Devin Booker is coming into his own with the Suns
By Marc Stein
With about a week to go before the Phoenix Suns’ first game of the NBA restart in July, Devin Booker was bubbling with confidence. Unruffled by a four-month interruption of his best season as a pro, Booker brushed off a reminder that the Suns held the second-worst record of the 22 teams invited to Walt Disney World.
“I’m ready right now,” Booker said that day. “I’m right there.”
Booker quickly proved it. He had spent the two prior months training with his father, former NBA guard Melvin Booker, at a private gym in Phoenix. He then averaged 30.5 points, 6.0 assists and 4.9 rebounds to lead the Bubble Suns to an 8-0 record in seeding games, leaving them just a half-game shy of bumping the Memphis Grizzlies out of a play-in series with the Portland Trail Blazers for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Phoenix was six games out of the No. 8 slot in the West going into the restart. No one expected the Suns to get as close to the playoffs as they did.
The problem: Phoenix’s two-week surge in the bubble was the most sustained team success for Booker since he jumped to the NBA as the 13th pick in the 2015 draft after one season at Kentucky, where his 38-1 Wildcats were so deep that Booker didn’t start. In the NBA, he has known mostly despair in the desert beyond his individual statistics, a struggle Booker hasn’t denied.
“I always say it’s my toughest adjustment to the NBA — how to deal with the losing and still remaining a leader,” Booker said before his bubble run.
Whether or not Booker and the Suns can finally leave losing behind remains one of the loudest questions in the NBA, but the early signs are promising — especially now that they have Chris Paul. The Suns responded to their bubble breakthrough by trading for the 35-year-old Paul, absorbing the two seasons and nearly $86 million left on his contract. The idea was that Paul’s veteran know-how, combined with Booker’s scoring prowess and Deandre Ayton’s potential as an interior anchor, would give Phoenix the three-star backbone needed to secure a playoff spot in the hypercompetitive West.
While precious little has played out as predicted in the embryonic days of the league’s 75th season — just take a quick scan through the Eastern Conference standings — Phoenix is an exception. The Suns are off to a notable 5-2 start as they try to live up to the billing of a team widely expected to bust out of a 10-year playoff drought.
Booker has had a bumpy start to the season, stumbling to a league-high total of 37 turnovers to sully his robust per-game averages (21.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 4.4 assists). The Suns nonetheless won five of their first six games, earned a top-five defensive rating and responded to their poorest showing with some grit after falling behind the Los Angeles Clippers by 31 points at home Sunday night.
Blowouts have become commonplace across the league during the season’s uneven start, an early oddity widely attributed to most teams’ playing without fans in the arenas to motivate them and an abbreviated training camp and preseason. Headed for another one of those routs after a shoddy first half, Phoenix instead rallied to within one point in the fourth quarter before the Clippers pulled out a 112-107 victory.
Paul has also had some spotty moments offensively as he and Booker work to establish the backcourt chemistry that Booker had with Paul’s predecessor, Ricky Rubio, but the Suns already have the look of a more well-rounded team. The arrival of rugged forward Jae Crowder in free agency, on top of Paul’s leadership, has quickly convinced one veteran scout whose view I trust that these Suns are “the real deal defensively.” Phoenix also has benefited from the continued improvement of defensive specialist Mikal Bridges and sharpshooting Cam Johnson, whose selection at No. 11 overall in the 2019 draft by Minnesota on the Suns’ behalf earned Phoenix serious scorn.
It’s the sort of response Suns coach Monty Williams was hoping for even before he knew that Phoenix would be able to trade for Paul. Williams told me it was his “messed-up coaching mindset” that made him find more good than heartbreak in the Suns’ coming so close to a playoff berth in August before falling short.
“I was glad our players got a chance to experience that kind of success,” Williams said. “But to miss the playoffs by half a game, I was thankful for that, too, because I hope our players understand now that every single game counts.”
Williams’ authoritative presence on the bench, after he coached Paul in New Orleans, was one of the primary lures in persuading Paul to push for the trade that sent him to Phoenix from Oklahoma City in November. Yet Paul insisted recently that the lure of playing beside Booker was just as strong; he scoffed at suggestions that he was brought in to provide all of the guidance.
“I’m not James Naismith, by no means,” Paul said at his introductory Suns news conference, referring to the sport’s inventor.
The reality is that Paul’s outsize personality tends to soak up much of the oxygen in any room or gym he occupies, but Booker’s talent is such that the Suns don’t want him deferring.
Surrounded by more help than he has ever had, Booker will face higher-than-ever expectations. He earned his first All-Star selection last season as an injury replacement chosen by the league after Portland’s Damian Lillard went down.
“I think it’s going to fuel him,” Williams said of Booker’s taste of bubble success. “I hate talking for players, but just knowing him and his competitiveness, I think it’s going to spur him on.
“Book’s a winner,” Williams continued. “He plays winning basketball. He’s got a high IQ. We’ll talk about stuff, and he’s completing my sentences because he knows where I’m going.”
Both coach and player know, though, that Williams’ proclamations can only be validated by the standings. The Suns have the league’s second-longest active playoff drought at 10 seasons and counting, behind only Sacramento’s 14 years in a row, and would be wise not to overreact to two prosperous weeks after the highs and lows of summer camp.
“It’s not an easy league,” Booker said.