Devin Booker catches the ball at the top of the 3-point arc.
In a split second, he processes that, although Deandre Ayton has a mismatch in the paint, Cleveland’s JaVale McGee would quickly close-in to help defend. So, instead of feeding the big fella, Booker points and fakes the pass inside, drawing McGee into the paint, away from Cameron Johnson standing to Booker’s left.
Booker’s quick instincts paid off as he flips the ball over to Johnson. The second-year forward drains the 3-pointer to give the Phoenix Suns a one-point lead late in the fourth quarter, forcing the Cavaliers to call timeout.
As head coach Monty Williams joins his assistants near center court to discuss the game plan, staffers bring chairs out near the Suns’ baseline. Manager of equipment operations Jay Gaspar hands out towels to the players trying to catch a quick breath.
The players who have just come off the floor take a seat — except one.
Prior to Williams joining the huddle, Booker stands in the middle of his teammates to run through techniques with Ayton. Booker also shares words with Johnson, before dapping him and Ayton up. Booker showed a mix of teaching, leading and celebrating his teammates all in a short span, something that has become a nightly occurrence for Booker during the Suns’ hot start to the season.
This sequence demonstrates that Booker has become the full package. An NBA veteran at the young age of 24, his leadership has become almost as vital to the Suns as his stats, though those are equally impressive.
His numbers are comparable to recent seasons averaging 24.5 points and 4.3 assists, an impressive feat given Phoenix added fellow All-Star Chris Paul in the offseason to form one of the NBA’s premier backcourts. His recent statistical tear — averaging 32.3 points on 56.5 percent shooting from the field and 47.6 percent from 3-point range, plus 5.3 assists and five rebounds over four Suns' victories — earned Booker his first-career Western Conference Player of the Week Award.
But Booker is also the public face — and a blossoming vocal leader — of a breakout Suns team that has won nine of its last 10 games and enters Monday in fourth place in the highly competitive Western Conference at 17-9. All of that makes Booker worthy of earning his second All-Star appearance, with fan voting still open through Tuesday.
“He's just trying to get the team ready and stay the course in whatever we're doing,” teammate Mikal Bridges said. “… Just to keep us all locked in throughout the whole game.”
Booker has showcased his scoring ability for years with five game-winners, multiple 50-plus-point outings and a quick rise into the top 10 for most points in franchise history.
While Booker continues to shine as a bucket-getter, the former 13th overall pick has taken great strides improving his game throughout each season of his young career. He’s now making others around him better, and collecting the wins required to earn national respect.
“It’s part of the process,” Booker said. “This is what I’ve been waiting on, playing competitive basketball night-in and night-out. It’s been five years of keeping my head down, staying locked in, seeing tunnel vision — trying to play the right way through it all for these moments right here.”
“I don’t want to look back. I want to keep winning basketball games. We have the culture and the foundation around here to make it happen.”
A key part of that foundation is the partnership that began with Williams in the summer of 2019. Booker already had the All-Star numbers at the time. His desire to win showed through is competitive nature and work ethic. However, Williams explained that “sometimes you have to put yourself out there as a leader when you really want something badly.”
“Guys grow into certain positions,” Williams said. “Our relationship and his ability to lead is going to happen over time organically. I think that's what you're seeing.”
Bridges has witnessed Booker’s growth as a leader “big time” over his three seasons playing alongside him. Bridges said that, when he first arrived in Phoenix, Booker was leading by example in how he prepared and how he played. Now, Booker is using his voice.
If the Suns are playing well, Bridges said, Booker is preaching for them to keep it up and to continue to push the lead. If they’re down, Booker is setting in-game goals to cut a potential 15-point lead down to 10 over a stretch, knowing they can’t get it all back on one possession.
“I think Monty plays a big part into it, where he probably talks to (Booker) and lets him know that, ‘The guys need you as a leader,’” Bridges said. “He's definitely evolved ever since I've been here.”
Booker is also putting up All-Star-worthy numbers. He joins Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Luka Dončić and Donovan Mitchell as the only Western Conference guards to average at least 24 points and four assists so far this season. However, Booker’s biggest separating factor is that, outside of Mitchell, the Suns hold a better record than the other three guards’ teams.
Booker has stated on many occasions that he is not focused on stats. He cares most about making the correct, winning play. With a great surrounding cast of seasoned veterans and promising young talent, Booker has the option to attack when needed, but also houses the ability to create for others while showcasing his high basketball IQ to take what the defense gives him.
Choosing the right time to score has become the ultimate weapon for Booker’s game — because when he wants to, he’s going to. Whether it’s piling up 17 points in the first quarter against the Cavaliers or outscoring the entire Orlando Magic team (16 points) with another 17 points in the first quarter on Feb. 14, few players have Booker’s microwavable ability to heat up at any given moment.
To complicate things even more for the opposing defenses, how Booker scores comes different game-to-game and even quarter-to-quarter. Booker’s arsenal features a wide variety of creativity and craft. The former All-Star Weekend 3-Point Champion is never shy to pull up from deep. But he is also fully equipped to shoot on the move with fadeaways, baseline glides and by finishing strong at the basket.
On Feb. 1, the Suns found themselves down by two against the Dallas Mavericks in the game’s final 10 seconds. As Paul dribbled to the baseline, Ayton set a screen that freed Booker up with about an inch of space between him and Josh Richardson.
That was all Booker needed.
Booker received the ball from Paul and launched the 3-pointer just over the outstretched arms of Richardson. And just as Booker had done many times before, he drained the go-ahead basket with less than two seconds remaining.
The Suns’ bench erupted and teammates quickly swarmed Booker in celebration, including Paul jumping in for the chest bump. But instead of joining them, Booker kept a serious expression on his face, repeating, “One stop.” Booker understood that the job wasn’t done yet, and that he and his teammates needed to lock down for one final defensive stand.
“When you’re able to transfer your thoughts to the winning part of the game, it says a lot about Book,” Williams said after the game. “… That young man wants to win at everything. His mind went from shot right to a stop. That’s a great moment for our team.”
And another example of Booker’s impact. The Valley has witnessed Booker’s greatness for years. But as a driving force behind the Suns’ winning culture, Booker is leading the Suns toward their first playoff berth in a decade.
When Paul was asked to state his case for Booker’s second All-Star appearance, the 10-time All-Star kept it simple.
“It’s a no-brainer.”