Devin Booker wants his due … but not as much as an NBA championship
The Suns All-Star guard has experienced the highs and lows of the NBA. Now, he’s focused on legacy: ‘I dreamed about [the Finals] as a kid.’
NEW ORLEANS — Devin Booker questioned the criteria after he didn’t finish in the top 3 in NBA MVP voting this season despite leading the Phoenix Suns to the league’s best record (64-18) by a wide margin. His Suns No. 1 jersey didn’t crack the top-10 selling NBA jerseys. And when media pundits discuss the league’s best players, the shooting guard who averaged 26.8 points this season and led the franchise to the Finals last year is rarely mentioned.
Could Booker very well be the NBA’s least appreciated star?
Suns head coach Monty Williams, who views Booker as a top-5 player, believes so.
“It’s where we are in our basketball society,” Williams told Andscape following the Suns’ first-round series-clinching 115-109 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans in Game 6. “There is not an appreciation for skill. He is one of the most highly skilled players in the league.
“He has taken a program from 19 wins to 60-plus wins in three years. No one recognizes it for what it is. He is part of the best backcourt in the game, and still people don’t recognize it. I can’t explain it, but people just aren’t giving him his due.”
While Booker, 25 and in his seventh season, believes that he “should’ve been one of the guys” in the running for MVP, he says it doesn’t bother him and he is focused on the bigger picture.
“I have a whole different shift of the mindset right now,” Booker told Andscape. “Regular season is fun and dandy. Especially with the winning record we have, breaking a franchise record this season. Especially from what I’ve seen. I’ve been at the bottom of the league. Flipping that, being at the top, that is what I am focused on. …
“The thing for me is the legacy stuff. Being at halftime of the  All-Star Game and watching the Top 75 [players of all time] come out and the reading of their names. Like, ‘Five-time All-NBA. Six-time All-NBA.’ I don’t want to lose that. I think about legacy sometimes also. And if I earned it, I think I deserved it.”
Being slighted is nothing new for Booker.
Booker was not a starter for the University of Kentucky during the 2014-15 season. Once he got to the NBA, Booker made three All-Star teams, but was selected as an injury replacement during two of those games.
It wasn’t until Booker led the Suns to an 8-0 record during the 2020 NBA bubble before the addition of Chris Paul that he began getting respect as an elite player. Adding Paul, a 12-time All-Star, largely helped Booker and the Suns advance to the 2021 NBA Finals. Booker is averaging 23.5 points for his career, but Paul’s superstar status understandably snatches a big portion of the Suns’ spotlight.
Said Williams: “He is at a place now where it doesn’t even bother him anymore. He knows the more he wins and plays on a big stage, people will have to acknowledge that he is a top-5 player in the league.”
What should attract more respect for Booker was his ability to return from an injury in the postseason much earlier than expected.
After scoring 31 points in 25 minutes, Booker suffered a mild hamstring strain in the third quarter of a 125-114 Game 2 loss to the Pelicans on April 19. The expectation was the 6-foot-5, 206-pounder would be out for two to three weeks. With Booker out, the Western Conference’s top seed entered Game 6 with a 3-2 series lead over the surprising and gritty Pelicans.
Booker missed seven games in December with a strained left hamstring and has been sidelined by other injuries during his NBA career. But missing out on postseason games was a “whole different beast” for Booker.
“Watching the last three was tough, including the one I went out in,” Booker said. “It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. … Especially after seeing them get two games on us. It’s definitely something we didn’t want to happen. But we managed it and made [the Game 6 win] happen.”
Williams told Andscape that Booker actually lobbied hard to play in the Suns’ 112-97 win in Game 5. Williams said Booker was told by the medical staff to give it one more game before pushing for a return. Booker had been working on the floor with Suns first-year assistant coach Jarrett Jack, a former NBA guard. Jack told Andscape that he noticed some “pop to his legs” from Booker during two workouts last Wednesday.
Jack told Williams that Booker appeared to grow stronger every day, and that he thought he could play at a healthy and competitive level in Game 6. The Suns’ medical staff agreed, which led to Booker’s return much faster than anticipated.
“I was honest with Coach,” Jack said. “Is he [the] Devin Booker [who] is going to go for 30 [in Game 6]? I wouldn’t sign off on that. Is he playable? Very much so. It was not only me identifying it, it was me working in concert with our support staff, me leaning on them with what I see with my basketball eyes and them telling their medical opinion.”
Said Williams: “Book knows it’s a huge thing to put him back out there. He doesn’t want to put himself in harm’s way and he understands it’s a tough decision for us. I’m sure he didn’t want to put us in a tough spot.”
Booker scored 13 points in the Suns’ series-clinching Game 6 victory. He appeared rusty, scoring just two points in the first half as the Suns trailed 58-48 at halftime. Suns reserve swingman Cameron Johnson, who started the previous three games for Booker, started the second half.
The halftime lineup change was planned. Williams expected to play Booker for 24 minutes. Booker ended up playing 32 minutes, and hungered for more.
“I thought we were going to have a fistfight over there with the look he gave me,” Williams said after Game 6. “We had already talked about it, but we had to stick with the plan because it was going to be easier to finish with him.”
Booker wasn’t his typical All-Star self, finishing 5-of-12 from the field and missing five of six 3-point attempts to go with five rebounds and three assists. But Booker played during the final stretch, which included a key 3-pointer with 1:42 remaining that gave the Suns the lead for good over the Pelicans.
“We don’t win without him,” Williams said. “He hit a big shot down the stretch with the pull-up on the left side, with a 3 in the corner. The one time he posted up [Pelicans guard Jose] Alvarado, he got to his shot. It was textbook Book.”
Booker said he planned to “rest and get his body right” during the three days off before starting their second-round series against the Dallas Mavericks on Monday in Phoenix. He averaged 23.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three games against the Mavericks this season.
“I trusted my body. Great training staff put me in this situation,” Booker said. “I was more than confident. I didn’t feel anything. I’ve played through the injury before while I was playing. But through all the test and trials, I didn’t feel anything.”
Perhaps the best way for Booker to get his just due is by leading the favorite Suns to their first championship after losing in six games to the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2021 NBA Finals.
“I have shifted that energy from losing the Finals in a good way,” Booker said. “It’s a good segue in the locker room to talk about and motivate. We talk about the details of the game. Even this [Pelicans’ series], offensive rebounding doesn’t sit with us well because it’s the reason why we lost [games]. Winning a championship is something I want more than anything in my life. …
“I dreamed about [the Finals] as a kid. But now it’s a reality and I have to make it happen.”