Rookies Deconstructed: Devin Booker
Devin Booker is the youngest player in the NBA, and is working on a great rookie season. It's one that recalls a few other promising and unfinished stories.
Illustration by Elliot Gerard
This season's rookie class could be something special. There is talent and depth, size and skill, and the promise that there could be a few transcendent players in the mix. Oddly, though, some elements of each player's game and physical presentation feel familiar. Rookies Deconstructed is a series that means to take each rookie apart, identifying the building blocks we know and the natural comparisons that emerge and appreciating how they come together in ways that are radically and invigoratingly new. Because these are rookies, with just a fraction of a season under the belts, some comparisons are necessarily forward-looking.
Allan Houston Makes Jumpers
Geometry loved Allan Houston. His shooting form was pristine, all sharply drawn angles and arcs, and it added up to one of the sweetest shots of his generation. Of all basketball acts, the jumpshot is most closely tied to the mind-body connection, and is grounded in the precise repetition of a series of motions. There is variety in the specifics of how shooters shoot, but the best, whatever their individual design, are consistent in adhering to that motion.
Houston was a master of mechanics, but so graceful that there was no trace of the mechanical in his aesthetics. Weight balanced, feet aligned, deep knee bend, stick-straight torso, elbows cocked, sweeping follow-through, wrist bent, hold it ... hold it ... hold it ... bottom. It was a machine-precise process so smooth that it only barely looked human.
Houston spent 12 seasons in the NBA, making 1,305 three-pointers before he hung up his high-tops. He played a little defense, racked up a few assists, occasionally goofed around in the low-post. Mostly, though, he was that beautiful jumper.
Devin Booker is not a carbon copy of that, if only because his form is a little more compact than Houston's. But his jump shot is eye-candy in all the same ways. Through the end of December, the Phoenix Suns rookie was making an astonishing 54.1 percent of his three-pointers. He has since cooled considerably—down to a still-respectable 36.7 percent for the season—but a lot of that is the result of being just 19 years old, and thrust into the role of primary scorer and ball-handler after the team's injury-aided decline.
Nature versus nurture is open for debate, in jumpshots as everywhere else. One would like to think that, given the Gladwellian 10,000 hours or whatever, you or I could replicate the immaculate mechanics of Houston or Booker spotting up from behind the arc. But the truth is that their flawless mechanics are as much the gift of a genetic lottery as a 40-inch vertical. That or they're the design of some unscrupulous science fiction researcher. Whatever the root cause, both have an uncommon measure of body control. That precision earned Houston millions of dollars, and will likely make Booker a star for years to come.
Bradley Beal Is More Than A Jumpshot
A consistent shot can make or break a player. A great one can create just as sharp a contrast. For a player like Steve Novak or Matt Bonner, a good shot can be the one thing that keeps a career afloat. For a player like Bradley Beal, who can shoot and more, the challenge is figuring out how to be more than the one thing you do best. Beal is four years into his career, and his jumper has been a blessing; this offseason, it will make him very rich. But, besides keeping his body in working order, Beal's jumper has also been his biggest barrier.
As a rookie, 82 percent of Beal's shots were jumpers. Four years later, jump shooting still makes up an enormous portion of his offense—77 percent by my calculations. It is moderated by more assists, more free throws, more drives. The nature of those jumpers is also somewhat diversified, more off-the-dribble, less Stand Behind The Three-Point Line Waiting For John Wall To Throw It To Me. But the imbalance, and specifically his tendency to short-circuit a promising drive to the rim with a step-back 18-footer, continues to be what separates Beal from the sky-high ceiling that his talent suggests.
The same sort of gauntlet is already being thrown for Booker, from his skills to his decision-making. For weeks, he has been running the pick-and-roll, initiating the offense, and pushing the ball in transition. He looks good, damn good at times, but Booker is also out of his element, and stretching his skills to a certain extent.
In that context, Booker's jumpshot is comfort food, dripping with grease and familiar satisfaction. As things move forward with Brandon Knight back in the lineup—and, hopefully, next season's return of a healthy Eric Bledsoe—there will surely be a temptation on Booker's part to retreat to the corner and into what he does best. As a spot-up shooter and nothing more, Booker would still be a very good NBA player. The challenge is to be more than his jumpshot.
Gordon Hayward and Inner Peace
Booker is the youngest player in the NBA this season. Of all the bits of data on his statistical record, this is the number cited most often. Youth equates to inexperience, and so also to nerves and anxiety and all the mistakes and missteps that come with that. The Suns have had the luxury of gorging Booker on minutes, and he could be forgiven for some sloppiness and hesitancy as he works out the kinks. So far, that has not been a concern. Booker is not just more productive than any reasonable person could expect from a player that young, he's also far more refined and under control. Cool As A Cucumber is the expression.
The NBA has some poker faces but most of them have a tell. It could be a brow knitted in anger, a little extra flop sweat, a gait that picks up or slows down or otherwise moves out of the normal range. Gordon Hayward has no tell. That dude figured out how to grow cucumbers in Iceland.
Hayward began his career at just 20, simultaneously carrying the loaded expectations of an NCAA Tournament hero and a lottery pick. By his third season he was the marquee perimeter player for an up-and-coming Utah Jazz franchise, running pick-and-rolls and carrying the weight of shot creation. A lot was asked of him, and early.
Hayward often played big in college, and the biggest question about him as a draft prospect was whether he could develop the ball skills to be a perimeter shot creator in the NBA, which just seems silly in hindsight. The Utah Jazz made Hayward answer that question, almost immediately, and he never flinched. He played through mistakes, delivered on potential, and never looked anything but calm and collected.
This all matters in Booker's case, that marriage of youth and poise. Rookie accomplishments are a benchmark for future performance, and the greater the distance between where a player starts and the theoretical athletic prime of that blossoms in that player's mid-20s, the more room there is for growth. If Booker fills the next six or seven season with steady improvement, we'll have something special on our hands. That quiet confidence says he's planning on it.