Devin Booker's efficiency jump

It wasn't just about scoring more points on fewer shots.

Devin Booker’s remarkable 2019-20 season is over after the Blazers eked by Brooklyn to claim the final West play-in spot and knock Booker’s Suns out. And I’m sad.

What a season this was for Booker. He should’ve made the All-Star team outright (he got in as an injury replacement), deserved all-NBA consideration before the shutdown (and would certainly make it if seeding games were included for consideration), and would be the obvious bubble MVP if Damian Lillard didn’t exist. Booker was the fulcrum when the Suns stormed out of the gate in November, the lone bright spot when they faded back into the pack thereafter, and the driving force behind their thrilling 8-0 run in the bubble. In a season of peaks and valleys, Booker was the one constant.

When put that way, Booker’s 2019-20 season seems like a microcosm of his entire Suns career. Dysfunction surrounded Booker from the day he was drafted in 2015, yet he kept shining like the star he’s always been. That’s one way to interpret his career, at least. The other interpretation says that Booker individually made a leap that mirrored his franchise. He stopped being an empty-stats guy and turned into a legitimate franchise player.

Which account of history is more accurate? I’ve spent all season struggling with that question. Has Devin Booker blossomed into a star, or is he just getting the due he always deserved because the Suns are showing promise instead of being a joke?

I know what Suns fans would say. The perception of Booker is all that’s changed, and only because the Suns finally built a competent roster around him. Booker was unfairly dubbed a losing player because because the Suns were a losing organization. Psychologists dub the Horn effect: when one trait of a person or organization is negative, we perceive every trait of every person associated with it to also be negative, even if they aren’t. (This is the opposite of the more commonly cited Halo effect — in fact, some call it the Reverse Halo-Effect).

There’s some truth to this view. Dooming any 22-year-old to Loserville is never fair, especially one associated with this organization. Booker proved he was already an all-level scorer and improving passer last season — one doesn’t average 27 points and seven assists per game by accident! The Suns as a team are better because they got a proven coach in Monty Williams, a real point guard in Ricky Rubio, and a more experienced roster to maximize Booker’s strengths. Thus, it’s lazy to attribute the Suns’ improvement to Booker alone.

But doing the opposite is also equally lazy. Booker has leaped into superstardom, and the reason is due to a phrase that has become synonymous with one element of basketball analytics when it should actually be used in many different contexts.

Devin Booker has become one of the most efficient offensive players in basketball, in ways that go far beyond generating more points per shot.

Movement efficiency

Here are two smooth Devin Booker buckets from the bubble games. Take a second to watch them at normal speed.

They don’t appear to have much in common. One’s a pull-up jumper off a screen in a half-court situation. The other’s an open-floor drive in transition at full speed. It’s impressive that Booker can make both plays, but not exactly revelatory.

Now let’s watch them again. This time, I want you to focus on the feet. I’ll even slow each clip down and count the steps for you.

The steps in the first example differed in speed and length. Nos. 2-3 come right after the other. No. 4 is a quick hop to set up a much slower fifth in which the toe twists so Booker can get low and plant off it. No. 6 is somewhat long, and No. 7 is very long to set up the one-two motion into the jumper. They had to be this way to go out about 10 feet and then go back in about 10 feet. Seven steps total.

The steps in the second example look similar to each other. All are long, all advance up the court, and while No. 5 and No. 7 push diagonally, they also cover lots of ground. They had to be this way to go 65 feet in one direction while maneuvering around an obstacle. Eight steps total, which is just one more than in the previous example.

Two very different types of movement patterns, two very different types of finishes … and yet they require almost the same number of steps. None of the 15 are wasted, even though many of the 15 serve different purposes. The three pivot steps that Booker uses to change direction sharpest — No. 5 in the first clip, Nos. 5 and 7 in the second — allow him to go around defenders, while the other 12 set them up and maintain forward momentum.

Combined, they make Booker both slippery and explosive. He can dart side-to-side around defenders before suddenly pushing forward.

He can also power through obstacles, allowing him to surge to the basket.

And he can stop his forward momentum to pull up.

Or wait for his man to come out of their stance and drive by them.

Efficiency of movement makes all these plays possible. Because Booker can get as much out of one step as defenders get out of two, he’s always ahead of them on the play. He’s mastered the proper technique to pull off every type of move, and that’s made him impossible to stop in every type of scoring situation.

That’s enabled Phoenix to use him in many different offensive roles to keep opponents off-balanced. Booker has memorized the most efficient step sequence to score in pick-and-rolls, post-ups, off screens, on the break, in isolations, on cuts to the hoop, and everything in between. Williams can deploy Booker in more ways than Booker’s previous coaches could. He can still put the ball in Booker’s hands, but he can also get him easy hoops like this within the Suns’ normal flow.

Having better teammates helps. Rubio offers much-needed ball-handling competence and passing wizardry, while other veterans like Dario Saric, Aron Baynes, and Frank Kaminsky are more willing and able to perform tasks needed to maximize Booker’s shine. Even the remaining young players have skill sets designed to play off a lead scorer like Booker.

But just as they put Booker in a better position to succeed, so too does Booker’s growing offensive versatility maximize their strengths while minimizing their flaws. Booker can get buckets spoon fed to him, or he can go get them himself. That gives Williams the flexibility to toggle between an equal-opportunity system that keeps his role players engaged and a star-centric one when the Suns need a bucket. Booker’s movement efficiency allows the Suns to have a star and a system when they previously had neither.

But maximizing the efficiency of each movement is one thing. The next step is to put those moves together. That’s where Booker’s other efficiency jump comes in.

Decision-making efficiency: where mind and body meet

Booker was a busy man during the NBA’s four-month layoff. The terrific Paolo Uggetti of The Ringer spoke to Cody Toppert, a former Suns coach who worked with Booker during the pandemic. This part is the key:

Knowing that Phoenix’s margin for error was slim coming into Orlando, Toppert figured that Booker’s offensive load would increase. So in the information he sent along, Topper emphasized the importance of defensive positioning, showing Booker data about how he was being attacked on defense and forcing him to be smarter about his every movement.

On the offensive end, Booker takes what is used against him on defense and flips it to pick those same units apart; the bubble has served as an elevated stage for his offensive handiwork.

Film study is nothing new for Booker. Remember the minor uproar about him pulling out of Team USA this summer? Booker spent that time putting himself under the microscope, tinkering his skill set in practices and scrimmages instead of playing more live games. The results speak for themselves.

But the additional focus on his opponents’ positioning has taken his game to yet another level. Through that video work, Booker downloaded every type of defensive coverage into his brain. He can instantly identify the visual cues that expose the defense’s eventual reaction to his first move. He’s become just as efficient switching between his moves as he is executing each individually.

Booker’s mind and body are working in perfect harmony in the bubble, whether he’s on or off the ball. When he comes around tight curls like this, his mind instantly processes that he has a lane to turn the corner and surge to the basket. Then, his efficient body movements make it happen tighter and faster than before.

Mind and body come together in this split second. Booker turns his body, plants his feet, and catches the pass all at once.

These are the same steps!

The same thing happens on this hesitation move. Booker’s brain spots the right visual cue well before he engages Goga Bitadze. He shifts his body into a pull-up jumper position as he brushes off the ball screen, and then rapidly lowers it to plant and drive. Malcolm Brogdon is a full step behind Booker at every point in the move. The gears are still turning in his head as Booker acts first, and then he’s leaping to contest a pull-up jumper that Booker’s already moved past.

And Booker can move in the opposite order just as quickly. His Read —> Engage —> Drive —> Shoot pattern is just as quick as his Read —> Engage —> Shoot —> Drive one, both off the ball and on it.

Booker’s decision-making efficiency jump has also made him a much more dangerous passer. Notice how I didn’t say “better” passer. Booker’s vision and court sense has always been underrated, and the horrendous state of Phoenix’s roster gave him more live on-ball reps against swarming defenses than a player of his experience and skill set otherwise would. Like Bradley Beal years ago, Booker benefited in the long run from having this sampling period.

But thanks to his offseason work, Booker now recognizes when to make each type of pass faster than before. He immediately spots cues the help defense is showing that give away their reactions, and is then able to deliver those different kinds of passes while still on the move. He’s already released the pocket pass to Ayton before Ivica Zubac even moves to react to it.

And he’s already let go of the ball before Dorian Finney-Smith even finishes sinking into the lane.

These are plays Booker was always capable of making. He already developed the proper passing touch to hit his receiver in stride, and he already gained enough experience to know the different passes available to him in each moment. But it’s only this year that he learned how to recognize the latter quickly enough to perform the former before the defense knew his intentions. His brain can now processes defensive coverages faster and his body can now execute his brain’s vision immediately.

That’s what it means to improve your decision-making efficiency.

Statistical efficiency — but not just points per shot

It’s true that Booker’s true shooting percentage went up from 58.4 percent to a sizzling 61.8. It’s also true that Booker scored exactly same number of points per game while taking nearly one and a half fewer shots. He is more efficient by the analytic standard definition.

Yet he’s also more efficient in the way he’s getting his points and assists.

For one, his shot profile has diversified considerably: fewer threes, more short mid-range shots from 10-16 feet, and many more free throws. That’s a direct result of attacking in straighter lines, processing the game faster than defenders, and using his lean core to explode through defenders rather than veering away from them.

Some James Harden-esque arm and body flailing helped, too.

Booker also took far less time within possessions to get those numbers. Only 15.5 percent of his points came after seven or more dribbles this year, compared to nearly 24 percent last year. Less than 22 percent came after touching the ball for more than six seconds, compared to nearly 29 percent last year. (While his touch time was up in the bubble, he scored even fewer buckets — just 11 percent — after seven or more dribbles).

Having a real point guard in Rubio explains some of those changes. Booker scored less often in the pick-and-roll, which requires more dribbles and touch time than other scoring methods. That also explains why Booker made just 32.2 passes per game this year compared to 45.6 the year before.

But despite playing more off ball this year, Booker’s raw assist numbers were about the same, his potential assists went, and he created more points with his assists. The passes he made served more of a purpose than ever before.

Put another way: he became a more efficient passer. Yup, there’s that word again.

The net effect of these improvements was much more significant than any individual stat conveyed. Booker generated the same level of production while cannibalizing less time within possessions to do it. His teammates better complemented his game, but they also had more time and space to maximize their skills playing off him.

Best of all, the Suns gained the best benefit of Booker Hero Ball (the best player directly controlling the game) without suffering the worst trade-off (the other four players turning into spectators). Uggetti put it well in his piece:

Booker is consistently delivering that intangible vibe you get when you watch star players alter a game’s pace to their liking. He has taken over games, sped them up and slowed them down, as if he were holding the match’s remote control in his hands.

Booker’s skill set was the same as it was in past years. His team was better than it was in past years. He certainly got more attention than he did in past years.

But that’s not the same as saying he was the same player as he was in past years. He was much more efficient, in every sense of the word. And because of that, he elevated his team out of the dumpster as much as his team elevated his reputation.

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