Although “growth” has been a common theme amongst almost all Phoenix Suns players this past season, it best applies to Devin Booker, who continues to develop his skills seemingly with each passing month.
The Suns franchise player, very mature in his approach to both the game and life in general, has taken his play to greater heights while staying true to himself and his form as his game grows more all-encompassing.
Booker improved his pull up 3-pointer, now shooting 35.5 percent on such shots—his highest mark since the 2017-18 season. He upped his efforts both individually and as a team defender while doing so at his lowest foul rate.
Booker’s ball security grew to become almost bulletproof, averaging just 2.5 turnovers per game—his lowest mark since his rookie season. He also finds himself averaging a career-high 5.0 boards per game.
But Booker’s most recent addition to his overflowing bag of tricks takes him to the charity stripe, where he continues to find points as a wise, foul-drawing guard, much like his teammate Chris Paul.
Now, Booker’s had his bouts with trips to the line over the last season or so, especially in comparison to the whistle that other top-15 players receive on a consistent basis. This often rendered him, his coaches, teammates, and fans alike perplexed.
It could never be for a lack of assertiveness or a style of play adverse to contact conducive to drawing fouls. It also could never be because of a reputation for gimmicks or foul-baiting that may precede him through conversations in referee circles.
All that is understood is that the dynamic of the charity stripe is one both Booker and the Suns could value moving forward.
The Suns recently beat the Philadelphia 76ers, a team that averages 28.9 free throw attempts per game since the break, ranking second in the NBA.
In that game’s first half, you could see the gripes Phoenix had with Philly’s non-stop whistle, as body language from the players and angst from the crowd created an atmosphere of consistent befuddlement.
A whistle of this nature often grows strenuous for any opponent to overcome over the course of 48 minutes.
Now, a consistent whistle means a few things. First off, opponents face your set defense more frequently—assuming the attempts are made. But it also allows offenses to play the game at their desired pace, generally earn more points at the line thanks to the bonus, and handicap defenders who grow near the foul limit.
The Suns endured each of these in said win on Sunday, and coach Monty Williams detailed their approach postgame. Citing how his team needed to move through the foul trouble from a strategic standpoint, he said the following:
"“Mental stamina and stability… having a right to voice your opinion but getting back to the task at hand.”"
Most teams do not possess the collective resolve or discipline to endure when a player of such magnitude becomes a consistent beneficiary of calls. But the Suns do, and with Booker, they might be able to turn the tables on their opponents.
Booker came into the weekend ranking 19th in free throw attempts per game with 351. However, over the last four games, he amassed 53 total attempts from the stripe, tying a career-best mark for any four game stretch.
It seems as though a corner has been turned in his development, as even against different styles of opponents and different officiating crews, he keeps finding ways to the line. This is quietly a big deal pertaining to the Suns as well—being a team that does not create that much rim pressure. It’s what makes them an anomaly in the league.
As of this weekend, the Suns averaged 27.6 pull up attempts per game—the fourth most across the entire league. They also score at the third best place on such shots, collecting 26.0 points per game.
Booker (11.8 attempts), Paul (8.8 attempts), and Mikal Bridges (2.6 attempts) all possess the propensity to stop short of the rim and pull up, working more efficiently while doing so than almost anyone else.
Even Deandre Ayton is chipping in more than viably, with a 93rd percentile ranked rate of converting in the short mid-range at 59.0 percent. In that same area, he ranks 99th percentile for “bigs,” with the mid-range accounting for 55.0 percent of his attempts, and the short mid-range accountable for 44.0 percent.
As a collective unit, the Suns also rank first in overall accuracy (48.4%) and frequency (42.2%) from the mid-range. It clearly works to their favor and plays to their strengths, while also working adversely to the common defensive principles of taking away the 3-pointer and rim protection.
The issue there though, is rim pressure is what generates fouls most often—as the risk and anticipation puts pressure on referees to call fouls.
But Booker seems to have found a loophole over these last few weeks. If he keeps that up and combines it with his elite scoring in the open court, it could take form as Phoenix’s great elixir come playoff time.
In last season’s postseason, Booker’s scoring and free throw relationship stats per series went as such:
First Round: 29.7 PPG, 8.0 FTA
Conference Semi-Finals: 25.3 PPG, 6.0 FTA
Conference Finals: 25.5 PPG, 7.2 FTA
Finals: 28.2 PPG, 5.3 FTA
Specifically looking at the Finals, if Booker can score at that torrid pace while earning trips to the line, it will tilt a series in their favor and grant Phoenix an additional path to victory
Coming into the weekend, Booker sat in the 100th percentile for percentage of plays where he draws fouls on the floor, and ranks in the 64th percentile for shot attempts that draw a foul.
With his savvy maneuvering around the mid-range in changing pace and making defenders play from behind, combined with his cagey pump fake, it’s not hard to see this dynamic being sustained in a relevant capacity moving forward—and the Suns carving out some manufactured victories potentially in the postseason.