egos. There is Kobe Bryant in one corner and Rashard McCants in another. You don’t know on draft night which player you have brought to your city. It all makes it feel like a magician’s trick and it’s definitely a gamble.

Devin Booker, though, was not a gamble. No one ever whispered about trading Booker like they did after Russell’s video went viral. Even though Booker never started in college for a Kentucky team that had anemic perimeter scoring, he still was the 13th pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. Unlucky 13 became lucky 13. Coach Earl Watson is sold. “He can be something special.”

Last year, Devin Booker was exactly that. Special. This year he is exactly that. Special. On his way to an All-Star berth in the near future.

Even though D’Angelo Russell isn’t special, not when he is shooting in the mid thirties,  his team is the surprise of the NBA season, 4-3 and thriving under Luke Walton. Whether Russell is the reason for that, or it is the Strength In Numbers offense, it doesn’t matter. D’Angelo Russell will take the credit regardless and why not? It’s been a tough NBA learning curve for the super hyped second year player. But, really, all that matters in this Western Conference guard comparison is who will get to the playoffs first, not who will score 50 points first.

Will it be Devin Booker or D’Angelo Russell?


photo via llananba