Devin Booker managed to play only four minutes in the Phoenix Suns’ Christmas Day loss to the Denver Nuggets due to a lingering groin injury and it was just revealed that his recovery will take at least a month.
Booker already missed five of Phoenix’s seven games leading up to Christmas and the Suns have struggled to adjust in his absence. Phoenix has dropped 6 of its last 10 games and they have dropped to fifth place in the Western Conference with a 20-16 record. This is unfamiliar territory for this team that finished second in the West two seasons ago and topped the regular season standings last year with a 64-18 record.
The absence of Landry Shamet, Booker’s primary back-up, in their last two outings has further complicated matters. Shamet scored 31 points in two of the last three games that he appeared in and the Suns will need him to recover quickly from his bout of Achilles soreness.
Without Booker and Shamet, Phoenix has filled their void at shooting guard by committee. Back-up center Jock Landale was inserted into the starting line-up which slid Mikal Bridges and Torrey Craig down by a position. Reserves Damion Lee, Josh Okogie, and Ish Wainright have all been pushed into the rotation as they have taken turns filling the hole left by the absence of Booker and Shamet.
It is difficult to expect these career journeymen to replace the production of Booker and the more realistic solution for the Suns is to increase the workload of Bridge and DeAndre Ayton.
Bridges, now in his fifth year in the NBA, has continued his streak of increasing his scoring average in each season. Typically a catch-and-shoot player, he has had to create his own shot more often this season. His per-game statistics of 15.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 4.6 assists are all career-highs, but Phoenix will need even more from him if they want to keep afloat in this next month without Booker.
The increased responsibilities on offense have taken a toll on Bridges’ shooting numbers, as his 46.3% field goal shooting is his lowest mark since his rookie year, though this should climb back up as he grows acclimated to his more central role.
However, the injury of Booker has opened up the biggest opportunity for the 24-year-old Ayton. The Suns’ starting center has craved for a larger role on this team and he can prove himself over these next few weeks. He has proven that he is capable of putting up gaudy statlines, like in their most recent 127-102 loss to the Washington Wizards where he recorded 31 points, seven rebounds, three assists, and two steals.
The biggest challenge for Ayton though is, and has always been, consistency. So far in his five-year career, he seems to alternate great and subpar showings on what feels like a nightly basis. Phoenix will need him to play more often like the dominant force that they expected him to be when they picked him first overall in the 2018 NBA Draft ahead of Luka Doncic.
The Suns will need to tread carefully over these next few weeks as they only lead the 10th place Golden State Warriors by 2.5 games for the last play-in spot. The Minnesota Timberwolves, currently the 11th seed, are only a game behind the Warriors as well and could be a threat to the top 10 teams, especially once Karl-Anthony Towns returns from a calf strain in these next few weeks.
Bridges and Ayton have a prime chance to make a name for themselves in Booker’s absence and the league, particularly their Western Conference rivals, will be closely watching to see whether or not they are up for the challenge.