Booker hails from Newberry, South Carolina, where basketball was a significant part of his childhood. His mother and brother both value the sport greatly, and his brother plays professionally overseas to this day. Booker was the Gatorade Player of the Year for South Carolina after posting astounding numbers his senior year in high school (21.9 points, 16.4 boards per contest).
He decided to stay local for college, ultimately choosing to attend Clemson University in South Carolina. Playing under Oliver Purnell for four years, he garnered a reputation for being one of the most hardworking players in college basketball. Despite putting up mediocre numbers for the Tigers, Booker still managed to be named to the All-ACC First Team and was among dozens of players who would go on to play professionally.
Despite being projected as a second-round pick leading up to the 2010 NBA Draft, the Minnesota Timberwolves saw enough to select Booker with the 23rd pick. He was subsequently dealt to the Washington Wizards, where he would ultimately spend four seasons.
Playing next to his draft classes’ number one pick, John Wall, Booker converted upon many easy buckets his rookie season. He shot over 53 percent from the field during his first two seasons in the league. As a result, Flip Saunders opted to give Booker increasing minutes over that time span as well.
Booker would spend two more seasons in Washington, followed by two seasons playing for a youthful Utah Jazz team. In the years leading up to his signing with the Nets, he established himself as an above average, energy, big man off the bench.
Booker excelled in this role for many years. However, he only started seven out of his last 158 games before inking a deal with the Nets. Perhaps this played a factor in his decision to go to a team that was beginning a rebuild. Of course, a near $5 million pay raise was likely a big pull factor to the Nets as well. Booker still left his long-term options open, as he agreed to a two-year contract with the Nets.
Positives From Booker’s First Season in Brooklyn
Booker had the most productive season of his career playing under Kenny Atkinson and the Nets’ coaching staff last season. He put up career-highs across the board and logged more minutes than during the 2015-16 season, despite participating in fewer games. Even though he failed to lock down the coveted starting power forward spot, he still managed to be effective while attempting to expand his game on both ends of the court.
On a team that was first in the NBA in defensive boards per contest, Booker was undeniably the most ferocious glass eater. With rebounding being his most valuable trait, Booker became a fantastic fit next to the dearly departed Brook Lopez.
Perhaps Booker’s biggest positive from last season was that he complimented Brooklyn’s biggest offensive weapon (Lopez) perfectly. He was sneakily everything Thaddeus Young had meant to the Nets, despite posting poorer numbers.
It’s no secret the Nets needed a replacement at power forward when free agency began in 2016. When Sean Marks inked Booker to a contract, he instantly took on the job that every power forward for the Nets over the previous nine seasons had: fitting with Lopez’s unique skill-set.
Booker came into last season with the pressure of living up to Young, who had been a great front-court partner next to Lopez for the previous season and a half. He was athletic, rebounded well, hustled and played exceptional defense. Booker managed to do all of these things at nearly half the price.
The one glaring difference in Young and Booker’s Nets careers is their respective scoring numbers. Young averaged around five more points per game than Booker in his only full season as a Net. However, when paired with one of the most dominant interior offensive forces in the NBA, scoring is toward the bottom of the list of valued traits.
Booker Provided Fiery Energy and Rebounding Abilities
The key for playing next to Lopez is, rather, making up for his deficiencies. Booker certainly made up for Lopez’s lack of speed, athleticism and most importantly, rebounding. The 6-foot-8 forward averaged eight rebounds per game and 11.7 boards per 36 minutes. His per 36 minute rebounding stat ranked in the top 20 among power forwards who played in at least 70 games. That stat also ranks higher than DeMarcus Cousins, Tristan Thompson and Nerlens Noel’s rebounding average per 36 minutes.
His tenacious rebounding, combined with a feathery touch around the rim, allowed Booker to produce numerous double-doubles. He had the ninth most double-doubles among power forwards last season (16), which put him in the same category as several players who are notorious for notching double-doubles.
Booker should also be commended for demonstrating superb heart and energy on the court, which resulted in many positive outcomes. Because of this attitude, he played an important role in helping his teammates and the fan base get through last season’s tough losses.
His energy and to a lesser extent, rebounding abilities, helped him become an extremely efficient player around the hoop. Booker converted 61.4 percent of shots from five feet or less. Considering most of his attempts from that range were against taller defenders in the paint, this percentage is exceptional. A number of his 254 made field goals from nine feet away from the hoop or closer were no doubt a result of fighting for rebounds, or generating an extra possession. These types of possessions instill a gritty work ethic among other players and encourage the whole team to never give up on a play. There is perhaps no better sentiment than this one that describes Booker’s value to the Nets last season.
Negatives From Booker’s First Season in Brooklyn
Booker’s biggest weakness was unfortunately also a big reason why he was initially drawn to Brooklyn. He undeniably experimented with his game throughout the season. While some good came out of this mindset, other trials were ultimately to his detriment.
The South Carolina native attempted to expand his range under Atkinson last season. However, this statement can be applied to any Net who had limited range before last season. He attempted 104 shots from 15 to 24 feet away from the hoop, which is nearly 40 more than the previous season when he played in Utah (despite playing in eight fewer games). While this increased aggressiveness shooting-wise was likely encouraged by the Nets’ coaching staff, there was one glaring issue. His percentage of made shots from this range hovered around 30 percent both seasons, which makes it hard to justify letting him continue to shoot a large volume of jumpers.
His shooting numbers from long range are indicative of the Nets’ team 3-point shooting stats. Compared to how many 3s he traditionally shot, Booker attempted dozens more last season. Yet, his overall 3-point percentage was the third lowest of any rotation player.
Booker had a tendency to play a bit out of control at times last season. In addition to attempting to expand his range, it seems as though Booker also tried to add another skill to his game: running the fast break. Once in a blue moon, fast breaks ran by Booker resulted in this:
Yet, more often than that, he had no such luck. While Booker can be very explosive when attacking the rim, his ball-handling skills leave something to be desired. As the season rolled on, Atkinson tightened the leash on some aspects of Booker’s game, including running the fast break. This is a type of play that should only be used in obvious situations, such as when he has a wide-open lane to the hoop. Any plays that involve Booker attempting to create offense on a crowded fast break should be discouraged, as it oftentimes results in chaos.
Booker’s Future as a Net
Booker’s future in Brooklyn is unstable, to say the least. Many of my previous player previews have been fairly straightforward in the sense that each player is destined to be a Net for the foreseeable future. Booker, on the other hand, is arguably the Net who is most likely to be traded before the season starts.
Booker is 29 years old, and if last season was any indication, he will not be improving much for the rest of his career. He is what he is: an energy big man off the bench who will give maximum effort every night. With this sentiment in mind, the former Clemson Tiger should not be untouchable by any means. There is likely a trade market for him between now and February.
Decently sized, expiring contracts are always valued on the trade market. With respect to Lopez’s outstanding ability to put the ball in the basket is evident, his $21 million expiring contract was a big reason why the Lakers ultimately dealt D’Angelo Russell to the Nets. One of the biggest assets Los Angeles received in that trade was cap space. The Lakers’ front office likely plans on making a splash in free agency next summer, and to do this, trading Russell was the cost.
In a day and age where a dozen or more teams will have little short-term cap flexibility, having a $9 million expiring salary is valuable. However, a potential trade partner would not only receive cap flexibility but a capable big man off the bench as well. To use Bill Simmons’ “could you see him in a playoff series” criteria, Booker would easily be able to give 15 to 20 productive, high-energy minutes off the bench for a contender or borderline playoff team. This would be contingent upon Booker playing to his strengths.
Potential Trades Involving Booker
One possible trade partner in a potential Booker deal could be the Memphis Grizzlies. JaMychal Green is a name who has been connected to the Nets for quite some time now. Perhaps a sign-and-trade involving Green going to the Nets and Booker heading to Memphis could be worked out. Marks would get one of his preferred targets and another stretch big, while the Grizzlies would receive more support up front and a short-term Zach Randolph replacement.
The Houston Rockets could be another potential trade partner. Given Ryan Anderson’s shaky injury history and lack of depth up front, James Harden and company could be due for insurance at that spot if the team plans on making a deep playoff run. A heavily protected first-round pick, or multiple second-rounders and a young prospect (Zhou Qi or Troy Williams) for Booker should be considered by Marks.
If the Nets continue adding talent that could be of use when the team is relevant again, then trading Booker before his contract expires would be a logical move. Of course, there is always the option of extending his contract for the long-term. If the front office chooses to go this route, they must realize by the time the Nets are a playoff team again, Booker will be close to retirement. It would be wise for Marks to get whatever long-term value he can for Booker before his value diminishes.