At shootaround before Wizards-Suns on Monday, Phoenix coach Earl Watson was asked about his days playing for Scott Brooks on a young Thunder team with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in 2008. Watson remembered watching them learning how to win, and learning how to be professional. "Sometimes you get these people who just analyze the now," Watson said. "When I was in OKC, we could not close games. We had Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, and we could not close games. But you gotta let those young guys become who they are. What really changed us, as the season progressed, those young guys began to earn ownership of their team."
This is the theme of Devin Booker's season. The Suns may not have the talent that OKC had, but they definitely have the youth. And this is Booker's year to take ownership. After injuries and a coaching change gave him more opportunities through the second half of last season, the 13th pick in the 2015 draft accidentally became the cornerstone in Phoenix.
He opened eyes all over the league, and he's now leading the team in scoring and minutes through the first month of the season. Surprisingly, he's struggled with his three-point shooting (30% on the year), and the Suns have struggled to stay consistent from night to night. This past Friday, for example, the Suns beat the Pacers. On Saturday, they were blown out by the Sixers.
Monday, Booker and the Suns led the Wizards through most of the second half, but they fell apart down the stretch—still learning to close. Before the game, though, I caught up with Booker to talk about shooting, these Suns, and some of the other lessons he's learned so far.
SI: You guys have had a few nights this year where the future looks really bright, but there have been others where it just doesn't come together. How are you feeling about the team a month into things?
Booker: There's a lot of ups and downs. Like you said, sometimes we'll look really good, all on the same page. Another night, we'll just be all off the same page. We need to be more consistent. The veterans help out a lot, trying to teach us how to play with each other. We need that experience—I didn't get to play with (Eric) Bledsoe last year, because he was injured. We just put T.J. (Warren) in the starting lineup. So, we're all new to playing with each other. Just trying to figure out which person likes what, where they like the ball, when they need help on defense. I think it's going to come together with time.
SI: Things got pretty ugly about halfway through last year. Coaching changes, disgruntled players, injuries... What did you take away from going through all that in year one?
Booker: I learned that there's a business side to the basketball. Coaching changes, trades... At one point, Tyson (Chandler) made a comment to me, "You've seen it all. Now, nothing is gonna be new to you." I think we had like eight 10-day contracts last year, something crazy like that.
SI: Yeah, it was wild. By the end of the year it looked like a different team.
Booker: Yeah, I saw the business side of it. But at the same time I saw you gotta be ready for your opportunity. I wasn't playing at the beginning of the year. I was frustrated not playing. But you never know what can happen. Trades, injuries—it was unfortunate that Eric and Brandon (Knight) got hurt, but it opened up an opportunity for me.
SI: Once you got that opportunity, you really opened some eyes around the league, like Dywane Wade and LeBron. And then Kobe talked to you and gave you a signed pair of shoes after the final matchup last year. How did all of that feel as a 19 year-old?
Booker: It's a crazy feeling. I look up to all those guys. I idolize them. And to earn that respect from them? Living legends? It means a lot, because I know they've been in the situation I'm in, a young player in this league, and they had to prove themselves. Obviously, they see a little bit [in me], to where I could... maybe not have a career like theirs, but I'm on the right path. I have a long way to go, and I'm gonna work towards that. Hearing those comments just makes me want to work that much harder.
SI:So do you keep the Kobe shoes on display, or will you keep those locked away?
Booker: Well, I don't have a house yet, so I have 'em locked up somewhere for now. But once I get a house? I'll probably have a game room in there, and I'll have a special display for 'em.
SI: Last year, aside from the praise, I gotta ask: how often did guys give you trouble because of how young you look?
Booker: I still get that. That's why I'm trying to grow a little chin hair here. [rubs goatee]
SI: Nice. Good strategy.
Booker: [laughs] But no, I knew I had to prove myself. Every time I stepped on the court I could feel people being a lot more physical with me, which I expect. I could imagine being a veteran in this league and some 19 year-old comes to play against me. I'm gonna do the same thing to him, too. Push him around a little bit, see what he's made of. But I think I fought back enough to earn their respect. They know I'm not going to back down.
SI: Were there any other moments that'll stick with you from that first year?
Booker: There were so many. My first start, Eric [Bledsoe] was hurt. We played against the Spurs. I walk out, and there's Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan, (Gregg) Popovich... They've all been in the league since I was 1 or 2 years old. It was just crazy being on the court with them at the same time. That night I called my dad, and said, "I just played against people that you played against."
SI: Yeah, so your dad, Melvin, played pro basketball in the NBA for a little bit, and then overseas. I've read elsewhere about you moving in the 10th grade and embracing "the grind." What exactly did that process entail?
Booker: It was a lot. One, just moving away from your childhood friends, and my mom, my brother, my sister. It was a culture shock at first, moving from Michigan to Mississippi. But it ended up being the best decision I ever made. I never understood the grind. I always watched games, I was a student of the game, but I didn't understand the extra work it takes. My dad instilled that in me, and it's stuck with me to the point that now, if I don't [put in extra work], I don't feel right.
SI: The actual workouts sounded pretty wild, too. On the beach, waking up at 4:30 a.m. ...
Booker: Yeah, but I mean, my dad was never one of those dads that forced it on you. The only reason we did the 5 a.m. workouts was because we had to beat the heat.
SI: Ohhhh, OK. It was strategic with those gulf coast summers...
Booker: Yeah. And I'd go right back and get in my bed when we were done. My Dad always said, "Anyone waking up that early and staying up the rest of the day, they're getting worn out."
SI: Were you surprised by the reaction last week when you signed that autograph after the ejection?
Booker: I was surprised, I was definitely surprised. I didn't really think nothing of it. I think the whole situation was, I wasn't as frustrated as people thought. I just didn't understand the call. It was just... It was petty I think. [smirks] So I just went along with it. The game was almost over anyway. And at the same time, that kid paid hard earned money to come watch us play. They deserve that.
SI: You get the Klay comparisons more than anything else. But that's not really how play. Is that more a function of what this team needs, or how you want to play?
Booker: I think I got the Klay comparisons a lot more in college. I was fitting in with my team then, and all I shot was catch-and-shoot threes. Not to say that's the only thing Klay does, because he's a lot more versatile with what he can do, but that is mostly his game, catch-and-shoot threes. Playing off other players. But my game my whole life has been being a little bit good at everything. My dad always taught me the fundamentals of the game, dribble, pass, shoot. So I never relied heavily on any one thing, until I got to college, when I was just adjusting to the team.
SI: So looking around the league, who are you patterning your game after?
Booker: I watch all two guards. I watch Klay's film. I watch J.J. Redick's film. I'll watch some of Brad [Beal's] film. I try to take bits and pieces from everybody. Kobe's film. I don't want to rely on one thing. Being good at everything, that's how you earn your spot on the floor.
SI: One thing you've struggled with early this year, threes haven't been falling the way a lot of people have been expecting them to.
Booker: Ohhh yeah.
SI: Do you worry about that at all? Do you pay attention to the percentages?
Booker: I don't worry about it, because I know it's all going to come around. But I would've liked for it to come sooner. [laughs] Obviously, I know I can shoot the ball. Everybody on our team knows I can shoot the ball, so I'm not worried about it, but I want to win games. And I feel like if I could've made a couple of those shots, gotten in rhythm in a couple of those games, we could've won.
At shootaround before Wizards-Suns on Monday, Phoenix coach Earl Watson was asked about his days playing for Scott Brooks on a young Thunder team with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in 2008. Watson remembered watching them learning how to win, and learning how to be a professional. "Sometimes you get these people who just analyze the now," Watson said. "When I was in OKC, we could not close games. We had Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, and we could not close games. But you gotta let those young guys become who they are. What really changed us, as the season progressed, those young guys began to earn ownership of their team."
This is the theme of Devin Booker's season. The Suns may not have the talent that OKC had, but they definitely have the youth. And this is Booker's year to take ownership. After injuries and a coaching chance gave him more opportunities through the second half of last season, the 13th pick in the 2015 draft accidentally became the cornerstone in Phoenix.
He opened eyes all over the league, and he's now leading the team in scoring and minutes through the first month of the season. He's also struggled with his own three-point shooting (30% on the year), and the Suns have struggled to stay consistent from night to night. This past Friday, for example, the Suns beat the Pacers. On Saturday, they were blown out by the Sixers.
Monday, Booker and the Suns led the Wizards through most of the second half, but they fell apart down the stretch -- still learning to close. Before the game, though, I caught up with Booker to talk about shooting, these Suns, and some of the other lessons he's had so far.
SI: As a shooter, do you ever feel like it's harder for you to get into a rhythm when you're spending so much of the game initiating the offense?
Booker: No. No, I'd just say it's a long season. I went through that slump early in the season, but, it'll all even out. [laughs] Hopefully I can break out of it tonight.
[Note: Booker had 30 points on 6-9 three-point shooting later on Monday night.]
SI: One of my favorite parts of your game is the confidence to keep shooting regardless. For shooters, that's a real, legitimate skill. How do you develop that?
Booker: Just having a short memory. Knowing the work you've put in. And trusting your game. Just because you miss shots, you can't doubt yourself. It's easier said than done. You know, if you miss your first four shots, it affects you. But you just have to know you've spent enough time in the gym. They're supposed to fall, and they will if you keep shooting.
SI: Among the younger guys, do you guys talk about setting the tone for the future?
Booker: We try to. And we try to ignore the fact that we're young. Because we're playing big time minutes like we're not young. So we're trying to run with it. We're not trying to wait two or three years from now. We're trying to get in the playoff hunt right now. That's our goal right now. Each and every night, we're going to have a chip on our shoulder, because we are young, and people are going to go at us. We look forward to the challenge.
SI: Were you excited heading to a team that already had Kentucky guys like Bledsoe and Brandon Knight and Archie Goodwin?
Booker: It makes the transition easier because I'd met a lot of those guys. I knew Eric, I knew Brandon. And then once I got here, it felt like home with everybody. Everybody talking trash about their colleges and all that. I had a special bond with a lot of the players. Markieff being one, now he's here [in D.C.]. Ronnie Price helped me out a lot. In the league, those vets help. I was blessed to have great vets around me, like Tyson. They made my transition a lot easier.
SI: What about your Kentucky teammates around the NBA? Like how often will you and KAT keep in touch?
Booker: I talk to Karl a lot. I probably talk to Karl the most out of everybody on the team, besides Tyler (Ulis). But I keep up with everybody. The Harrison twins, Trey (Lyles)... Trey's in the West, Andrew (Harrison) is in Memphis, so we see those guys a lot. I'm proud of everybody. Hopefully 15, 20 years from now we can all go back, talk about our college experience, the memories that will last forever.
SI: And now this year you had Ulis come out, too. When are you guys going to get Calipari to the NBA and just form a Kentucky superteam?
Booker: [grins] I think he's happy where he's at. That'd be a nice little lineup right there. But like I said, I think he's happy where he's at.
SI: Who's been the toughest matchup in the NBA thus far?
Booker: Sheesh. There's a lot. I'll say... Dame and CJ. Both of them. Constant motion, they're always looking to score. And they have great role players around them who understand that they're the dominant scorer, so they'll set really good screens for them, and they get a lot of good looks.
SI: What have been the biggest adjustments to NBA life off the court?
Booker: Taking care of your body. Eating right. Those are the two major things.
SI: Did you have people around to help with the transition?
Booker: I did. I had a chef, on and off, we tried everything. But I still eat bad sometimes. That's the hardest thing for me. I still eat bad...
SI: What's your go-to option for fast food?
Booker: Raisin' Canes. The chicken fingers. Yessir.
SI: Now you guys finish up a six-game, 8-day road trip. Are you looking forward to getting home? Do you have Thanksgiving plans?
Booker: Yeah, we get back the night before Thanksgiving. I'm actually going to serve people at St. Vincent De Paul. We did it last year, too. We'll serve all the families there. And then my mom's coming into town this year, so I'll have someone to cook.
SI: OK, very important last question: Rank your favorite Thanksgiving foods?
Booker: OK, Mac and Cheese, one.... Cornbread, two. And then we gotta get a meat in there, so I'll say turkey at three. And then... mashed potatoes and gravy at four. That's my consistent plate. I'll do a little bit of stuffing, too. I'll do a little bit of everything.