Devin Booker wasn’t supposed to be the savior of the Phoenix Suns.
When Booker was taken with the No. 13 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft — the fourth player taken from the University of Kentucky in that draft alone, and, at 18, the youngest player in the class — he was supposed to be a three-point shooting specialist who was going to need time to grow and mature into being an NBA player.
That wound up being true — for a few weeks, anyway. But when Eric Bledsoe suffered an injury in December 2015, Booker moved into the starting lineup and never looked back.
And after averaging 13.8 points per game as a rookie — including 19.2 in 28 games after the All-Star Break — and being an easy choice to be an All-Rookie First Team selection in one of the best rookie classes in recent memory, Booker came into this season as the undisputed face, and future, of the Suns — a player Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said Sunday was “a future All-Star, for sure.”
Not bad for someone who didn’t even turn 20 years old until October 30.
“At the beginning of [last] season, when I wasn’t playing at all, it was hard for me,” Booker said. “Everybody wants to play. We all were the best players on our teams growing up. But when I got a chance to play, I never wanted to look back. I just took it and ran with it.”
He hasn’t stopped running, either. If there was any doubt Booker wasn’t ready to accept the mantle of being The Guy in Phoenix, he’s quickly dispelled that notion with his play through the opening few weeks of the regular season.
Booker — whose father, Melvin, had a long pro career overseas that also included cups of coffee with the Houston Rockets, Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors in the mid-1990s — is averaging 20.2 points with 3.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists through the opening 10 games of the season. That’s even while his vaunted three-point shot is struggling, connecting at just a 27.5 percent clip from behind the arc this season. But he’s already had two monster games, scoring a career-high 38 points — including a game-tying shot at the end of regulation — in an overtime win in New Orleans on Nov. 4, only to set a new career-best two days later when he scored 39 in Los Angeles against the Lakers.
Those performances made Booker the youngest player in the history of the league to score as many as 38 points in back-to-back games, and only added to his reputation around the league as one of the most promising young shooting guards in the league.
“I’ve worked towards it,” Booker said. “Some nights I have it going, sometimes somebody else has it going. We figure that out early in the game and play through that player. It’s been me a couple games, it’s been T.J. Warren a couple games, so I won’t just call myself the go-to scorer.
“But I’ve always wanted to be that guy where, late in games, I’m taking the big shot. The game is on me. If I miss it, it’s my fault.”
In that game in New Orleans, Booker found himself put in exactly that spot by Suns Head Coach Earl Watson. After Lance Stephenson scored to put the winless and injury-riddled Pelicans up by two with 2.1 seconds remaining, Watson had time to draw up one play.
P.J. Tucker was to inbound the ball to Booker coming off a screen set by Tyson Chandler. Booker caught the pass going toward the corner, and dribbled once to gather himself. Then he stepped back toward the three-point line and lofted up a beautiful-looking jumper over the outstretched arm of E’Twaun Moore.
The ball splashed through the net, tying the game and sending Phoenix’s bench into a frenzy. Booker would go on to lead the Suns to a win in the extra session.
“He accepts any responsibility,” Watson said. “He practiced that shot, he envisioned that shot.
“For us, we’re developing closers. I’m just being honest with you. It’s a development process. You have to make those shots and miss those shots to become that closer.”
It’s just one of many ways Booker has outstripped the initial lower expectations for him after he was selected on the edge of the lottery last summer. His game has shown a much greater depth to it, with Booker proving he can be a capable mid-range shooter — much like his favorite player growing up, retired Detroit Pistons All-Star shooting guard Richard Hamilton — as well as using his 6-foot-6 frame to bang in the post.
The latter is what stood out to Jared Dudley about Booker’s game after Dudley signed with the Suns as a free agent this summer, and getting a chance to spend time watching Booker’s game from a much closer vantage point.
“The one thing I didn’t know he had was his physical ability to post up and seek contact,” Dudley said. “A lot of guys at 19, 20, they shy away from that. But he looks for that, he added a post-up game to his dimension where we can throw him on the block and that helps you get to the free throw line.”
There’s plenty everyone didn’t know about Booker when he was drafted by the Suns. But just a little over a year into his pro career, it’s already clear that the future of the franchise is tied to his continued development.