The vision of Phoenix Suns rookie Devin Booker’s shot is a pleasant one, complete with proper mechanics and perfect form.
At no point has the combination been more valued than it is in today’s NBA, one rife with analytics and long-range snipers to carry out a new approach to the game.
While there are players who might have larger impacts going forward, none is more tailor-made for this era than Booker, a 6’6” shooting guard selected at No. 13 by the Suns, the team charged with ushering in this recent change of pace under Mike D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds or Less” teams.
Booker, the youngest player to enter the 2015 NBA draft at only 18 years old, is well aware of this phenomenon, and he showed up to New York City with stats to support his case as a top prospect.
“Shooters are really important to the game now,” Booker said at draft media availability in June. “I feel like the game is evolving to [include] more shooters and it kind of showed that in the Finals. I think the last five teams left were the top five teams in three-point percentage and attempts. It just shows you how important shooting is.”
Similar to Warriors stars Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson—a common comparison for Booker—Booker is an elite shooter who comes from a basketball family. His father, Melvin, was a 6’1” point guard for Missouri before spending time with the Rockets, Nuggets, and Warriors in a short NBA career. He also played overseas in Italy, Turkey, and Russia for 10 years.
When Melvin’s professional days were done, he worked as an assistant on the staff of Booker's Moss Point High School team in Mississippi. This meant Booker had the caring hand of a parent to guide him through the basketball world, but it also meant that hard work was ahead.
Booker wasn’t always a great shooter. Because of his height, he started his basketball career as a big man. Oddly enough, he honed his shooting skills from watching Rip Hamilton as a kid in Michigan and working with his dad in high school. Booker loved Hamilton’s ability to use screens, though he wasn’t much of a three-point shooter.
“When I moved down to Mississippi he taught me the grind,” Booker said. “So I didn’t understand why I was at practice an hour early and two hours after. And it’s just repetition. It’s something that once you practice so much at it, you gain that confidence in it and people start labeling you as a shooter, and then you’re like, ‘I have to be the best shooter.’”
That process turned him into a McDonald's All-American worthy of a rotation spot with the Kentucky Wildcats and coach John Calipari, who churns out more NBA talent than anyone in the country. The numbers don't lie. As of July 1, Calipari players were under contract for $726 million, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.
But while Kentucky is looked at as more of an NBA breeding ground than a collegiate program, Booker said he unpacked his bags fully expecting to spend “two, three, four years” with the Wildcats.
In the end, he spent only a year with Kentucky after playing within a platoon system that netted 38 straight wins and a Final Four loss to Wisconsin. Some players would get lost among such a collection of talent, but Booker’s most marketable skill—his shooting ability—shined through at every opportunity.
Now, at times, those opportunities were few and far between on a team that sent seven players to the NBA draft and had six picked, four of which were selected in the lottery. Yet Booker views that as a positive. Efficiency is at a premium in the NBA, and he had a crash course on the subject after taking unlimited shots and scoring 50 points at the drop of a hat in high school.
Booker averaged 10 points and two rebounds in 21.5 minutes for Calipari. Those numbers don’t necessarily pop, but Booker did hit 47% of his shot attempts, including 41.1% from the three-point line.
“You have to take advantage of your time in there, and I think I learned that a lot at Kentucky,” Booker said. “People always ask me, ‘You’re a shooter. How do you go in there five minutes, sit out five minutes?’ You just learn to be efficient, and if you don’t do it, you’ll be out. It’s something I adjusted to well, and I feel like it’s going to translate to the next level.”
The experience helped improve Booker’s mental approach to basketball, even though he always carried the reputation of a steady performer with a mistake-free game.
“People want to be that guy, but not everybody can be the guy,” Booker said. “But that’s not how it’s going to be in the NBA. I think Kentucky was the closest thing to an NBA team, and I think it helped me to be in this position right now.”
Booker will join a Suns team that plays at a breakneck pace and possesses plenty of fire power on the perimeter. A hoarder of point guards of late, the Suns currently have committed $140 million to the position over the last two years in the signings of Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe, which is actually a step back from the three-guard setup of Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas and Goran Dragic it implored to start the 2014-15 season.
Tenuous as that setup may be, it should benefit Booker, who produced 1.83 points per possession on jump shots with his feet set and 1.273 in transition, at Kentucky. Booker said he plans to embrace the pressure to make shots, and he knows that his career could be short-lived if he doesn’t.
“There’s people who have been in this situation and out in two, three years,” Booker said. “I just want to keep working and I just want to fulfill that ultimate goal that I have.”
Similar to his start at Kentucky, Booker is not making any assumptions about the length of his stay in the NBA, even if he does have the sweetest stroke in the 2015 draft class.