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The Q&A: Devin Booker's dedication keeping Suns in midst of playoff chase

Phoenix and its star are reaping benefits from his offseason of hard work

Devin Booker is unapologetic for doing whatever it takes to win games for the Phoenix Suns.

When you get tired of losing and watching the playoffs instead participating in them, you tend to lose your basketball innocence.

Booker’s first four NBA seasons have been spent developing the hardened shell he’s showing these days.

He’s still a ruthless 3-point assassin and one of the truly elite scorers in the league. But he’s much more than that in the system implemented by new coach Monty Williams and surrounded by veteran point guard Ricky Rubio, gritty two-way wing Kelly Oubre Jr. and big man Deandre Ayton, who is finally settling in after serving a 25-game suspension by testing positive for a diuretic.

Booker is the leader of a Suns team in the thick of the chase for the Western Conference’s No. 8 spot. The Memphis Grizzlies have that perch and a two-game lead on the Suns, with the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers both ahead of Phoenix.

“We’re just about trying to win games at this point of the season,” said Booker, who has scored 30 or more points in 10 of his last 13 games. “That’s all that matters right now.”

As noted in the latest Power Rankings, the Suns are one victory away from being the first team to match its 2018-19 win total. With the league’s toughest remaining schedule (cumulative opponent winning percentage: 53.9%), there is no time to waste.

Booker feels that sense of urgency deep in his bones. And he’s showing it every night out, win or lose. Booker smoked the Celtics for 39 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in Saturday’s win in Boston and followed it up with 37 points, seven rebounds and five assists in Monday’s loss to San Antonio.

So the Indiana Pacers should expect to see nuclear Booker tonight (9 ET, League Pass). Because there will be no easing up the rest of the way.

Booker spoke at length with about all that and more.

(Editor’s Note: Portions of this conversation have been condensed and edited).

* * * I know you’ve always put the work in on your game, but what changed for you this season? It is just a matter of having Monty Williams running the show and having a point guard like Ricky Rubio to facilitate for everybody?

Devin Booker: Yeah, for sure. It’s a whole different situation. A new culture, new foundation and new players and a whole new coaching staff. The first thing Monty stressed, the thing he stresses all the time, is the culture, having a good gym and guys that work hard. So everybody has bought into that and it’s shown positive gains for us so far. Even through our droughts, the gym is still good, our chemistry is still good. And that keeps you motivated every day to come in here and go to work for Coach Monty and his coaching staff grinding to get back on track.

I know guys in this league love to hit the gym in the offseason to work on their game; I saw you in a video or two. But did you get off the radar a bit and work on specific parts of your game?

I did a couple of open gyms, but yeah, more importantly for me, which is why I wasn’t on the USA Team that went to China, was taking care of my body. The past two seasons I missed a total of 50 games, and they were little injuries — hamstrings and stuff like that. I knew if I took my body more seriously and put the work in there, I’d be able to stay on the court more. So I locked in and worked on my body, focused on that and stayed in the gym with my pops [former NBA and international player Melvin Booker] and it’s been paying off.

When you say working on your body, are you talking about changing your diet as well? I’m not sure of the right phrase is to describe it, but you look tighter this season compared to last season.

Yeah, I’ve had my chef for two years now. And it’s an everyday grind now, how much work you put in on the court and it’s how you have to take care of your body also. Once I figured that out, there’s a smarter way to play and prepare yourself to play, it feels good and it’s how you withstand the rigor of the 82 games.

You missed China and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are looming. Are you looking to get back into USA Basketball for Tokyo 2020?

I mean, that’s the plan. I would love to. I just have to focus on this right now, try and lead this team to the playoffs. Whatever comes after that we’ll see. But it would be a blessing for sure. You know, I’ve watched it since I was a kid. I think it’s the most prestigious basketball you can find in the world. And I’d love to be a part of it.

When you look at this team, what has to happen to get to the playoffs? How do the Suns get there?

Being a game or two out right now, it’s that time before All-Star break when you have to start your run before teams come back after All-Star break with a new roster or a new focus. I think that’s why it’s so important that you do your work early during this stretch right here. Things like this East Coast road trip are so crucial. You absolutely have to lock in night after night and develop tunnel vision on the goal. You hear it all the time but when you’re fighting to make the playoffs, you live it.

So where are you now, in terms of your game and where you feel most effective? For years you were seen by most people as a shooter. It feels like you’ve had more dunks in the first half of this season than in all your years prior. Is that just the grimy Devin Booker coming out of you?

[Laughing] I’m just trying to switch it up man. You gotta just take what the defense gives you. And that’s what I do out there. I’ve probably seen every defense they can throw at you, so it’s take what the defense gives you. Some nights teams try to take me out totally and I feel like I have a supporting cast around me in Kelly, Ricky, Deandre and a lot of guys who have helped take that pressure off of me. But if teams leave a guy on an island, I feel like I can go to work.

You absolutely have to lock in night after night and develop tunnel vision on the goal. You hear it all the time but when you’re fighting to make the playoffs, you live it.”

Devin Booker, on the Suns’ playoff hopes in 2020

Is that something that only happens after a few years in the league: the recognition of when you can lock in and go to work on a specific defender or defensive scheme designed against you?

Yeah, as I said, I’ve pretty much seen it all as far as the past four years, that I’m comfortable with it now. I can figure out quickly what kind of coverage the defense is using that night. And I try and exploit it every chance I get.

Does it seem like it’s gone by in a blur? One day you’re a McDonald’s All-American … and then you wake up and you’re an NBA veteran. When you go back to where you started, what’s one thing you’ve taken from those early years that’s been the most important factor in your growth?

I think you just have to have tunnel vision, man. There’s so much and so many other things going on — whether it’s off the court or on the court, it’s a trade or other things that are really out of your control, something in the media — you can easily lose track of what your goals are and what you are really here for. And you think back to that time when you were a kid and all you really wanted to do was be in the NBA, and you get reminded why you are here and focus on that above all that other stuff, all the other distractions that might be out there. Just keep working hard and get better everyday. Be the best version of yourself and kind of just block out the outside noise and let that stuff go.

Is that clock ticking in your head as well of that idea that “damn, I want to play beyond mid-April … I want to be in the playoffs with my guys?”

Awww yeah, I feel like my game is made for that, that my talent level is ready for that. And I think it has been for a couple of years. And like you just said, I put the work in, too. So it’s not like I haven’t been grinding for it. Hard work isn’t foreign to me. I’ve been watching the playoffs all my life and obviously it’s a different type of basketball … and that’s something I want to be a part of.

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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