The Step Back is rolling out its 25-under-25 list over this week. Follow along with our rankings of the top 25 NBA players under the age of 25.
Devin Booker had been an afterthought to begin his basketball career after high school. He came off the bench during his lone year at Kentucky. He nearly slipped out of the lottery in the 2015 NBA Draft.
Yet, in the desert of Phoenix, he’s blossomed into an NBA star.
Following a modest rookie season with the Suns, Booker has exploded as a scorer in the league averaging 22.1 and 24.9 points per game respectively in the previous two seasons.
Booker has seen his 3-point percentage, effective field goal percentage, rebounds per game, and assists per game rise each year, along with his scoring input. Phoenix turned the keys to the offense over to him last year and while it didn’t result in many victories, Booker proved that he could be efficient as the go-to scorer.
Phoenix rewarded Booker with a five-year, $158 million contract extension this summer. The Suns have tied themselves to the 21-year-old swingman for the long run.
The ascension that Booker has made in his first three years is definitely something worthy of the maximum contract Phoenix gave him. But in the era of “superteams” is Booker ever going to be a big enough name to deserve being the face of the franchise? Another possible deterrent to Booker becoming a bonafide star is the mounting number of injuries the guard has already suffered in three seasons. He played just 54 games last year missing time due to an adductor injury in December and a lingering hand issue at the end of the season that he recently underwent surgery for. The surgery will keep Booker out for at least the beginning of training camp.
The 2018 Naismith Hall of Fame class was enshrined last weekend; among the new entrants was Ray Allen. Similar to Booker, Allen was a sharpshooting wing with a beautiful jumpshot.
Allen entered the league with the Milwaukee Bucks and teamed with Glenn Robinson and Sam Cassell to take the Bucks to the brink of the Eastern Conference playoffs in 2000. However, the Bucks trio couldn’t get over the edge and soon Allen was shipped to Seattle. With the Supersonics, Allen was the alpha and omega, but he never had enough surrounding talent to match the heights of his postseason runs in Milwaukee. Allen was then traded to the Boston Celtics and teamed with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to form the original “superteam”. After one title he joined up with LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh in South Beach and got his second ring before retiring.
Allen was a great player in his era, a guaranteed 20-points in just about every game he suited up in. However, he wasn’t a transcendent enough talent to lead a team to the promise land on his own — few players ever have been.
For all the potential Booker has shown there’s a chance that he caps out at a Ray Allen-level. Being a future Hall-of Famer isn’t exactly the worst of outcomes for Booker in this scenario, but it could spell trouble for Phoenix down the line.
What happens if three years into Booker’s pricey new extension, things have yet to turn around in Phoenix? Would the Suns send out Booker for a second chance to build something around number one overall pick Deandre Ayton?
The Suns brought in Ayton, Mikal Bridges, and De’Anthony Melton this summer and along with 2017’s first round pick Josh Jackson, have a solid foursome to surround Booker with in hopes of growing into something bigger.
Booker won’t turn 22 until a couple weeks into the upcoming season, his extension with Phoenix brings him right to the beginning of his presumed prime. Will his feeling towards the Suns organization change if the team continues to sit at the bottom of the standings?
Trevor Ariza was also brought in, so Phoenix is not solely focused on the future they’re continuing to invest in the present as well. There are rumors that they are searching for a veteran point guard (Patrick Beverley, Spencer Dinwiddie, Cory Joseph, Damian Lillard, Terry Rozier, and Kemba Walker have all been rumored targets for the Suns this offseason).
With training camps around the corner, Phoenix currently has a choice of former NBA G-Leaguers Isaiah Canaan, Shaquille Harrison, and rookies Melton and Ellie Okobo as their starting point guard to begin the 2018-19 season.
To revisit the Allen comparison, during his time with the Supersonics he was led by such esteemed point guards as Antonio Daniels, Luke Ridnour, and Earl Watson.
Phoenix has been trying to recapture the magic that Allen’s fellow 2018 Hall of Fame inductee, Steve Nash, brought as the conductor of the “7 Seconds or Less” offense under Mike D’Antoni. They’ve whiffed on some of their higher lottery selcetions (Dragan Bender, Marquise Chriss, and Alex Len), but struck gold getting Booker.
The clock is ticking on the time they have to maximize the talent around him and convince him to stay. Most of the “superteams” we’ve seen are as a result of friends choosing to team up. Booker is very close with Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell. Towns could potentially be moved from Minnesota and Russell will enter free agency this summer. Could Phoenix dangle some of their young pieces and picks to make a real run at Towns and bring in Russell next summer to try and appease Booker?
Nothing is impossible in this era of player movement and brokerage. While the Suns locked in Booker for the long-term this summer, the opportunity to prove he should stay starts immediately.