In the NBA, elite scorers such as Devin Booker are adding point guard to their résumés

WITH 75 SECONDS remaining in the Phoenix Suns' season opener, Devin Booker had the ball in his hands and the full attention of all five Golden State Warriors defenders. He had been in similar situations plenty of times. This one was different.

This Oct. 24 showdown was, after all, Booker's first game since he shifted to point guard on a permanent basis. It wasn't completely foreign territory; the three-time All-Star had filled that role for stretches of minutes and even for games on many occasions.

Chris Paul, the future Hall of Famer who was the Suns' steady, pass-first pilot during the most successful seasons of Booker's career the previous few years, was now on the other side. Paul had been rerouted to Golden State after the Suns traded him to the Washington Wizards as part of the Bradley Beal blockbuster, and Phoenix opted not to acquire a traditional point guard to replace him.

It's Booker's full-time job now, floor general of a super team with NBA title aspirations. And the first true test of the Suns' high-stakes experiment had arrived late in crunch time inside Chase Center.

"Where a true point guard helps is late down the stretch in games," Booker told ESPN the week before the season began. His words were about to ring true.

The Suns led by one point when center Jusuf Nurkic set a screen for Booker at the top of the key. Golden State big man Kevon Looney showed to prevent the drive while Paul slid into the paint to help on Nurkic's roll to the rim.

Booker made the read and executed beautifully, leaping to create a passing angle, his eyes fixed toward Nurkic until the last split-second before delivering a cross-court dime to Josh Okogie for a wide-open corner 3.

Two free throws by Stephen Curry made it a two-point game ahead of the Suns' next possession. Phoenix ran another pick-and-roll on the right side of the floor, with shooting guard Eric Gordon setting a second screen for Nurkic. As Gordon popped to the right wing and the 7-foot, 290-pound Nurkic began to slowly rumble on his roll, Curry picked up Booker to prevent a drive.

Booker snaked back toward the top of the 3-point arc, presenting a dilemma to Golden State's defense: Leave Gordon alone on the wing or let Nurkic waltz down the lane. Looney picked up Nurkic as Booker zipped a chest pass to Gordon for another wide-open 3. Splash.

Curry responded with a 3, so it was a one-possession game once again when Booker got the ball back. This time, Gary Payton II, Golden State's most tenacious on-ball defender, was in Booker's grill as Nurkic approached a couple of strides over half court. Booker took one hard dribble right before pulling up at the top of the 3-point arc.

Looney sold out to prevent one of the league's premier shooters from getting a good look, but an airborne Booker fired a two-hand pass to Nurkic in the middle of a crowded lane.

Nurkic's layup with 10 seconds left was the dagger, capping a wild sequence -- and Booker's crunch-time clinic. Booker scored 32 points in the win, but he dissected the Warriors with his playmaking, reading the Warriors defense like a seasoned PG.

It affirmed what Booker and the Suns believed heading into 2023-24: He was ready to run point for an elite offense.

The Suns' new lineup strategy makes Phoenix the most extreme example of a league-wide trend of teams veering away from old-school, prototypical point guards and toward explosive scorers as their primary offensive initiators.

Phoenix's front office and new coach Frank Vogel bet on the playmaking ability of the Suns' star trio of Kevin Durant, Beal and Booker, but are leaning particularly on the nine-year veteran.

"I don't want to say it's simple, but you just make the right play," Booker told ESPN about his new role as point guard. "Make the open play."

MIKE D'ANTONI ENTERED his interview for the Houston Rockets' coaching vacancy in 2016 with the mission of convincing then-general manager Daryl Morey that he could maximize James Harden's immense talent.

D'Antoni's plan: Move Harden to point guard, a position the All-Star had never played at any level.

"Why go through 10 seconds of the shot clock or more just to get him the ball [anyway]?" D'Antoni told ESPN recently. "At the end of games when you try to get him the ball, they're overplaying or holding him. If he starts with the ball, then we got the decision-maker with the ball in his hands, which we were going to do anyway.

"So that was the [thought] process, and then obviously you never know how it's going to look. Then James just took it to another level that was beyond my wildest dreams."

Harden was already a superstar and the face of the franchise when D'Antoni arrived in Houston, but his career launched into a different stratosphere while playing for the coach who had revolutionized NBA offense with the "Seven Seconds or Less" Suns.

Steve Nash, an all-time great pass-first point guard, masterfully orchestrated that Phoenix offense, which pioneered the modern pace-and-space style. Nash and D'Antoni share the same significant regret from those days: They wish the Suns would have launched a lot more 3s, especially Nash himself.

Harden definitely didn't need any encouragement to shoot more. D'Antoni tailored his system to Harden's, playing at "James' pace" instead of trying to replicate the Suns' speedy style.

Harden, who had always been a great passer, led the league with 11.2 assists per game in his first season as a point guard and won the next three scoring crowns. In four seasons playing for D'Antoni, Harden averaged 32.4 points and 8.8 assists per game, winning one MVP and finishing second in voting twice and third once.

A big smile broke out underneath Harden's bushy beard when he reminisced about those days after a recent LA Clippers game. He said D'Antoni "messed up the way I think about basketball" and meant it as a massive compliment. So started the trend of elite scorers, often in the forms of wings, assuming point guard responsibilities.

"If you're scoring, scoring, scoring, now the defense has got to adjust to you," Harden told ESPN. "Instead of running pinaways or stagger screens or all that ... we've got 17 seconds to make a play and move the ball instead of running around getting into the set -- guys running all over the goddamn place ... It's just easier, it's smoother, it's faster.

"A lot of coaches aren't going to like it, because they can't control or they don't feel like they're coaching. But in a sense, you are coaching because when you got a player like that, you've got to let them just be free and let them dictate the game."

Half of the league's top 20 scorers play point guard, led by 6-foot-7 Dallas Mavericks' superstar Luka Doncic, whose 32.7 points per game rank second. (Booker isn't included in that group despite averaging 28.1 points per game because a series of injuries have prevented him from playing enough games to be an official qualifier.)

"You can't even really use the words 'true point guard' anymore," Portland Trail Blazers coach Chauncey Billups, a five-time All-Star and Finals MVP point guard, told ESPN. "Unless you're our age, you don't even know what that means. It's all really 'lead guard' now, just having a guy that can do multiple things. But it's changed so much."

Coaches cite a variety of reasons for the evolution of the point guard position. D'Antoni, now a consultant for the New Orleans Pelicans, mentioned the "Don Nelson theory," crediting the NBA's second all-time winningest coach's vision of playing five similarly sized, multiskilled players for starting the league's "positionless" movement. The league has also leaned into analytics, which have especially influenced shot profiles while bumping up usage rates for many of the most effective and efficient creators.

"Setting the table is different now," Mavericks coach Jason Kidd, a Hall of Fame point guard who ranks second all-time in assists, told ESPN. "In this league, you look at the point guards and they can all score. There are some that still pass it, but the point guard position has changed. Point guards are scorers now."

As Harden referenced, part of the point guard scoring boom has been coaches calling fewer plays and giving their stars more control. Coaching offense in the NBA has become more about creating concepts and spacing instead of signaling in plays from the sideline.

"There's a lot more pick-and-roll, a lot more isolation off the dribble," Kidd said. "For us a long time ago, it was a lot more play-driven, getting the ball closer to the basket. If you had a Patrick Ewing at center, the 3s weren't taken like they are today."

As a result, NBA offensive systems from team to team are more similar than they were in decades past. That might make it easier to game plan on a night-to-night basis, but it's more difficult than ever to defend.

The NBA record for team offensive efficiency has been broken in four of the previous five seasons -- by Curry's Warriors, Doncic's Mavericks, Harden's Brooklyn Nets and De'Aaron Fox's Sacramento Kings.

Five teams are on pace to break it again this season: the Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Atlanta Hawks and Mavericks. The top two offenses are run by a pair of blossoming superstars in Indiana's Tyrese Haliburton and Philadelphia's Tyrese Maxey, who are lighting it up as point guards after entering the league as shooting guards. All five offenses on record pace feature point guards who are elite scorers.

"You're not looking for necessarily a quarterback anymore," Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford, whose 6-foot-8 point guard LaMelo Ball averages 24.7 points per game, said in early November.

"You're looking for a guy who can make shots and create shots."

ALL CERTAINLY HAS not gone as planned for the Suns this season. Phoenix planned for Beal, a three-time All-Star who has twice averaged more than 30 points per game, to share some of the point guard duties with Booker. But they hadn't played a possession together until Tuesday night's win over the Warriors.

Back problems limited Beal to only three appearances in the first seven weeks of the season, and Booker was out for those few games. (Booker has been sidelined a total of nine games this season due to toe, calf and ankle injuries.)

The three stars made their first appearance as a trio in Wednesday's loss to the Nets, when Durant returned from an ankle injury. Then Beal sprained his ankle early in Friday's loss to the New York Knicks, an injury that is likely to sideline him until the new year.

It's been a bumpy road for the Suns with their stars in and out of the lineup, a factor in Phoenix losing six of eight games before Sunday's comeback win over the Wizards.

Nevertheless, bumping Booker to the lead guard has been a resounding early success.

Booker is putting up the best numbers of his career, averaging personal bests in scoring and assists (8.3, which would rank sixth in the league, right above Harden and Paul). His true shooting percentage (.610) is a shade below his career high. Phoenix is 11-6 with Booker in the lineup and has produced 120.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. And they hope and anticipate that the best will come once Beal can get healthy and find a rhythm.

"I don't think there's any challenges," Booker told ESPN about blending Beal into the mix alongside him and Durant.

"Even when we were on our own teams, we still had the ability to make the right play," Booker said. "We've all seen those type of defenses where we understand that getting off the ball early when you get doubled is sometimes the right play. ... So we should all be getting the easiest looks of our career."

There are also possessions, as Durant pointed out, that no pass is necessary, which has been made clear for Booker.

"When you got a player that's as efficient as Book, it's cool to come down and not pass the ball," Durant, the Suns' leading scorer at 30.6 points per game, said during the preseason. "So it's a good shot when, if you come off a pick and the guy's in a drop, it's a wide-open shot for you. We don't have to have a pass."

On one memorable occasion, during the final moments of a tied game between the Suns and the Knicks in Madison Square Garden on Nov. 26, Booker passed.

With Durant out due to foot soreness, Booker was blitzed by double-teams all game, allowing him to dish out 11 assists. And with the game on the line, he knew another one was coming.

Booker gave the ball up with a little more than eight seconds on the clock, passing to Jordan Goodwin on the right wing.

In this instance, unlike in the season opener, when he delivered the series of clutch assists, Booker wasn't attempting to set up a teammate. He gave the ball up with the full intention of getting it back with just a bit of breathing room.

Booker darted toward Goodwin, who delivered a dribble handoff. After two hard dribbles to his right, Booker had just enough space on the right wing to rise up for the final 3 of the game over two defenders.

Once again, the Suns' point guard figured out a way to win in crunch time.

This is how the Suns expected Booker to adapt to the three-time All-Star's increased responsibilities. Vogel, who won a title with the Los Angeles Lakers after declaring that LeBron James was the team's point guard, presented a clear vision for Booker's transition to point guard. "I want him to kill mode first, but also just to have a feel for the flow of the game and his teammates," Vogel told ESPN.

The Suns aren't surprised that Booker's transition has been so smooth, aside from injury interruptions. He's been confident and comfortable, and Booker believes he'll only get better with experience.

"I'm learning. I'm still learning," Booker told ESPN after his winner against the Knicks. "I've played [point guard] in spots, but I haven't been in this position primarily through the whole game. But it's fun learning a new aspect of the game."