[best two player games]’Old soul’ Devin Booker comes of age in helping to lead Phoenix Suns to the NBA Finals
2021-08-21 01:45:40

  For subscribersMark Medina, USA TODAYPublished

  11:19 am UTC Jul. 3, 2021

  Updated

  2:54 pm UTC Jul. 3, 2021

  Technically, the Phoenix Suns’ young star has played only six seasons in the NBA. Those around the organization, however, says it seems as if Devin Booker has played much longer.

  “He’s the oldest 24-year-old I ever met in my life,” Suns guard Chris Paul mused. “He knows the game. He watches every game every night, just like me.”

  Just like Paul, Booker played a significant factor in the Suns advancing to their first NBA Finals since 1993. The Suns will play either the Atlanta Hawks or the Milwaukee Bucks, who have a 3-2 series lead entering Game 6 on Saturday. Booker helped the Suns advance partly because Paul considers him an “old soul” that has become disciplined with his training regimen, film study and quest for self-improvement.

  “It’s not something he says, but you can just feel it from him. He feels like he’s the best or one of the best players on the earth,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “That’s what I felt from him from day one.”

  LeBron James told Devin Booker after the Suns beat the Lakers in the first round, “Continue to be great.”LeBron James told Devin Booker after the Suns beat the Lakers in the first round, “Continue to be great.”Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports

  No wonder Booker has already made two All-Star teams, blended seamlessly with Paul and earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball team for the 2021 Tokyo games later this month. After the Suns selected him at No. 13 in the 2016 NBA Draft following one season at Kentucky, Booker averaged in the low to mid 20’s in points in five of his first six seasons. He even dropped a career-high 70 points against Boston in only his second NBA season.

  But while posting those numbers, Booker dealt with the perception that he offered empty calories on losing teams.

  “I just put my head down and I worked,” Booker said. “I’ve been through a lot of bulls— honestly. But, just being who I am and seeing the bigger picture, I had the tunnel vision to know what this can be.”

  After all, the late Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant gave Booker a signed jersey during his farewell season that read, “Be legendary.” Because of his old-school principles, Booker has already carved out his own legend while ensuring the Suns thrive in their first playoff appearance since 2010.

  Booker helped the Suns eliminate the Lakers in the first round with a postseason career high 47 points in a decisive Game 6. Afterwards, LeBron James became another Lakers star to give Booker a signed jersey. This one read, “Continue to be great.” Booker followed James’ message.

  ”To the young one. Be legendary” – Kobe to Devin Booker

  pic.twitter.com/aeEGGtdfOP

  — Kobe & Gianna Mural Locations (@kobemurals) July 1, 2021

  Booker recorded his first-career playoff triple-double in the Suns’ Game 1 win over the L.A. Clippers in the Western Conference finals with 40 points, a career-high 13 rebounds and 11 assists. In Game 2, Booker set a screen that led to Deandre Ayton’s game-winning inbounds lob with 0.7 seconds left.

  In Games 2 through 6, Booker played through a battered nose that required three stitches after colliding with Clippers guard Patrick Beverley. In the Suns’ three close-out games against the Lakers, Denver Nuggets and Clippers, Booker scored a combined 112 points in what the Elias Sports Bureau noted marks the sixth-highest total behind only Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor.

  “I don’t think this was new for him; it was just on a different stage,” Williams said of Booker’s playoff performances. “I thought the world saw his fearlessness on the big stage. When we needed a bucket, he was the guy. Defensively, he was giving up his body.”

  Suns’ Devin Booker emerging as a superstar in NBA playoffsSportsPulse: Duane Rankin of the Arizona Republic breaks down Devin Booker’s emergence this postseason as a bona fide superstar for the Suns.USA TODAY

  So how did Booker become an “old soul” at such a young age?

  After growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Booker moved to Moss Point, Mississippi, with his father, Melvin, who excelled collegiately (University of Missouri), overseas (Italy, Turkey, Russia) and briefly in the NBA (Houston, Denver, Golden State from 1995-1997). Booker also stayed close with his older brother (Davon Wade) and sister (Mya Powell). While Booker’s father often gave him training tips, his siblings also offered real-life perspective.

  “It’s always been grown conversations,” Booker said. “So even when I spent time with those guys, I listen more than I talk. So, I just pick up the way people carry themselves. I was around some really good people growing up that nurtured and taught me a lot.”

  Booker’s father proved instrumental both because of their familial ties and basketball background. So at an early age, Booker said his dad “pushed me” while also preaching the importance of working efficiently. And now, Booker has trained extensively in the summer and has constructed what he called an “operation at my house” that includes a sauna, weight room, and basketball court.

  That foundation helped Booker feel more prepared in the NBA when he matched up against NBA veterans. He still sounded giddy over working out with Paul, his childhood idol, before the 2016 NBA Draft. But Booker admitted that he still talked trash whenever they competed. Booker did the same thing to Bryant, which partly explains Bryant’swillingness to talk with Booker extensively in the Lakers’ trainer’s room following Bryant’s final game in Phoenix.

  Devin Booker founds a lot of different ways to help the Suns overcome the Clippers in the Western Conference finals.

  Devin Booker founds a lot of different ways to help the Suns overcome the Clippers in the Western Conference finals.

  Devin Booker founds a lot of different ways to help the Suns overcome the Clippers in the Western Conference finals.

  USA TODAY Sports, Getty Images

  No wonder Booker caught Williams’ attention as a Team USA assistant when Booker played for USA Basketball’s select team following his rookie season. Then, Williams observed, “he wasn’t afraid of going against the top guys.” When Williams became the Suns’ head coach in 2019, however, he soon realized Booker does not seem intent on just climbing the team’s pecking order. When the two met at a restaurant in Scottsdale, Booker told Williams, “Coach, whatever you need me to do, I’ll do it.”

  Booker backed up those words with his play and his attitude. While helping the Suns win all eight of their seed-in games last year in the NBA bubble, Booker averaged 30.5 points on 50.3% shooting along with six assists. Then before the 2020-21 season, Paul signed off on the Thunder trading him to Phoenix partly because of Booker’s emergence. Shortly afterwards, Williams, Booker, and Paul met to discuss the dynamics. Williams soon concluded he should “get out of the way” because of his backcourt’s talent and mutual respect for each other.

  “He just wants to win,” Williams said. “It doesn’t have to be about him. He’s been willing to give the ball to Chris and make plays in a different way.”

  Booker appeared eager to hand Paul another assist during his postgame press conference after the Suns eliminated the Clippers. While Paul spoke about advancing to the NBA Finals for the first time in his NBA career, Booker placed the Western Conference finals trophy on a seat next to Paul.

  Moments later, Booker sat on a chair and offered another image that captured his old-school mentality. He wore a light bandage toward the top of his recently battered nose. After Beverley collided into Booker in Game 2, he left the court to receive stitches only to return shortly afterwards and play through the pain. He spent the following three games wearing a mask while struggling through a combined 32-of-91 (35.1%).

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  During that time, Booker spoke with former Detroit Pistons guard Rip Hamilton, considering Booker views him as “my favorite player of all the time” and he also wore a mask. Booker said Hamilton advised him “just don’t let it be a distraction to you.” Booker experimented with playing with and without the mask, as well as adjusting the mask’s eye sockets. Still, Booker refused to blame his shooting struggles on wearing the mask.

  “I’ve been playing this game for a long time, and I’ve gone through every type of shooting slump that you can think of,” Booker said. “The best advice that my dad gave me when I moved with him when I was 13 years old is to have a short memory in this game.”

  Booker has listened.

  “He’s just a really good player, and what he’s doing is something that comes from a lot of work,” Williams said. “And I know he wants more.”

  Booker wants an NBA championship, obviously. And the Suns seem optimistic that will happen partly because Booker plays and acts beyond his age.

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  Sign upPublished

  11:19 am UTC Jul. 3, 2021

  Updated

  2:54 pm UTC Jul. 3, 2021