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‘It started with Monty’: Devin Booker and Suns succeeding under new leader

Off to a hot start, the coach and star hope to take Phoenix to the next level

When Monty Williams and Devin Booker first broke bread this offseason while enjoying scenic views of Paradise Valley, the new Phoenix Suns head coach imparted words of wisdom to his star guard. One piece of advice, in particular, stuck with Booker.

“His quote to me was, ‘Everything you want is on the other side of hard,’ ” Booker told The Undefeated. “When he says that, it’s not a basketball statement. It’s a mental statement. A hard work statement. It locks me in every time.”

Booker, 23, has taken Williams’ words to heart, and it appears to be paying off for the Suns.

“I’m the type of person that can read somebody and their eye contact,” Booker said. “He has plans for this team and we’re following him. …

“I’m behind him. Totally behind. But I feel the same energy from him to me. So, to have somebody believe in me that much, it helps you out mentally when I am out there.”

Although the Suns are expected to have growing pains this season as a young squad with a new coach, they have been one of the early surprises with a 5-2 record and impressive wins over the LA Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers. Meanwhile, Phoenix has played only one game with starting center Deandre Ayton, who is serving a 25-game suspension for taking a banned diuretic.

Phoenix entered Thursday ranked eighth in the NBA in scoring (115 points per game) and fifth in field goal percentage (47.1 percent). The Suns are also holding opponents to 43.3 percent shooting from the field.

Booker said the Suns’ trust in Williams is the main reason for the team’s improvement.

“You can feel the vibe here. It’s different,” Booker said. “Our team is in a different state than we have been in the previous years. I don’t want to get ahead of myself. … But the culture around, you can feel it. You can feel it in the air. It started with Monty.

“His voice travels. I’ve been in situations before where things coaches say are kind of discussed amongst players. But with Monty, it’s not like that. We all believe in him. He believes in us at the same time. It’s really contagious.”

Suns general manager James Jones hired Williams as the team’s head coach on May 3. Williams, who earned a 173-221 record in five seasons as head coach in New Orleans with postseason appearances in 2011 and 2015, had previously worked as an assistant coach with the Philadelphia 76ers and associate head coach with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Booker said he did his due diligence on Williams after he was hired.

“James Jones let me know,” Booker said. “I was very excited. I didn’t know much about him. I asked people throughout the league. He was highly respected on all ends.”

Williams and Booker quickly bonded through several conversations on and off the court. And Williams has expressed to Booker that he can help him reach his goal of being one of the stars of the league.

“I said to him that ‘I want to help you become a household name. Right now, you aren’t because of all the organizational stuff. But you have the talent,’ ” Williams said. “He reminded me of [ex-Portland Trail Blazers guard] Brandon Roy, 6-6, can do everything and had toughness. That is what I liked about [Roy], he wasn’t afraid of anything.”

Booker has been sensational since arriving in Phoenix, making the 2016 All-NBA Rookie first team and averaging at least 22 points per game the previous three seasons. The Suns rewarded Booker with a five-year, $158 million contract extension last year that will pay him $27.2 million this season. But Booker has yet to be named an NBA All-Star despite his scoring prowess, which included scoring 70 points against the Boston Celtics in 2017.

Winning would certainly help Booker’s case. The Suns have failed to reach 25 wins in each of his four seasons in the NBA. Phoenix’s struggles have included four coaches, a revolving door of players and two general managers. Igor Kokoskov coached the Suns to a 19-63 record last season, the second-worst record in franchise history, and was fired. Williams is actually the fifth coach Booker has played for since being selected 13th overall in the 2015 NBA draft out of Kentucky.

“It’s really tough. It’s been a four-year stretch of straight losing,” Booker said. “A lot of people would say, ‘Well, he got his contract. …’ But when you love your job and love what you do, you want to come in here and you want the energy and aura around the locker room.

“The city, you want to see it at a high level. And it hasn’t been like that. I’ve always said since Day One that I’ve been in Phoenix that I know the fans are there. We got the support behind us. We just have to go and perform.”

The 6-foot-5 guard has averaged 26.1 points per game through seven contests, while shooting career-highs in field goal percentage (53.5%) and 3-point percentage (50%). His shot attempts per game (18.1) are the lowest since his rookie season, which is also noteworthy with Ayton out of the lineup.

Williams said Booker is only in the beginning stages of becoming a complete player. He said he noticed Booker was working especially hard on defense during the preseason, getting over screens and taking pride in his assignments.

“I don’t think people see the sacrifice as Devin is maturing as a player,” Williams said. “He’s not trying to take every shot. We just lost Deandre, a possible 20 points [per game]. Normally, you can lose your mind. I’ve had to pull Devin back every once in a while. But he’s sacrificing a lot.”

Booker said he has two goals this season: To be an All-Star and make the playoffs. With Williams guiding him, Booker is confident those goals can be achieved.

“Those two go hand in hand,” Booker said. “It would mean a lot. I’m not going to hide it and say it’s not something I care about. I do. I want to be an All-Star. I want to be in the playoffs. I am going to work my a– off every day to get there.

“I know from a skill standpoint I’m there. But it comes with winning. So, this year I think we have the right pieces to put ourselves in the right position. But we got to stay grounded.”

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.