1) Devin Booker looks like a star
In a season where pretty much everything has gone wrong, the play of Devin Booker has been the lone bright spot for the Suns. The No. 14 pick in the 2015 draft already looks like a major steal - he has had a great rookie season and he put on an impressive performance in Dallas tonight. Booker had 19 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists on 15 shots and he was their best player on Sunday. He can do a little bit of everything on a basketball court and he was absolutely crucial in the Suns being able to stick in to the very end in this one - Booker was -6 in 41 minutes while every other starter was at least -14.
Maybe the most impressive part about the way he plays is how under control he is out there. The game doesn't look too fast for him and he already looks like he belongs even though he's the youngest player in the league - he turned 19 at the end of October. The comparison between him and fellow Kentucky one-and-done Archie Goodwin is telling. Goodwin is 21 years old and has been in the league 3 seasons and he still looks like he doesn't know what's going on half the time. Speed and athleticism isn't the end-all be-all on the perimeter, even at the NBA level. Booker gets to places going 70 that Goodwin doesn't get to going 100 because he knows where he's going and he's not driving blind.
That's not to say that he doesn't make a lot of rookie mistakes. Booker was a shooting specialist at Kentucky and the rash of injuries at PG has him running point and initiating the offense for large stretches of the game for Phoenix, which is inevitably going to create growing pains. Booker had 4 turnovers on Sunday and a lot of them were of the rookie variety - throwing the ball over guy's heads and forcing passes in traffic. Goodwin had a bunch of young player mistakes too (3 TO's) but the difference is that he didn't have any assists to make up for them.
Playing Booker at PG is really a win-win for Phoenix. He gets a lot of valuable reps as a primary ball-handler and gains experience as a playmaker and an offensive initiator while also helping them rack up more lottery balls. It's a lot like what happened with Zach LaVine in Minnesota last season. Booker and LaVine are fairly dissimilar players but there are more than a few similarities in the early part of their careers - they were both freshmen who came off the bench in their only season in college and declared for the draft despite not putting up the type of per-game numbers that you would normally expect out of a one-and-done guy. They were both late lottery picks and they both look like value picks already, which shows the importance of scouting even in our stats-heavy age. Minnesota under Flip Saunders and Phoenix under Ryan McDonough have been two of the sharpest scouting FO's in the league over the last few seasons.
What you have to do is look beyond a prospect's stats and look at their skill-set and the context in which they played at the NCAA level. LaVine was backing up another first-round pick (Jordan Adams) at UCLA while Booker was the 4rth guard behind 3 primary ball-handlers at Kentucky (The Harrisons and Tyler Ulis). You can't blame Steve Alford for not benching Adams, who was a monster at the NCAA level, but it's hard to watch Booker ball out like this in the NBA and not wonder what would have happened if Cal had played him and Ulis in the 2nd half of their loss to Wisconsin in the Final Four. That Kentucky team had the talent to be an all-time great NCAA team and Cal left a 40-0 season on the table thanks to his loyalty to the Harrisons. I get the feeling that people are going to look back in 5 years and wonder how an NCAA team with Karl Towns, Trey Lyles and Devin Booker ever lost a game.
2) The returns on Archie Goodwin aren't as promising
This is a do-or-die season for Goodwin, whose getting his first real playing time of his NBA career, and he's kind of dying on the vine right now. You never want to take too much away from one game because Goodwin might have had the worst game of his career on Sunday - 3 points on 1-11 shooting, 0 assists on 3 turnovers, 1 steal and 4 rebounds and -16 in 36 minutes - but it's still an open question whether his game can translate to the this level and what would be his best role on an NBA team.
He came into the league with the question of whether he could distribute the ball enough to be a PG or shoot the ball well enough to be a SG. Three years later, it's the same problem. He's shooting 25.7% from 3 and his assist-to-turnover ratio (1.6:1.4) is barely in the positive. He doesn't shoot the ball well enough to play off the ball and he doesn't make good enough decisions to where you want him playing with the ball in his hands. He also doesn't appear to have put much weight on his body in 3 seasons as a pro - he still looks incredibly slight in comparison to NBA guards and it makes it difficult for him to fully utilize his athleticism. Goodwin missed a ton of shots at the rim on Sunday and it seemed like he was afraid of making contact. The bottom line about a guy with his skill-set is that he needs to be an overwhelming athlete that can dominate the area around the rim - think a starter version of Will Barton - and that isn't happening right now.
The one thing you have to keep in mind with Goodwin is how incredibly young he still is. He's a lot like Booker in that he was crazy young for his draft class and he came into the league as an 18-year old. He's still only 21 and he's younger than a lot of the top prospects (guys like Kris Dunn and Buddy Hield) in this year's draft. The question I have is whether he would have been better off staying in school and playing 35+ minutes a night on one of the best teams in the country over the last 3 seasons. It's hard to believe he wouldn't be farther along than he is today.
3) Jordan McRae could be a player
The Suns signed McRae to a 10-day contract earlier this week and it looks like he's well on his way to earning a guaranteed contract. He actually has a fairly similar skill-set to Goodwin - at 6'5 180 with a 7'0 wingspan, McRae is a plus athlete with long arms and a spindly frame who can slide between either guard position on defense but doesn't have a defined role on the offensive end of the floor. The questions about McRae are whether he can be a consistent 3-point shooter and a good decision-maker at the NBA level and whether he can be a good defensive player despite giving up a lot of weight to the guys he will be guarding. It's the exact same profile as Goodwin except McRae is older, more mature and has longer arms.
This is something I was wondering watching this game. McRae was a 21-year old junior at Tennessee during Goodwin's freshman season at Kentucky and he was clearly the better player of the two at the time. Is there any reason to believe that Goodwin has overtaken him at any point in the last 3 years? Here's a look at their D-League stats this season:
McRae: 23.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 5.2 assists on 4,0 turnovers, 1.7 steals on 45/31/78 shooting
Goodwin: 22.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists on 2,5 turnovers, 1.8 steals on 44/27/67 shooting
They are basically the same player except Goodwin is 3 years younger so he should theoretically have a higher ceiling. The problem is that McRae has always been a better shooter and that's not something that just magically develops over time. It does happen every once in a while but Goodwin has shown no indication that it's going to happen for him.
The point is that McRae has a chance to be a good NBA player and he's exactly the type of player that a team going nowhere like the Suns should try out. The Nets came into Dallas on Friday and I'm wondering why they don't have 2-3 promising D-League guys like McRae in their rotation. What are they waiting for exactly? I think we all have a pretty good idea of what Andrea Bargnani and Thomas Robinson are about at this point.
4) Alex Len should be getting Tyson Chandler's minutes
Alex Len looked pretty good in the limited amount of minutes that he got on Sunday - 6 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks on 2-2 shooting and +4 (the second highest on the team behind McRae at +8) in 15 minutes. He bullied Salah Mejri at the rim and he got around JaVale McGee in the post. He's long, he's skilled, he's reasonably athletic for a guy with his size (7'1 260 with a 7'3 wingspan) and he's versatile - he can beat you in the post, rolling to the rim or stepping out for a mid-range jumper. The Suns need to find out what exactly he can be and this is as a good a time as any to run him out there for an extended look.
The problem is that they just gave a max contract to a 33-year old C in the midst of the decline stage of his career who doesn't have any PG's who can throw him lobs or enough floor spacing to really be active around the rim. I love Tyson but the Tyson Chandler to Phoenix experiment was pretty much dead on arrival and now they are caught in a terrible position where he is blocking a Top 5 pick and turning him into a 15 minute a guy (since the two can't play together) and it's pretty much impossible for him to be effective given the constraints of the rest of the roster so there's no way to trade him considering how big his contract is. I don't know what they are going to do with Tyson but it almost doesn't even matter. The next time they are going to be a good team, it's going to be with Alex Len at C. They can't buy out Tyson, they can't trade him and they can't play him. It's tough.
5) There's a similar dynamic brewing with Booker and the Suns 2 PG's
Booker is a 19-year old whose good enough to be a starter in the NBA so he needs to be starting on a team as bad as the Suns. The problem is what are they going to do next season? You don't want to start Booker at the 3 because he would be undersized for the position, he has pretty short arms and he's not a plus athlete. He would be killed on defense and it would be a lot to ask of such a young player. The problem is that you can't play Brandon Knight or Eric Bledsoe at the SF spot either and they have committed over $150 million plus to that backcourt.
It's the same thing with Tyson. Knight just got a max contract and Bledsoe is coming off a serious knee injury so how can you trade either guy? Essentially, the Suns have committed to max contracts to two guys (Tyson and Knight) who don't really help them win now in order that they block the two most promising young players on the roster. It's a tire fire of the highest order. In the 3 years that Ryan McDonough has been in charge in Phoenix, they have been really good at drafting players. Everything else has been pretty questionable. That's what makes the Knight trade so tough - they gave up a potential Top 5 pick and Isaiah Thomas on a great contract in order to give Knight a max deal. This is not a great draft but I'm pretty sure McDonough still would have been able to turn two Top 5 picks into something interesting. At least a lot more interesting than this current roster.