Nylon Calculus: What’s the deal with Devin Booker?

Nov 27, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns head coach Earl Watson and guard Devin Booker (1) against the Denver Nuggets at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Nuggets defeated the Suns 118-114. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 27, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns head coach Earl Watson and guard Devin Booker (1) against the Denver Nuggets at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Nuggets defeated the Suns 118-114. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

In their annual October survey, NBA GMs tabbed 20-year old Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns as the most likely breakout player this season, and by a fairly wide margin. This survey doesn’t exactly have a fantastic track record of accuracy but in this case it lined up fairly well with public sentiment.

Booker was lightly used at the University of Kentucky and expectations were relatively low on him as a rookie, especially because of his age. With Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe missing portions of the season, Booker was pressed into duty and performed admirably as the youngest player in the league. He put up healthy scoring totals and flashed the potential for a versatile offensive game. An absurdly strong performance at Summer League only elevated expectations on Booker this season.

Through 19 games, the breakout hasn’t really materialized. Booker’s scoring totals are up but, per minute, his rebounds and assists are down, as are his field goal percentage and 3-point percentage. There are a lot of mitigating factors but the general perception seems to be that Booker’s season has been a disappointment thus far.

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I humbly submit the graph below as an illustration of why Booker appears to be having a bad season.

devinbooker /

Booker’s production is essentially the same as it was last year — by Box Plus-Minus he’s at -3.6, compared to -3.1 last year. While we would expect some improvement from season to season, growth is not necessarily linear and in the abstract it should not be a huge disappointment for a 20-year old player to be matching his rookie production 700 minutes into his sophomore season.

The issue with Booker is that expectations were extraordinarily high this season. His season looks meh compared to last year just by production, but downright frustrating compared to preseason expectations. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that those preseason expectations were inflated.

The truth is that much of Booker’s appeal coming into this season was aesthetic. His rookie per-36 minute line of 17.9 points, 3.4 assists, and 3.2 rebounds looked nice but only at the surface. His steal, block, and defensive rebound rates were all very low as were his shooting percentages — which basically explains his extremely low Box Plus-Minus both this year and last. Booker has a gorgeous shooting stroke and a reputation as a good outside shooter but he made an underwhelming 34.3 percent of his 3s last season and was pretty underwhelming on jumpers inside the arc as well.

Booker put up healthy box score stats in a manner that was extremely visually appealing. Combine that with the fact that he’s one of the youngest players in the league and it was easy to assume he would be headed for a big year. For what it’s worth, statistical projections are generally unswayed by aesthetics and FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO projection for Booker this season didn’t look dramatically different than from before his rookie year, basically implying that last season shouldn’t have moved the needle much on his expectations.

While Booker may be falling short of somewhat inflated expectations this season, there are some fairly obvious explanations that aren’t exactly gloom and doom. Booker’s usage rate is up to 26.6 percent, the highest mark on the team. He’s seeing about 10 extra touches per game and finishing about 3.5 more possessions per game in isolation or as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. While his shooting percentages are down in the paint and from behind the three-point line, his turnover percentage is very low.

Booker is getting the opportunity to function as a high-usage scorer for a young team that is still missing a lot of pieces. That’s a combination that will depress some of his numbers but his improvements in some areas — as an isolation scorer and limiting turnovers, for example — are positive signs. It’s just that the situation around him may not be conducive to that breakout scenario many of us envisioned.

Stats in context: Advanced stat percentile tables

However, the struggles early in this season may ultimately be helpful for Booker. Barring injury, Booker will likely finish the season in the top-20 all-time for total minutes played by a player, age 20 or younger. He’s getting high-leverage offensive repetitions, chances to really build and develop his skill set. He might look better statistically if the Suns just had him standing in the corner and shooting spot-up 3-pointers, but struggling now is probably better for his long-term ceiling.

So, it’s probably time to pump the breaks on the Devin Booker hype train. Nothing we’ve seen so far implies that he’s not going to become a terrific player, it just might not be as soon as we thought.