by Gina Mizell

Headline

BUILT FOR THIS
How Devin Booker’s purposeful work ethic prepared him for the biggest stretch of his basketball life

Devin Booker emerges from the Footprint Center tunnel at exactly 5 p.m., and begins to dribble sharply on the far baseline.

As the Phoenix Suns’ All-Star guard shifts the ball between each hand, player development assistant Corey Vinson slaps at his arms. At the same time, video room intern Jack Gentry leans on Booker’s thighs. Bookers eyes remain locked forward, unfazed by the deliberate attempts to disrupt his rhythm and create physical resistance.

The 24-year-old Booker would go on to drop 40 points in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, the second consecutive outing he reached that scoring threshold on the league’s biggest stage. He ultimately finished his first playoff run with 601 points, the most by any NBA player over the course of their postseason debut, while propelling the Suns into championship contention.

Booker’s final appearance inside his home arena during the 2020-21 season was the precursor to a whirlwind week, as part of a whirlwind summer, as part of a whirlwind calendar year.

About four days after the Finals ended in Milwaukee on July 20, Booker arrived in Tokyo for his first Olympic Games. Donning a white headband and fresh haircut, Booker played in Team USA’s opener against France less than 24 hours later. Then, he moved into the United States’ starting lineup, scoring 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting and adding five rebounds and three steals in a dominant bounce-back victory over Iran.

Booker has long emphasized that these are the games he has been waiting for, that he had visualized during solo offseason workouts with his father and King of the Hill bouts with veteran teammates. And this initial foray into basketball at the world’s highest ranks has proven Booker was built for these high-profile moments.

“The goal was to always prepare him for every situation that he would see on the basketball court,” said Booker’s father, Melvin. “It’s always for the playoffs or the stage he’s about to go on now. … We always worked to get to this level.”  

Melvin’s phone calls with a young Devin, who at the time lived with his mother, Veronica Gutierrez, in Grand Rapids, Mich., often turned to basketball. Melvin had played in the NBA and overseas for 15 years. But when Melvin asked his son if he put up extra shots following a practice session, Devin was perplexed.

That’s when Dad knew Devin would benefit from moving down to Moss Point, Miss., to live and train with him.

Melvin calls his experience a bit of a blueprint or cheat code for Devin. But Dad also stresses that it did not take his son long to click into the work ethic, competitiveness and mental toughness required to continuously develop. Melvin believes those intangibles helped Devin go from newbie to high-school head-turner in Mississippi, from Kentucky bench player to lottery draft pick, from little-used rookie to 70-point scorer at 20 years old, and from overlooked multidimensional scorer to two-time All-Star.

“We’ve done pretty much every workout you can think of,” Booker said of his father. “ …  I always had a love for the game of basketball. I was always a student of the game. But I wasn’t aware of the work that goes into it. I was always good, but he made me take it the extra mile.

“He pushed me. I had never been pushed before. I had never had the truth told to me at all times. It was somebody that is telling the truth out of their goodness of their heart, to see you succeed. You can feel that. it just makes you want to be better every day.”

To this day, Devin and Melvin focus on mastering fundamentals, such as the midrange game, finishing at the rim and catch-and-shoot jumpers. When Melvin says Devin must make nine out of 10 shots before moving on to the next spot on the floor, Devin will insist on going a perfect 10-for-10.

The drills were always purposeful with a dash of childlike imagination, especially when reaching the NBA Playoffs felt like a distant goal.  

“I don’t work out in the summer thinking that my season’s gonna be over after 82 games,” Booker said. “I put myself in a mental space where every shot counts. I try to envision the physicality, even when I’m out there by myself. …

“You look up at the shot clock and you pretend it’s winding down. It’s just little things. That’s how you get the most out of your workout. That’s what me and my dad talk about all the time is being efficient with your work. When you’re in there taking every rep serious as if it is the playoffs or as if it is the Finals, you get some really good work in.”

Melvin’s presence has been one of the few constants throughout Booker’s NBA career. The Suns had a rotating cast of teammates and coaches — and far more losses than wins — during Booker’s first five seasons. Defenders regularly double-teamed him. He played through mistakes.

And long before the video of Booker working out with Chris Paul immediately after Paul’s trade to Phoenix went viral, Booker battled 1-on-1 with former Suns on the old practice court in the arena’s basement.

An early challenger was the much bigger P.J. Tucker, who confirmed their matchups got testy. Another was coach Earl Watson, whom Booker credits as “one of the early ones in the NBA industry to believe in me.” Then came the universally respected Jamal Crawford, who called Booker a “true hooper.”

“Everything he's doing now,” Tucker said of Booker before Game 1 of the Finals, “ … We all knew that he was going to be really good. Like, he wasn't just good. He was really good. …

“Being his teammate at that time and being the vet on the team, it was my job to make him better. I knew what I had to do for what he was going to see and what was coming and what he needed to be ready for. …

“But he, like, showed that he was one of the ones. He just, like, took it, and he just elevated. He became who he is and who he's continuing to be.”

Those life and basketball experiences turned Booker into “the oldest 24-year-old I’ve ever met in my life,” according to the 36-year-old Paul.

Coach Monty Williams, meanwhile, says Booker “reminds me of a few of my uncles. If you walked into a room, you may think that they’re mad at you because they didn’t say anything or they may just deadpan you for about 15 seconds.” The coach also admires Booker’s blend of confidence and no-excuses attitude, along with the fact that he does not buy into the NBA’s new-school clique culture.

Booker, though, has developed deep trust with this version of the Suns.

When he first met Williams at a Scottsdale restaurant in the spring of 2019, he told his new coach he will do “whatever it takes … let me know what I got to do. Let me know what I got to be better at, (and) be honest with me.” Booker jokes he sees head athletic trainer David Crewe more than his mother while concocting a recovery routine — with the help of an infrared sauna red light therapy bed in his home — that has made him stronger, more explosive and more durable. Booker constantly praises the Suns’ culture, calling it “an environment to get better in.”

These days, Melvin will text Williams during the offseason to ask how he plans to use Booker for the upcoming season. Melvin will then implement appropriate drills into their workouts in Los Angeles. It’s a collaboration Williams appreciates, knowing overbearing helicopter parents exist even at the NBA level.

“Melvin’s experience, his personality, the respect he has for the team and coaching,” Williams said, “I would imagine has allowed for him to continue to work with his son but also give us space and try to help him as well.

“Because of what I knew about that relationship, it allowed for me to not even worry about Book. I knew he was getting the work in.”  

During the past two seasons, Booker has blossomed into an efficiently silky scorer at all three levels and an excellent passer. He drew national acclaim during the Suns’ 8-0 Orlando Bubble run — including an iconic game-winner over the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard and Paul George — that began one year ago Saturday. He flourished with a fellow backcourt star in Paul, illustrating he cares about winning over personal statistics. He has gained more respect as a defender, thanks to a willingness to get over screens, physically man up and fly in for the occasional chase-down block.

Then, Booker emphatically answered any questions about how his game would immediately translate in the playoffs.

His 34 points in Game 1 of the first round against the Lakers were the most by a Suns player in their postseason debut. He notched a 40-point triple-double, the first of his career, in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against the Clippers, when Paul was in health and safety protocols. Two days later, Booker set the game-winning screen on Deandre Ayton’s “Valley-oop” with a broken nose, prompting Ayton to wear a shirt featuring Booker’s swollen face as a game-day fit. Rather than undergo anesthesia for the procedure to repair the break, Booker had his face numbed and fixed before the Suns’ charter took off for Los Angeles.

“Now people know Book is tough,” Ayton said. “They knew he was a scorer, but he’s legit.”  

Melvin most saw the results of their tireless work whenever the Suns could eliminate their opponent.

Booker scored 47 points — including 22 during an unconscious first quarter when he shot 8-of-9 from the floor and 6-of-6 from 3-point distance — at Staples Center to knock out the defending-champion Lakers in Game 6. He totaled 34 points, 11 rebounds and four assists as Phoenix finished off a four-game sweep of the Denver Nuggets.

And when he flew down the lane for a dunk, flex and scream in the second half of Game 6 against the Clippers, which helped the Suns clinch their first Finals berth since 1993, Melvin knew “he’s trying to end this.”

“This is our first time seeing this,” Melvin said. “ … but these are things we’ve talked about. If you have somebody on the ropes, go ahead and knock them out. In elimination games, he’s taken his intensity to the next level and his game to the next level.”  

Ahead of the Finals, Melvin said he had not seen this much basketball joy in Devin since his Kentucky team went unbeaten through the regular season and NCAA Tournament before losing in the Final Four. During the Suns’ struggles early in Devin’s career, they stepped back and set incremental goals, starting with making the playoffs and then making a deep run.

“For some reason, we decide to do it all in the same year,” Melvin said with a laugh.  “ … He paid his dues. That’s the best way. You know the word they use now, ‘You get it out the mud’? He got it out the mud.”

Booker’s record-setting individual playoff output combined with team success was perhaps only surpassed in NBA history by Magic Johnson, who won Finals MVP on a championship Lakers team during his rookie season’s postseason run in 1980. Booker was a huge reason why Phoenix took a 2-0 lead against the Bucks, combining with Paul to create the highest-scoring backcourt duo in the Finals’ first two games in NBA history.

But that Finals series also included some important growth moments for Booker.

Booker went 3-of-14 from the floor in Game 3. Though he responded with torrid shot-making in Game 4, foul trouble hamstrung a night that Williams believed Booker could have gone for 50 points. With a chance to take the lead in the final minute of a pivotal Game 5, Booker picked up his dribble in the lane and pump-faked, leading to a game-sealing Jrue Holiday steal.

Though the playoffs largely felt as he imagined they would, Booker acknowledged before Game 6 that “experience is the best teacher.”

“Getting the chance to be out there in the fire is what you're going to learn from most,” he said.

Following an emotional Game 6 loss in Milwaukee, Booker shared a flight to Tokyo with the Bucks’ Holiday and Khris Middleton to fulfill an Olympic commitment and lifelong dream that he regularly reaffirmed throughout the Finals. Williams did not express concern about Booker’s workload and short turnaround, noting he “loves to hoop.”

That Booker required the last-minute, across-the-world trip because he played in the NBA’s final game of the 2020-21 season illustrated his continued ascension into elite company. He combatted jet lag and significant time-zone adjustment by squeezing rest in whenever he could. He wore a Team USA hat to his postgame Zoom session following his strong performance against Iran, where he mixed jumpers and authoritative finishes with rebounds and steals.  

Though Booker fell two victories shy of an NBA title, a gold medal could be on the horizon.

“When you're competing at the highest level, it doesn't always go your way,” Booker said of his transition from the Finals to the Olympics. “But I'm a forward thinker, and I move on to the next thing. Be able to take my ‘L’ and move on."

No word on if Booker has recruited any Team USA staffers to slap at his arms and lean on his thighs as he warms up on the world’s stage. But this week, this summer and this year have proven Booker was built for the high-profile basketball he had always visualized.

Then whenever this whirlwind finally settles down, Booker will be right back in the gym with his dad.

“I don’t have to push him to work hard,” Melvin sad. “I think that comes back from his childhood, like, this is what it takes. The work that he put in, he saw he was successful with it, and I guess he feel like that’s the only way to do it. …

“It became such a habit to work so hard, to put in all the extra work, that whenever he doesn’t do it, it just doesn’t feel right to him.”  

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