After monster 51-point performance, Devin Booker emphatically inserts himself into MVP race

On Monday night, Sam Amick of The Athletic asked Devin Booker about the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award — about whether the thought of being recognized as the league’s top player motivated Booker, and about where the 26-year-old saw himself in the race for this year’s trophy.

“No,” Booker said. “I’m not even in that race.”

Booker’s tongue might have been planted firmly in his cheek there; Amick made sure to note that he replied “with a smile.” But if he or anyone else felt that way at the start of the week, I’m betting they don’t anymore. Hanging 51 in three quarters in a blowout win has a way of influencing public perception.

There are words for what Booker did to the Bulls on Wednesday night; few are fit for print in a family-friendly site. The perpetual peskiness of Alex Caruso and Ayo Dosunmu didn’t matter. The strength and length of Patrick Williams and Derrick Jones Jr. didn’t matter. Drop coverage, showing at the level of the screen, tight contests with a hand in his face — none of it mattered.

This was artisanal annihilation, a farm-to-table destruction, the kind of tasting menu of rare delicacies they make documentary series about — a master class in how to create space, move with and without the ball, finish from an array of angles with either hand, and systematically dismantle what entered Wednesday as a top-10 NBA defense. Chicago dropped three spots in a night, thanks largely to the bombs Booker dropped.

Booker didn’t score in the first six minutes of the game, moving the ball away from Chicago’s traps and letting the game come to him; when the Bulls switched things up to avoid getting busted up by Deandre Ayton on the interior, Booker started to go to work. Nine points in the back half of the first; 16 in the second; 26 in the third, staking Phoenix to a 25-point lead that the Bulls wouldn’t really threaten in the final stanza, giving Booker the whole fourth quarter off but robbing fans of the chance to see him try to top the 59 he scored in Utah in 2019 or even the 70 he put up in Boston five years ago. (Booker, for his part, said he didn’t mind the early exit; this time, after all, Phoenix won.)

A torrential downpour of buckets, without an umbrella in sight: 7-for-9 in the paint, 7-for-9 from midrange, 5-for-6 from the foul line, 6-for-7 from 3-point land. Just the seventh player in Stathead’s database to score 50-plus in 31 or fewer minutes; among them, only Joel Embiid did more of his damage inside the arc.

It was, in the words of one pretty reliable evaluator, “F*****' ridiculous.” Which, if you’ve been paying attention, is what Booker’s been all season long.

Despite all of the drama that followed them into the season — the Game 7 disaster against Dallas, Ayton’s seemingly contentious restricted free agency, the Robert Sarver saga, Jae Crowder looking for a trade, the depression of media day — the Suns are once again the class of the West, riding a six-game winning streak to a 15-6 record that tops the conference. They rank second in the NBA in points scored per possession and sixth in points allowed per possession, making them one of just two teams in the top six on both ends, alongside the third-seeded Pelicans.

Just about everything that has made Phoenix arguably the NBA’s best team across the last three seasons — the elite shot-making, the snare-drum-tight defensive rotations, the ball and player movement, the ability to avoid turnovers on offense and create them on defense, the half-court execution, the disciplined floor balance to keep opponents out of transition, all of it — has remained intact this season. Which is interesting, because the Suns themselves haven’t. Chris Paul has now missed more than half of Phoenix’s 21 games nursing a heel injury. Crowder hasn’t played a second, as he seeks a deal out of town; Crowder’s replacement in the starting lineup, Cameron Johnson, hasn’t played in a month since tearing the meniscus in his right knee.

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - NOVEMBER 30: Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns puts up a shot over Alex Caruso #6 of the Chicago Bulls during the first half of the NBA game at Footprint Center on November 30, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Bulls 132-113. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Devin Booker had it all working against the Bulls on Wednesday night. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

And yet, the Suns have spent the first six weeks of the season looking like … well, the Suns. The main reason for that: Booker’s continued ascent from overlooked and underrated to overwhelming and undeniable.

After his 51-point explosion — which itself came on the heels of a 44-point, eight-rebound, six-steal, four-assist symphony to beat a Kings team that’s no longer a sad sack — Booker now sits eighth in the NBA in scoring, averaging a career-high 29 points per game to go with 5.3 rebounds and 5.8 assists a night. Only five players are averaging 29-5-5 this season: Booker, Luka Doncic, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant. Three MVPs and the dude who entered as this season’s favorite; that’s the company Book’s keeping right now. (Add in Jayson Tatum, Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, and you’ve got a pretty good ballpark for the NBA race that Booker, “with a smile,” says he’s not really in.)

Even with Paul off to a slow start before his injury, no one in their right mind would say the Suns are better off without the 37-year-old Point God. It’s fair to say, though, that Phoenix has scarcely skipped a beat without him, going 8-3 with a pair of one-point losses and a top-three offense in his absence. There’s plenty of credit to go around there: Cameron Payne has returned to the ranks of the league’s best backups, drilling threes and setting the table in Paul’s stead; Ayton’s been on a tear, averaging 22 and 14 during Phoenix’s winning streak; and Mikal Bridges continues to improve, flirting with 50-40-90 shooting splits in a larger offensive role while still locking up opponents’ best scorers.

None of it sings, though, if Booker can’t comfortably shoulder even more responsibility while maintaining elite efficiency. Since CP3 went down, Book’s up to 30.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game, with his true shooting percentage, assist rate and turnover percentage all better than they were through the first 10 games. Phoenix has outscored opponents by 6.7 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions when Booker’s on the floor without Paul, according to Cleaning the Glass — just a tick below the Suns’ elite full-season net rating. And when coach Monty Williams has opted to sub Payne out for another wing, shifting Booker to the point, they’ve been even better (in an admittedly small sample): plus-12 per-100, and shooting the lights out.

With Paul out of the lineup and Phoenix down to its third-string power forward most nights, opponents — like Chicago on Wednesday, and Sacramento at times on Monday — have tried to force other Suns to beat them by cranking up the heat on Booker. Only Doncic and Damian Lillard have been blitzed in the pick-and-roll more frequently than Booker thus far this season, according to Second Spectrum. He’s handling that pressure beautifully, patiently leveraging the attention he draws and making the right read to get off the ball early, trusting his teammates to make the next play in the chain to punish the 4-on-3 — a big reason why Booker’s tied for second in the NBA in secondary, or “hockey,” assists, the pass before the pass that leads to a bucket. The Suns are scoring 1.077 points per possession when Booker gets blitzed — 11th out of 35 players to face at least 10 traps this season and a marked improvement over last season, despite the increased volume.

That patience, that processing, that trust — that’s growth, the hard-earned result of countless unseen hours of deliberate and meticulous work. That growth shows up everywhere in Booker’s game now, from the footwork he uses to find an escape angle to the willingness to set off-ball screens knowing they’ll open up juicier looks for teammates to knowing exactly where he’s supposed to be on a weak-side defensive rotation, and making it his business to be there.

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It’s a craft … if not perfected, then damn close to it. It’s how you go from Moss Point to Kentucky, from the late lottery to the All-Star Game, all the way to the All-NBA First Team and fourth place in MVP voting. Whether Booker climbs any higher this season remains to be seen. (There’s a lot of incredible dudes this season.) After 95 points in seven quarters at the helm of the best team in the West, though, two things seem crystal clear. He’s in the race. And his own race is just getting started.