On Friday, March 24th, Devin Booker put up a jaw-dropping 70 points as the Phoenix Suns fell to the Boston Celtics 130-120. Booker joins NBA legends Wilt Chamberlain, David Robinson, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant as one of only 8 players to drop more than 65 points in a single game. He set a franchise record for most points scored in a game by a Phoenix Sun and a record for most points scored in the TD Garden. He now also has the record for most points scored by an active NBA player, beating out Carmelo Anthony (62), LeBron James (61), and Klay Thompson (60). The catch: Booker is only 20 years old.
That’s right, Devin Booker currently leads the league in single-game scoring without being able to legally buy alcohol. If Booker had remained with the Kentucky Wildcats and not declared for the NBA draft, he would still be a Junior in college. This is only Booker’s second year in the NBA, and he’s been steadily improving and becoming a star in Phoenix.
Though a 70 point game is an amazing feat, it is not what makes Booker great or makes the Suns future hopeful. There was a decent amount of stat-padding towards the end of the game by Phoenix, with teammates intentionally fouling to get Booker more looks. Celtic’s PG Isaiah Thomas, though clearly more than a little bit salty, was still right when he said “We’re worried about the playoffs. They’re worried about the lottery.”
But “lose and improve” should be the motto for lottery-bound teams like the Suns: tank to get the best draft pick possible while building up young talent to get better. In that respect, the loss to Boston was the best possible outcome as Phoenix increased its chances of receiving a top-3 lottery pick while developing its young talent, and it’s this developing young talent, Booker especially, that should excite Suns fans.
According to bleacher report, the Suns starting 5 is only barely above 21 on average with Ukrainian Alex Len the oldest starter at 23. Marquese Chriss, Derrick Jones Jr., and Tyler Ulis are all in their rookie year while Devin Booker is only a sophomore. During their season opener this year, the Suns were the first NBA team to play three teenage players in one game by playing Booker, Chriss, and now-injured Croatian rookie Dragan Bender.
Despite their youth and inevitable lottery status, the Suns have shown remarkable resolve so far this season, especially since the all-star break. They’ve scored home wins over the Celtics, Thunder, and Raptors while besting the Spurs in Mexico City behind Booker’s 39 points. Lots of this resolve, and many of the Suns few wins this season, come from Booker, who has scored 22.3 PPG (up from 17.9 PPG last season).
However, the biggest problem for the Suns comes from the inexperienced nature of Booker’s supporting cast. Booker has been playing almost 35 minutes a game (up from 28 last season) and his usage rate rose from 23% to 28% while his true shooting percentage has remained around 53%. In short, Booker is scoring more because he has to put in more minutes and is used more on the court not because he is shooting better than last year.
This was largely the case in his record-setting game against Boston: only two of Booker’s teammates had double-digit scoring, with Alex Len and Leandro Barbosa scoring 11 each. Nobody should expect starter-level production from rookies, but when every other starter goes 8 for 22 from the field and cannot drain a single three Booker is forced to put the whole team on his back.
In all likelihood, the Suns will get a top-3 draft pick and select a world-class talent like Kansas’s Josh Jackson. Their young players will improve as they learn to work together and become accustomed to NBA-level basketball, and Booker can continue on the path to becoming a franchise talent. And maybe, with time, the Suns can reclaim the glory that has eluded their recent teams.