There’s something interesting that happens with the brain that feels the need to compare everything. We do it in everyday life, comparing ourselves on social media to the next person, how beautiful or ugly we are compared to some celebrity, and how much money or lack of financial stability we have compared to this other person. When it comes to art, we feel the need to create lists, rankings, reviews, rotten tomato meters, and anything that can give us an indication and help us compare one thing to another.
I’m not a neurologist, nor do I have a degree in medicine or anything even remotely close but my general guess is that comparing things helps provide a level of comfort. It’s a way for our brains to rationalize what we’re seeing and what we’re feeling. In that sense, comparisons, for some, help provide us with a level of understanding.
But also, a comparison is the thief of joy.
So often in sports, and primarily in professional basketball, whenever a player is performing in a miraculous way, having an out-of-body experience, our first reaction is to begin to compare them to their predecessors. “Is he greater than X player? Which player would you take right now? Is Devin Booker finally a top-10 player? Stephen A. Smith Calls Devin Booker ‘Light Skin Mamba'”.
And while it helps the average basketball fan and average Suns fan feel comfortable with what they’re watching, and feel excited for how absolutely dominant Booker has been in the 2023 Playoffs — it’s all extremely surface-level. Above that, it uses Booker as some sort of beacon device, reaching out and attaching his name and his likeness to other current and former players as a way to not only fuel discussion in a rudimentary way but to also create engagement.
I’m guilty of this — but so are we all. We can’t help ourselves because it feels like in order to lift up a certain player we must tear down another — we must compare.
It becomes exhausting, to be honest with you. But I understand the need for it. I understand why the brain must rationalize to itself that what it’s watching is in fact greatness. What Booker is currently doing is greatness. So I just want to appreciate what Booker is doing as it is.
Let’s get these comparisons out of the way first.
- Booker is currently averaging a league-leading 36.8 points per game in the post-season, shooting a miraculous 65% on 2-point field goal attempts, 51% on 3-point shots, and 87% from the free throw line.
The list of players to do that ever in NBA history? One. Booker.
- Booker has shot 34 of 43 (79.1%) over his last 2 games against the Denver Nuggets — that’s the highest field-goal percentage in a 2-game span in NBA history by a player 6’5 or shorter.
- Among all players in NBA history who have played at least 8 games (at least 2 rounds of basketball), Booker’s 36.8 points per game is the 4th highest in history and the most since Jerry West averaged 40.6 in the 1965 playoffs.
- Other than Booker, no player in NBA history has averaged 30+ points on over 70% true shooting, the closest was Kawhi Leonard in the 2020-2021 post-season who averaged 30 points on 68% true shooting.
- Booker and 1998 Shaquille O’Neal are the only 2 players in history to average 30+ points on over 61% shooting from the field, but Booker is averaging nearly 7 more points per game than O’Neal did back then and doing so slightly more efficiently (61.7% compared to 61.2%)
- Booker has attempted only 6 free throws per game. Only Steph Curry and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have averaged over 30+ points on fewer free throw attempts.
- There have been 5 players in NBA history who have averaged over 30+ points and shot over 51% from behind the arc: Booker, Donovan Mitchell, Reggie Miller, Kawhi Leonard, and Michael Jordan. But what sticks out is Booker is doing it across the longest stretch (9 games) and doing it on the 2nd most attempts (only 2nd to Mitchell).
Does that mean that Booker is better than Michael Jordan? Or that he’s a better inside finisher than Shaq? Does it mean he’s more elite than Jerry West or Steph Curry or Kareem?
No, it doesn’t mean any of that. It means that Devin Booker is Devin Booker. And we should all appreciate that as it is.
What is a more interesting and compelling conversation is how Booker is doing this.
That is Booker’s shot chart for the 2023 Playoffs. It’s an absurdity to see efficiency like that, across virtually all areas of the floor. He is an absolute flame-thrower right now.
First and foremost, he has been relentless at attacking the basket. As you can see, he’s shooting 74% in the restricted area and doing so on ridiculously high volume. 10 players this post-season have averaged more than 16 drives per game, Booker is shooting 7% higher than the 2nd best, finishing on 63% of his field goals when he drives. He’s getting downhill, turning the corner against any type of defensive coverage, and finishing over the top of the backline defense.
What helps is how much the Suns have been running since Chris Paul has been hurt. The Suns scored 43 combined fastbreak points in their 2 games without Paul in Phoenix and a large part of that has been Booker, who’s generating a whopping 1.61 points per transition possession through 9 games in the playoffs.
This allows him to not have to face a set defense, instead working off a scrambling defense that is trying its best to contain two of the best mid-range scorers the game has seen in Booker and Durant. And while Jokic can make himself big and imposing in the interior, it hasn’t mattered that much, whether it be in the halfcourt where Booker will barrell right to the rim and especially doesn’t matter in transition when Jokic is late to get back.
There is a concerted effort across the team to get out in transition and score — this is the gameplan and they’re executing it perfectly.
Watch: Jokic miss, Suns rebound, “Where’s Book?”, fill your lane, prosper. (Excellent seal in transition by Ayton, by the way)
If you successfully wall him off in transition? Well, Booker can just rise up and hit this jumper from the long mid-range area where he’s shooting 59% from the field.
And even when it’s in a half-court setting, even when the Nuggets have shaded him, thrown 2 defenders at him — it hasn’t mattered much.
Here, the Suns run a Spain PnR — the Nuggets completely help off of Durant (wow) and make Gordon chase after Book for the rear-side contest. The result? No problem. Running bank shot off the glass, calmly.
The scoring itself has been ludicrous. The degree to which the defense has not phased him is even more ridiculous. But perhaps even more important is how Booker is using the added attention to completely dissect the Nuggets’ defense as a playmaker.
For years, Booker has been crafting his game as a passer — learning the intricacies of every type of defensive coverage and figuring out how to bend opposing defenses to his will.
And now, he’s just being flat-out surgical.
Booker is averaging nearly 9 assists and an assist percentage of over 34% in this series, creating for his teammates off of isolations, ball screens, empty-side actions, second-side actions, and the whole nine.
It all comes down to his gravity as a scorer. The Nuggets are legitimately terrified of him having the ball. And he’s made the most of it.
Side pick-n-roll with Durant on the strong side, Jokic shows high on the screen, Ayton slips and it’s an easy layup.
Another Spain action here, with Durant involved as a screener this time — which makes things even more unstoppable — and Booker finds Ayton rolling to the basket again. The East-West nature of this action (forcing the Nuggets to defend laterally rather than on multiple levels) forces the Nuggets’ backline defenders to deal with the tough task of picking their poison.
And if the Nuggets start trapping him? Well, good luck, that just means one of his teammates is open.
It’s gotten to the point where Booker is commanding the Nuggets’ defense to get the shot he wants for his teammates. It’s a big reason why Landry Shamet went off for 17 points last night because the Nuggets said they were willing to sacrifice that shot — and Booker was willing to find it — and Shamet made them pay.
Watch how he waits for the double to come, knowing exactly how the rest of the Nuggets’ defense would rotate over to help on Durant and find Shamet wide open in the corner.
It really hasn’t mattered what the Nuggets have tried to throw Booker’s way, he’s answered.
Does his mid-range game and manipulation have remnants of Kobe? Sure. Is the tough shot-making and unbelievable transition game reminiscent of a young Mamba? Okay, great. I’m sure Booker himself will tell you how grateful he is to be even mentioned in the same breath as Kobe.
But we don’t need that to appreciate what he’s doing right now.
Greatness is fleeting. So often we tend to appreciate it after the fact. We’re never able to smell our roses while they’re here. Such is true in life and in basketball.
Some see comparisons as a way to praise whatever it is we’re discussing. By mentioning Kobe or Jordan or whoever alongside Booker, you’re putting him in an elite category.
But it’s actually doing the opposite. We’re taking away from his own individual greatness by consistently using players of the past as a measuring stick.
Instead of appreciating we’re stuck comparing.
You don’t need Kobe or Jordan or LeBron to tell you that what Devin Booker is doing is great. His greatness is personified already, in a new way, in a new form, re-invented, and re-designed.
Basketball has a beautiful way of evolving. The game, its players, and the coaches consistently take from the past, they use their own imagination and adopt new ways to redefine the game.
Booker is a part of that process currently. He is an evolution. But that doesn’t mean we have to consistently compare that evolution in order to understand it.
Just appreciate Devin Booker for being Devin Booker.
Because he’s great all by himself.