TORONTO -- Devin Booker turned 21 in October. In his third season, the Suns guard is averaging 24.3 points per game. Last week, Booker scored 46 points in a road win over Philadelphia in a game in which he shot 2-for-11 in the first quarter.
"Shooters never stop shooting," Booker said after the win. "I've been living by that motto since I was 3 years old."
The 46 points were his second-highest career total. Last year, Booker became the sixth player in NBA history to score 70 points in a single game. He has improved his scoring average in each of his first three seasons. His steady improvement has caught the attention of the best players in the league.
LeBron James called Booker the most promising young player in the league last year. This summer, Kevin Durant called the Suns guard the next player to look out for. Last week, Kyrie Irving came away impressed as well. "He already has the mentality of being a killer," Irving said. "Now it's just getting the right pieces around him in order to showcase that."
James, Durant, Irving and Shaquille O'Neal are the only four players in NBA history to average more points in a season as a 20-year-old than Booker did last season. But Irving's last point describes the Suns' situation perfectly. Phoenix has Booker -- who is currently sidelined by a groin strain -- and not much else, which is concerning for a franchise that has been rebuilding for almost a decade, having last made the playoffs in 2010.
Since their last postseason appearance, the Suns have watched the three-guard experiment involving Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas fail miserably, while young talents including Alex Len, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender remain question marks for the long-term. Josh Jackson, the fourth overall pick in this year's draft, has shown flashes on the defensive end, but he will need time before he can make an impact. Outside of Booker, years of drafting in the lottery have netted them one other rotation player, T.J. Warren, who signed a four-year, $50 million extension in September and is averaging nearly 20 points per game this season.
This season started out disastrously in Phoenix. The Suns suffered the worst opening night loss in NBA history, falling by 48 points to the Trail Blazers. After starting 0-3, Bledsoe tweeted about his displeasure with the team and was sent home and later traded to Milwaukee. Head coach Earl Watson was fired after three games.
Jared Dudley, a veteran on this team, has stepped up to keep the locker room from splintering. "It's been bumpy at times," Dudley said. "That's why [Tyson Chandler] and I are here, to give a little calmness to the locker room when it's a little hectic. You need a positive outlook. That's crucial because some guys might want to break away from what we're trying to do, but the guys have come together."
On the court, the Suns have relied on Booker. He's among the league leaders with a 29.1 percent usage rate. "Someone who works as hard as him can shoot the shots he shoots because of all the work he puts in," Dudley said. "He knows when to get guys involved, when to take over. He's a three-dimensional player. He can score in the post, mid-range and from three. That's what makes him truly unstoppable right now."
Teammate Tyler Ulis has known Booker since they met in eighth grade. "His confidence on the off the court is through the roof," Ulis said. "You can't tell him nothing. It helps him a lot. It makes his game better honestly. He just goes out there and hoops."
Dudley has challenged Booker to become more of a playmaker this season and average five assists. "I've known he's a scorer," interim head coach Jay Triano said. "We know he can do that, but we also like putting the ball in his hands because he makes plays for other people." So far, Booker is averaging a career-high 4.1 assists this season.
While Booker has led the way on most nights, it has not made them a better team in the standings. The Suns won four of their first five games after Triano took over but have gone 5-15 since. After finishing 28th in defensive efficiency last season, the Suns are last in the league so far this season, allowing 109.5 points per 100 possessions.
On a team that's not going anywhere with a bunch of young players vying for playing time, it's easy for players to develop poor habits. One particular possession against the Celtics last week seemed to encapsulate that, when all five Suns players on the floor seemed to give up on the defensive end, allowing Boston to grab multiple offensive rebounds and eventually convert a 3-pointer. "Reporters don't watch the whole game and they take one clip where our guys were completely gassed and say this is appalling defense," Triano said. "Our defense during that game was actually pretty good. The boys needed a timeout, and I obliged."
Viral clip aside, Dudley, who has been on a few losing teams throughout his 11 year career, knows the toll of losing on younger players and how poor habits can form. "That's one of the reasons I signed here," Dudley said. "I'm here to be honest with the players, about the bad shots, the laziness on defense, the bickering, wanting to play, selfishness, all of those things. We had bad habits early on [this season] but we're slowly cutting those down."
It is on the defensive end where many debate Booker's overall value as a player. The Suns guard has ranked near the bottom of the league in defensive real plus-minus throughout his career. Triano insists things are moving in the right direction.
"The biggest jump he's made in the last 15 games is his attention on the defensive end of the floor," Triano said. "He's bought into what we're trying to do on the defensive end, fighting over screens and communicating."
The improvement of Booker's effort level on defense has not made an overall impact to the team. The Suns are allowing 110.0 points per 100 possessions with Booker on the floor. In their last 15 games, the Suns are allowing 111.6 points per 100 possessions with Booker on the floor.
That's the conundrum facing the Suns. They're counting on Booker to develop into a capable two-way player, but the numbers on the defensive end can be hard to parse when the pieces are simply not there on the roster to construct a league-average defense. The question facing the Suns is whether they'll have a roster that's ready to compliment Booker when he's ready to lead a team out of the bottom of the Western Conference.
It won't be this year. The Suns are going to miss the playoffs for the eighth straight season. Booker is out two to three weeks, but he remains the lone bright spot in an otherwise disappointing season. Phoenix has one of the best young players in the league, and now it just has to figure everything else out.