The Valley of the Suns breaks down the advanced metrics struggles and triumphs among three Phoenix Suns
The Phoenix Suns’ season has hit the 10-game mark with the majority of surprises seen as good ones.
Looking deeper into how they’ve achieved a 7-3 mark, we find a couple of players fighting for the team’s early “Advanced Metrics All-Star” award. (It’s not a real award.)
Before unveiling the star pair, here’s a quick sample of the quirks that come with a small sample size.
The known: Suns fans are familiar with their real All-Star’s credentials — as well as the categories in which he’s struggled. Devin Booker is a little off when it comes to ballhandling and free throws. A career 86.8 free-throw shooter, he’s hitting only 77.8 percent from the line through the 10 games and turning the ball over at a career-high rate (4.3 per game).
The scoring numbers are down, but that’s OK. With all those victories, fans can’t be too upset as Booker finds his rhythm with Chris Paul.
In a recent New York Times story, Suns coach Monty Williams is all good with Booker not being comfortable following the team’s 8-0 run in Orlando to close out last season.
“I think it’s going to fuel him,” Williams said of Booker’s taste of bubble success. “I hate talking for players, but just knowing him and his competitiveness, I think it’s going to spur him on.
“Book’s a winner,” Williams continued. “He plays winning basketball. He’s got a high I.Q. We’ll talk about stuff, and he’s completing my sentences because he knows where I’m going.”
The overall game so far this season from Booker, a first-time All-Star in 2020, leaves a great deal of room for improvement — especially for advanced metrics geeks. (You know, like the most efficient of modern-day NBA general managers and their teams of numbers-crunchers.)
(The following Basketball Reference metrics rankings were current entering Sunday’s games.)
Booker has the ball — a lot. His Usage Rate (an estimate of the number of plays involving a player, per 100 possessions) ranks 21st among all NBA players, but his Turnover Percentage (turnovers per 100 plays), 18.9, ranks 15th in the NBA.
By shooting-guard comparison, Boston’s Jaylen Brown is 90th in turnover percentage with a 29.1 Usage Rate (19th overall), and Utah’s Donovan Mitchell sits 85th in turnover rate; seventh in usage at 32.2 percent.
It could be worse: Houston’s P.J. Tucker is throwing it away at an alarming 26.3 percent on that list, with a usage rate of only 8 percent.
Perhaps the most popular metric, Box Score Plus/Minus (BPM), shows the 24-year-old Booker has some catching up to do. Booker is 115th on the list, trailing the likes of Delon Wright, Eric Bledsoe, Kevin Huerter and Kevin Knox.
Come on, man.
The Phoenix Suns’ higher side of the stats
And now for the pleasant surprises.
If the presumption is that Mikal Bridges has looked great — insert “small sample size” caveat here — the advanced metrics bear it out.
He is playing like an All-Star, certainly with regard to traditional stats, posting career-high averages in points, rebounds, field-goal shooting, free-throw shooting and minutes played, and he’s hitting almost 47 percent from 3-point range.
The former Villanova standout is being seen — by the Suns and his former coach.
Let’s look at the advanced numbers. He leads the Suns in Defensive Box Plus/Minus, ranking 24th in the league (he’s a very good defender).
His BPM? No. 27. Bridges is helping his team more than Miami’s Jimmy Butler, Portland’s Damian Lillard and even Suns teammate Chris Paul.
Even better, Bridges is in the top 10 for Win Share, an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player. Just above Bridges on that list are San Antonio’s DeMar DeRozan, Golden State’s Steph Curry, Portland’s C.J. McCollum and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid.
Denver’s Nikola Jokic is in the top spot.
Best of all? Bridges treats that ball like family.
He’s the league’s No. 2 player when it comes to lowest Turnover Percentage. His 2.5 per 100 plays trails only Wesley Matthews, whose Usage Rate is 9.3 compared with Bridges’ 16.
How about this one? Suns fans have seen the growing confidence in the sweet-shooting North Carolina alum, and are leaning forward — eagerly — when he rises up for a three. But the shooting tool is now joined by a few others in his game.
Johnson, whose lofty draft position brought a good deal of media criticism, has a decent rookie season. His sophomore NBA year, though, has produced improvement everywhere: Minutes, shooting percentage, rebounds, assists and blocks.
His scoring average has increased from 8.8 to 13.1 and his turnovers have decreased.
Here’s the deeper analytics dive:
His BPM is ranked 14th overall. Let’s see who’s at 15 and 16… Ah. LeBron James and Luka Doncic. Good company.
The Suns are a better team when Johnson is on the floor. His zone-busting range and basketball IQ expand the offensive options, and Chris Paul has to be enjoying the improved choices for spreading the ball around.
More about that shooting touch. Johnson ranks 20th in True Shooting Percentage (2-point field goals, 3-point field goals and free throws), one notch below somebody called Kevin Durant.
He makes his minutes count, too. Johnson’s Player Efficiency Rating (a measure of per-minute production), finds Johnson atop the Phoenix list and landing at No. 45 among all NBA players.
And, he certainly belongs on the list of the Suns’ surprising “Advanced Metrics All-Stars.”