Devin Booker’s competitive edge never takes a break. Not even on Thanksgiving.
Just ask his father, Melvin, who wound up opposite Devin for a hotly contested game of pool while awaiting their feast.
“This was supposed to be, like, a family thing,” Melvin said, “and here we are trash-talking over the food.”
According to his father, Devin was born with that fire to constantly seek his next challenge and, more importantly, develop his skills to become elite. Whether on the basketball court, across the ping-pong table or behind the video-games sticks, Devin “wouldn’t stop until he was better than everybody,” Melvin said.
An example: While a young Devin may not have stood a chance on the hardwood against his father, a former professional basketball player, the two bonded over basketball video games.
But Melvin wasn’t playing against the average 12-year-old. While the many of kids Devin’s age used superstars to chuck up endless shots, Devin instead ran intricate plays and sets rarely seen on video games.
Naturally, Devin also applied that combination of competitiveness and thirst for knowledge to real-life basketball
“He's a student of the game and he's very smart and intelligent,” Melvin said. “He's never been the most athletic guy or the quickest guy. So, he always played the game with his mind. Usually that comes around later in your career, but Devin has always played with his mind ever since he's been playing the game.”
Devin’s mentality has resulted in consistent, yet rapid, improvement in his game. It has guided him from the five-star recruit out of Moss Point High School in Mississippi, to the sharpshooting sixth man at Kentucky, to the Suns’ All-Star today.
Deliberate steps throughout his NBA career propelled Booker to his best season in 2019-20, capped by a star turn in the Orlando Bubble’s national spotlight as the Suns ripped off eight consecutive wins. Here’s a look back at how Booker reached this point in his development and what could be in store as he leads a Suns team with heightened expectations entering the 2020-21 season.
“It’s just an everyday grind, man,” Booker said.
YEAR 1: PROVING HE BELONGS
Despite not starting a single game in college, the Suns selected an 18-year-old Booker with the 13th pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. However, questions remained about the potential, ceiling and role that the youngest player in draft could have at the next level.
Why didn’t he start in college?
Is he purely a sixth man?
Can he play on the ball?
Is he capable of running an offense?
Booker awaited his opportunity to show his critics he belonged.
After facing some inconsistent minutes early, as many rookies do, he began to give Suns fans a glimpse into what he would be become.
On Dec. 26, 2015, Booker notched a then-career-high 19 points, including three 3-pointers, before averaging 17.9 points, 3.5 assists and 3.1 rebounds throughout the remainder of the season.
It was clear early on that Booker was a special talent. But his ability to adapt to the league at such a young age proved what a steal he was at the back end of the lottery.
Booker closed out his rookie season with six 30-point games, becoming the fourth-youngest player in NBA history to reach 1,000 points, behind LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant.
YEAR 2: BECOMING AN ELITE SCORING THREAT
Booker had established himself as a certified bucket in Phoenix following his rookie season. Now, it was time for the world to take note. He transitioned into a full-time starter for the Suns and became their primary scoring option, leading the team with 22.1 points per game.
But how high was his scoring potential?
March 24, 2017: Booker took one of the biggest stages in the NBA at TD Garden in Boston and dropped a league-high 70 points against the Celtics. Still to this day, Booker is the only active player in the league with a 70-point game and is just the sixth to do so in NBA history.
“They made it tough for me in the first half and I tried to get it going,” Booker said that night via ESPN. “I was ultra-aggressive. My teammates started finding me. They started setting really good screens for me and the rest is history.”
In his second season, Booker developed into a premier scorer, with 14 games of 30-plus points. He used his “microwave” ability to heat up at any given moment, including three quarters with 27-plus points. His elite one-on-one ability made him virtually unguardable in the final seconds, leading the NBA in the clutch with two game-winning buzzer-beaters that season.
YEAR 3: NEW FACE OF THE FRANCHISE
Booker can score, but can he really lead a team?
Booker did not just become the focal point on opponents’ game plans during the 2017-18 season. He also became the face of the franchise. It was a lot to ask of a 20-year-old, but Booker accepted the challenge and the pressure by leading in the locker room and on the court.
Booker became a phenom throughout The Valley, with his name draped across the back of jerseys belonging to lifelong and new-generation Suns fans alike.
But being a local icon also came with added responsibilities – which Booker embraced with honor. Whether it was answering the tough questions after a loss, leading a team in the huddle or making special community appearances, Booker pridefully represented the Suns organization.
“I love it in Phoenix and I want to be one of those guys that gets drafted by one team and stays there the whole time,” Booker told SLAM magazine in 2016. “They turn around the franchise and they get love for that in that city like they’re the mayor…People still wear Steve Nash jerseys here. That’s definitely something I want to be.”
That early connection to the city ultimately led Booker to team up with Phoenix Suns Charities to introduce the “Devin Booker Starting Five” in 2019. The initiative provides five local nonprofit organizations a $100,000 grant to continue the lives of youth and families in need throughout Arizona.
YEAR 4: ADDING BALL HANDLING AND PLAYMAKING
Can you build an offense purely around Booker?
Throughout Booker’s first three seasons, his assists per game escalated at a consistent rate (2.6 to 3.4 to 4.7). But that number rose drastically when he became the primary ballhandler for the Suns in his fourth season, averaging 6.8 assists per game.
Booker’s ability to create for others while still maintaining his scoring potency kept defenses constantly on edge of what to expect. Booker tallied 11 games with double-digit assists, nine of which he also scored 25 or more points.
“Devin is a problem,” new backcourt mate Chris Paul said when asked about Booker’s playmaking ability. “There are a lot of guys that they are shooters or they just take you off the dribble or they’re athletic. He’s got all of that.”
YEAR 5: INCREASING EFFIECIENCY
Are his numbers up just because he has a high usage rate?
Despite the Suns adding floor general Ricky Rubio and fostering the development of young teammates during the 2019-20 season, Booker maintained his 26 points and six assist per game.
This time, though, his efficiency was historic.
Booker averaged his fewest field-goal attempts since his rookie season, yet still managed to rank ninth in the league in scoring. He became an All-Star for the first time, and was voted unanimously as one of the top five players in the NBA Bubble’s seeding games.
Booker also became the youngest player ever to average 26 points per game with a 61.8 true shooting percentage. His 91.9 success percentage at the free-throw line was the highest single-season mark in NBA history by a player to make at least six attempts per game.
Perhaps most impressively, Booker joined an elite list of seven current or future Hall of Famers who averaged 26 points and six assists while shooting over 48 percent from the field: Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, Jerry West, Nate Archibald, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Larry Bird and Stephen Curry.
Equipped with highlight-reel slams, acrobatic lay-ins, Kobe-like midrange fades and his iconic deep ball, Booker’s diverse scoring arsenal makes him a threat at every level. This combined with his I.Q. for the game allowed him freedom within head coach Monty Williams’ system.
“Devin’s about as efficient a scorer as we have in the league, and he’s certainly our most efficient scorer,” Williams told The Athletic last season. “I’m not gonna mess with that. I think Devin knows the shots he needs to take.”
YEAR 6: WHAT’S NEXT?
“I want Devin to be an All-NBA player. I want Devin to be an MVP candidate,” Williams told the media last week.
In order for Booker to reach that level of national recognition, however, Williams understands that team success will be the biggest difference-maker.
“The winning seems to be what propels guys into a different class,” Williams added. “I'd love to see Book on a winning team... I think he's more than capable. I never worry about the work that he puts in. Now, it's just a matter of doing it. ‘Well done’ is much better than ‘well said.’”
With the 2020-21 season tipping off later this month, Booker is also singularly focused on winning.
“That’s my main objective,” Booker said. “I’ve taken steps in many directions. The one column that I feel I can change the most is the win-loss and playing playoff basketball. Playing competitive basketball to the point where we are getting where we want to go.”
With the 8-0 Bubble run on the resume and high-caliber talent added to the roster during the offseason, the Suns have raised expectations in The Valley and beyond.
But just as he always has since he was a child, Booker is breaking down the challenge into day-to-day actions.
“Any talking that I can do about it isn’t going to change [the goal],” Booker said. “It’s the work that we’re going to put in, the communication and the leadership that we have right here in this locker room.”
Booker might no longer be that 12-year-old playing video games with his dad. Yet that competitive spirit has remained constant, guiding him to where he is today and pushing him toward a limitless future.
That’s why Melvin Booker expects to see “another fire, another level” from his son in 2020-21.
“I still see the little kid running around the house with a basketball saying he's going to be an NBA player,” Melvin said. “Knowing he put in the work to become what he is and how he continues to put in the work. As good as he is as a player, he's great as a person and a son.
“This has been a journey we've been on and we still have a long journey ahead of us.”
Devin Booker’s evolution from a late lottery pick to an All-Star has been an incredible journey. CLICK HERE to watch the episode of Breakthrough that details the progress he’s made from his rookie season through his dominance in the Bubble. Re-live the growth throughout the years of the young star as he quickly developed into one of the NBA’s best. From his stellar offensive repertoire to his defensive improvements, Booker has transformed Phoenix Suns basketball and is now leading a team on the rise."