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Devin Booker aims to rise with Suns

‘I think there’s definitely going to be a lot of moves made this summer’

Three years ago, Devin Booker played in the Final Four with the University of Kentucky. That postseason appearance is still the last one for the three-year Phoenix Suns guard.

Booker has already proved that he can be one of the NBA’s elite players, scoring 70 points against the Boston Celtics last season. He is expected to be a future All-Star. But when will the Suns reach playoff level, presumably with Booker still as their star? The Suns own the NBA’s worst record and will miss the postseason for the eighth straight year.

“It’s hard man, honestly,” Booker said. “I was talking about it with [teammate] Tyson [Chandler]. It was probably the most disappointing [season] for me. My first year, rookie year, I’m just trying to get a chance to play. Just trying to be out on the court so I got that opportunity, and I took advantage of it, came back the second year, and I was trying to solidify that I wasn’t just a backup plan, starting minutes, doing well. So I started my second year. We didn’t play that well, teamwise.

“And then this year, I thought it was going to be the year where we make that jump. And with so many things going on here, we fell super short. So, being a competitor, being a winner most of my whole life, it’s really hard.”

Booker, who has been sidelined since March 15 with a sprained right hand, is averaging career bests of 24.9 points, 4.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game. The sharpshooter also is hitting a career-high 38.3 percent from 3-point range and was in the 2018 NBA 3-point competition during All-Star Weekend.

Booker is expecting changes for the better this offseason in Phoenix.

“It’s only up now,” Booker said. “This summer is a big summer for us. You hear our GM [general manager Ryan McDonough] come out and say he’s going to be super aggressive. We have young talent, we have a lot of picks, with a lot of money too. So I think there’s definitely going to be a lot of moves made this summer.”

The Suns also will be looking for another head coach during the offseason.

Phoenix fired second-year head coach Earl Watson after an 0-3 start. Booker credits Watson for helping him develop as a player. The Suns replaced Watson with associate head coach Jay Triano on an interim basis. Booker has had three head coaches during his Suns tenure.

“Earl and me are really close, man,” Booker said. “I always tell people he was my player development coach before he became the head coach. He was somebody that believed in me. I think everyone’s seen the quotes on my 70-point game. He just wanted to see me succeed and put me in that position.

“He’s somebody that I’m always thankful for the position that I’m in. But you learn that it’s a business and you have to deal with certain situations, coaching changes, trades. And I think I’ve seen most all that now.”

The Arizona Republic reported in December 2017 that McDonough said Booker will have a say in all of the franchise’s major decisions. That includes a new coach, free agency and the draft. Booker said he is respectfully keeping any Suns information he has quiet and noted that he has no decision-making power.

So what do the Suns need?

“You need a couple guys in the locker room that can fill it out, build chemistry,” Booker said. “Sometimes it’s not the best players always win. Sometimes, it’s how a team relates with each other. Like Houston, I know those guys are actually all close off the court before. They became teammates, and I think that directly translates to the court.

“So, for me, I’m not going to be making any decisions, yes or no. But just give ’em my little input, what I think will work and who we need.”

Booker is eligible to sign a five-year deal worth $156 million with the Suns next offseason. If the 21-year-old doesn’t sign an extension this summer, he will be a restricted free agent in 2019. By the sound of things, Booker appears interested in being with the Suns long term, with the goal of turning it all around.

Booker said he is excited about the Suns’ young talent, in particular the play of rookie forward Josh Jackson late this season. The Suns (20-59) could have three first-round picks in the talented 2018 NBA draft.

The Grand Rapids, Michigan, native described living in Phoenix as “lovely” and said the city and the fans are behind him “100 percent.”

Asked about the deliberation process in deciding to sign the Suns’ massive contract extension this summer, Booker said: “Just remembering why you play the game. I’m here to win. But no one said it was going to be easy when it first starts. But I always wanted to be one of those players that can turn around the franchise. The city of Phoenix loves the Phoenix Suns. Giving the fans what they want, also. Just making the right team around here.

“I knew from day one that there wasn’t going to be success right off the bat. There was going to be some ups and downs, but also hopefully it’s all up from here.”

Even with a contract in hand, don’t expect Booker to get comfortable with his game.

“There’s always stuff I need to work on,” he said. “I stay in the gym most of the whole summer. So whatever guys we bring in, hopefully we can do it towards the beginning of the summer so we can start developing a relationship with those guys. And I’ll look at my input, see those players that I feel we all match up with and who we need here.”

Booker’s father, Melvin, played in the NBA for 32 games with the Houston Rockets, Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors and also made money playing in Italy, Turkey and Russia. Devin Booker will make nearly $10 million during his first four NBA seasons playing under a rookie contract. While Devin Booker has been around money with his father and as an NBA player, he acknowledges that this extension is a different level, making $27 million during the 2019-20 season, if signed, and ending with $35.6 million in the last season during the 2023-24 season.

“When you focus on basketball, you focus on your craft, you know that’s what comes with it,” Booker said. “The main thing for me is always loving the game and take what comes with it. It is mind-blowing though, obviously, knowing where we come from. … My dad had played professional of some sort, so I had kind of seen it from a distance. But $150 [million] is totally different.”

Booker left Kentucky after his freshman year, but he would have been a computer science major had he continued. He said he was always a straight-A student since childhood, with a 4.0 grade point average as a senior at Moss Point High (Mississippi), and even took some college courses. Booker said he wants to earn his bachelor’s degree and is trying to figure out the right way to resume going to school.

Booker said his discipline in schoolwork has aided him in basketball.

“That’s where it starts,” Booker said. “That’s where I learned my discipline honestly, in school. Coming home with all straight A’s, most of my life, that was the expectation from my parents. It wasn’t even anything we talked about; that was instilled in me at a young age. For me, just trying to stay close to that, even though the business of basketball right now is at an all-time high. Being educated about it, knowing the different angles of it will always be [important].”

Those close to Booker say he has a maturity level well beyond his years. He has family and friends in his circle who aid him. He has been “meeting a lot of important people” during his young NBA career and maintaining relationships that can help him from a business standpoint. He added that he already has made some financial investments.

“I got my brother around me, one of my bro’s good friends from college, and then one of my friend’s dad is a big businessman in Chicago,” Booker said. “So, you know, at this young part of my career just trying to get hip with everything is what I’m trying to do. But at the same time, focus on my basketball career, honestly.

“Obviously you meet a lot of important people in the situation I’m in. So maintaining those relationships so when the ball stops bouncing, there’s other things to do. Staying active.”

The city of Phoenix is diverse, as it is 46.5 percent white, 39.9 percent Hispanic, 6.8 percent black, 3.2 percent Asian and 1.8 percent mixed-race. Booker’s father is African-American and his mother is Mexican. He acknowledged that he is well-aware of the news that affected the Sacramento Kings and the NBA community when 22-year-old African-American Stephon Clark was shot to death by Sacramento, California, police after his cellphone was mistaken for a gun.

“As far as police brutality and equality, I think we made a lot of strides after [former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin] Kaepernick came out,” Booker said. “But then it’s always down right back with the situations like Sacramento, it is messed up, man. It is really sad because it’s real life, and when you sit back and think about it, it can really be emotional. When I went to school, a lot of kids are really similar to these kids who are getting killed. So it’s something I try not to think about, but it is tough.”

Booker was the 13th overall pick in the first round of the 2015 NBA draft. He said that after he declared for the draft he was able to make some significant money in Kentucky from autograph signings. Booker couldn’t get paid for his autograph while he was a student-athlete. There has been a lot of talk about not only whether the one-and-done rule should exist but also whether the NCAA players should be paid as well.

“The college business, it’s an awful lot of playing. Especially you see the numbers, March Madness, what the revenue does and players not getting paid, it’s really frustrating for us, especially for me. If you’re able to get paid, you’re at Kentucky, usually your jersey number [they’re] making money off it,” Booker said. “So I think they should get rid of that as a whole. … And if the kid’s ready, why hold him back? There’s so many talented kids that are going to college. You look at [ex-Missouri forward] Michael Porter, he played one or two games, still gonna be a top-five pick. So do you even really need college?

“Pay the players, but I’m sure that’s not going to happen. You see the kids going overseas and moving away from college basketball as a whole, but I don’t think there will be any changes made even though there should be.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.