The Rapid Rise Of Devin Booker

Jan 17, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) sits on the bench in the fourth quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. The Minnesota Timberwolves beat the Phoenix Suns 117-87. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 17, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) sits on the bench in the fourth quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. The Minnesota Timberwolves beat the Phoenix Suns 117-87. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports /

Devin Booker doesn’t play like your average 19-year-old and because of that he’s the best hope the Phoenix Suns have.

After a year at Kentucky where he didn’t start a single game Devin Booker entered the NBA as the league’s youngest player on a Phoenix Suns team that had nearly $130 million invested in its starting backcourt and legitimate playoff aspirations. Suffice it to say, expectations were measured.

Fast forward to Jan. 19 when Booker, going against one of the league’s five best defenses in the Indiana Pacers, became the third-youngest player in league history to score 30 points. The two ahead of him? Just LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

Booker despite a preseason that had just about all of his teammates talking him up got inconsistent playing time for the team’s opening two months. With Eric Bledsoe out for the year with a torn meniscus and the Suns season already devolving into a tank job, Jeff Hornacek had nothing to lose by letting Booker loose.

Book, as his teammates affectionately refer to him, quickly earned Hornacek’s trust, playing with a maturity beyond his years and raining home threes at morning shootarounds long after his teammates hit the showers.

“He’s a guy at 19 that’s got the confidence of a veteran,” Hornacek noted last week.

That confidence is reflected in Hornacek himself, who helped Booker get off to a hot start by calling his number on the game’s opening play against the Pacers.

Booker took a delayed back screen from Tyson Chandler, caught a pass from a ground-bound P.J. Tucker and drained a corner three.

“Just having coach trust you like that especially at such a young age I had the confidence to knock down that shot because he drew up a play for me,” Booker said.

Booker came into the association pegged as a one-trick pony. At Kentucky nearly half of his shots came from behind the arc.

When he wasn’t taking threes he’d often settle for off-balance pull-ups rather than trying to create something at the rim.

“I just take what the defense gives me, if I have an open three I’m going to take it, but if they close out too hard I’m going to go by them,” Booker.  

To say his improvement around the basket has been dramatic would be an understatement. He’s shooting 64 percent at the rim, which would have been a nice leap for him even if he had stayed in school, but the fact that he’s doing it against NBA talent puts him way ahead of schedule.

“He’s smart, when you play it one way he goes (the other), he’s gotten some backdoor cuts when they play the high side, that’s the maturing of a guy usually a few years into the league, so he’s going to have a jump start,” Hornacek said.

Booker followed up that performance by carrying a Suns team that was slowly starting to resemble a morgue against the Spurs.

Phoenix was predictably blown out, but Booker finished with 24 points; draining off the catch, hitting pull-ups that most teenagers wouldn’t dream of taking and finishing off one nasty reverse spin move on Jonathon Simmons.

The clip also shows just how much Booker has improved as a playmaker. While he’s not doing anything spectacular he’s consistently making functional NBA passes that he simply wasn’t seeing earlier in the season.

Booker has also rapidly turned himself into a competent NBA defender despite lacking elite athleticism and size.

“It’s tough you have to pay attention to detail know player’s tendencies, just always be ready. You can never fall asleep on defense in the NBA because they’ll make you pay for it,” Booker said.

There was a play in the Spurs game when the Book was getting violently backed down by the MVP candidate and possible robot sent from the future to extend Tim Duncan’s prime, Kawhi Leonard.

Booker got shoved off his feet a couple of times and right before Kawhi could embarrass him with a simple layup Booker made a desperate grab for the ball and took Leonard right down with him. How many 19-year-olds have both the competitive fire and testicular fortitude (shout out, Roger Goodell) to pull that crap on one of the five best players in the game?

To put what Booker is doing in context here are his PER 36 minute stats compared to James Harden and Klay Thompson’s rookie years.

Devin Booker: 16-3-2 with 43-47-81 splits
James Harden: 15.5-5-3 with 37.5-42-81 splits
Klay Thompson: 18.5-3.5-3 with 41-44-87 splits

Booker’s debut campaign, despite inconsistent playing time until this month, stacks up nicely to arguably the two best shooting guards in basketball (chose not to include Jimmy Butler in this because he barely played as a rookie) despite both spending more time in college.

It doesn’t totally make sense that Booker is this good, this fast. He credited the NBA breeding ground that fronts as an institution of higher education.

“I’d say it was my practices at Kentucky .We were really competitive and we had a lot of NBA guys there so it was like an NBA culture when we were living at Kentucky and it prepared me for this moment.”

There are still going to be setbacks as there are with any rookie, Booker’s latest came two nights ago when he shot 6-of-19 and fouled out against the Atlanta Hawks. Yet, without four rotation players (five if you count Bledsoe), even when he’s off the Suns need Booker to keep shooting.

“I’m never comfortable taking bad shots, but sometimes that’s what the team needs, if no one is making any shots,” Booker said.

Despite the temporary reprieve of Archie Goodwin’s ridiculous buzzer-beater to beat the Hawks, Phoenix has still lost 15 of their last 17 games, prompting the toughest question of all; is living out your dream still fun?

“Yeah it’s a lot of fun, you know that’s what the game is about. You’re trying to have fun, at the end of the day there are people watching us play,” Booker said.

“Fun” and “the Suns” haven’t been synonymous for more than a year now, Devin Booker might just change that.