Devin Booker is into nostalgia. He likes vintage cars, vintage fashion and, when one considers his festering rivalry with contemporary star Luka Doncic, even some vintage NBA bad blood.
Nike, seizing on his fast-growing popularity, has started selling a Booker-themed version of its Zoom GT Cut 2. He thinks they’re pretty nice and has been wearing them in warmups. But for Phoenix Suns games, he’ll be wearing his long-preferred vintage Kobes (thank you very much).
Booker likes to immerse himself in the past. He speaks about his own recent history frequently, though not always with fondness. He smiles when he thinks back to being drafted by the Suns in 2015; he had never spent appreciable time in the desert and knew nothing about the city. But many of those memories don’t come with smiles.
He spent most of the first four years of his pro career in a morass, cycling through coaches and averaging a measly 22 wins a season. The Suns were worse than a laughingstock; they were irrelevant.
The most glorious moment of that span came when Booker had a magical night in Boston in March 2017, scoring 70 points in a brilliant playmaking display. He and his teammates, thirsty for anything to grab on to, joyously celebrated around him and it left Booker awkwardly having to defend his historic night — the Suns still lost that game by 10 points.
Booker can’t clear those scars and doesn’t want to.
But that seems like a lifetime ago now. Booker added another file to his elite playoff résumé Friday night, saving the Suns’ season for the moment with one of those near flawless offensive games that have developed into his trademark.
Booker, clearly sensing the moment with the Suns down 0-2 to the top-seeded Denver Nuggets and guard Chris Paul out with a groin injury, poured in 47 points on 20-of-25 shooting Friday night in the vital 121-114 Game 3 win in Phoenix.
The usually even-keeled Booker let out a guttural roar when he made his final hoop of the night, a driving layup in traffic that defeated the Nuggets’ attempts to throw bodies at him one last time.
That basket gave him 45 points, the third time in the past six games he’s at least hit that number.
The Suns are still in a fair amount of trouble in this series. They remain desperate for the offensive output of Booker and Kevin Durant, who grinded to 39 points of his own on 31 attempts.
It was the third transcendent performance from Booker in the past two weeks. He had 45 points in a pivotal Game 3 road win against the LA Clippers that gave the Suns leverage. He shot 18-of-29 in that game.
Then he ripped off 25 points in a whirlwind third quarter in that series’ closeout Game 5, part of a 47-point masterpiece that matched the playoff career high he tied again on Friday. He made 19-of-27 that night.
That display capped the most prolific playoff series of his career: 37.2 points on 60% shooting and 2.6 steals per game.
He has slipped a tad in the three games against the Nuggets, averaging 36.6 points … on 60% shooting.
But in these moments in which he would rightly be able to celebrate the present, he repeatedly floats backward.
“I don’t take any chance to do something special for granted,” Booker said after eliminating the Clippers.
“Just being from a young team to an established team now is just something totally different. But I wouldn’t change my journey for anybody else’s. … It’s tough taking them Ls early on. But I think I got to develop my game, and I had people that believed in me, the organization that believed in me and I just took it from there.”
Even with the challenges that are coming with this series that is threatening to end Booker’s run early, the people around him in Phoenix believe he’s never played a more complete game. Especially after he returned in early February from a needed hiatus to address lingering hamstring and groin injury issues, averaging 29.7 points on 53% shooting.
Then he put up the most statistically impressive playoff series in team history against the Clippers. He’s working on surpassing it to carry the Suns with Durant in this series.
He’s also been the team’s most active playmaker on defense. Against the Clippers, he often took the top defensive responsibility, whether it was Kawhi Leonard, Norman Powell or Russell Westbrook. He did it while playing 43 minutes a game, showing he is indeed the Suns’ current alpha, even as he’s playing with future Hall of Famers Durant and Paul.
“Seeing the type of two-way superstar he’s turning into is insane,” said Suns center Deandre Ayton, now playing his fifth season alongside Booker. “I can’t even sit here and explain to you.”
Teammates have noticed sometimes when he’s at the point, Booker will call out a play before receiving instructions from coach Monty Williams. And when Williams makes the call a second later or even simultaneously, they are the same (especially for out-of-bounds plays).
“Sometimes I think he’s reading what I’m reading, or maybe we just coincidentally say the same thing, which is scary,” Williams said. “He’s saying what I’m saying.”
True to his character, Booker waves off the concept he has recently taken some sort of leap. Regardless of the stats or the anecdotes, vintage Book was this way, too.
“I always had a reputation early in my career that I couldn’t [defend],” Booker said, about a belief among NBA scouts years ago. “Being a part of a losing team was tough and I had a lot of weight on my shoulders. … I always thought I was a good defender.”
And there is this story. In 2019, early in Williams’ first season as Booker’s fifth coach in as many seasons, he woke up to a text from Booker in the middle of the night. The night before, Booker wasn’t assigned to defend a superstar on the opposing team.
Williams chose not to identify the player, but he remembers Booker being upset that his new coach didn’t give him the responsibility.
“He was like, ‘Coach, I wanted them,'” Williams remembered. “And that spoke volumes to me.”
Because Williams didn’t see him as that type of player either — at least back then.
It’s not like he’s new to this level of play; Booker made first team All-NBA last year. Two years ago, his dominant playoff performance got the Suns to the Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks.
But Williams and Booker’s teammates are witnessing his evolution, regardless of how the star himself wants to characterize his career.
“You see somebody like Book and you see his journey, you see his work ethic and love for the game and you try to pull some stuff from them, too,” Durant said.
“Getting the opportunity to play with some of the best players of all time, it’s something that is going to only make my game better and just make my story better, to be honest,” Booker said.
“I don’t want to take it for granted.”