azcentral sports columnist Greg Moore goes over a busy summer for the Suns star guard and what the future holds for the team.
Devin Booker’s got a good memory.
He was speaking to a group of about 300 kids at a youth camp in Gilbert over the weekend when the youngsters found out just how good — and when it became clear that Booker is ready to take the next step toward stardom.
“I feel like it’s going to be the best season I’ve had so far,” he said after an impromptu shooting competition at the Inspire Courts.
The drills and scrimmages were over and all the youngsters packed in to watch the contest: Devin Booker vs. his dad, Melvin Booker, vs. his buddy and former teammate, Tyler Ulis, vs. the guy writing this column, vs. a couple of kids from the camp.
Predictably, it came down to Devin vs. his old man, a former NBA pro. Even more predictably, Devin Booker won.
“There’s a bigger story behind that,” Booker told the kids, sitting on the floor with their legs crossed, hanging off his every word. “We had a shoot-off at my high school. It was a charity event, just me and him. And he beat me, in front of my whole high school. So, I had to get this one today.”
His dad smiled.
“I couldn’t beat him at his own camp,” he said.
It’s that sort of drive that’s made Devin Booker the Suns $158 million man, and it’s the reason Phoenix fans are going to have to learn to share the guy who’s been, up to this point, the NBA’s best-kept secret.
Around here, we all know the stories:
“The Snub”: Booker didn’t start for Coach John Calipari at Kentucky.
“The Practice”: Where a maturing Booker got into a fight with a fully grown P.J. Tucker during a 2017 workout in Mexico City.
“The Game”: March 24, 2017, when he put 70 on the Boston Celtics.
“The Shootout”: Where he outdueled Klay Thompson last season in the NBA’s 3-point competition over All-Star Weekend.
Now add to that “The Nickname”: Some folks have taken to calling him “Young Kobe.”
You might think that for a guy as competitive as Booker would chafe at the name, but that’s not the case. (Another legend is “The Ping-Pong Table”: A buddy had one growing up and beat a 13-year-old Book. He never let it go and today is like the NBA’s version of Forrest Gump with a paddle in his hand.)
If anything, he’s flattered.
“Kobe (Bryant) is obviously a great of the game,” Booker said, his respect clear. “And for people to even mention my name with his is unfair to him, but I want to build my own legacy here in Phoenix. I feel like I’m off to a pretty good start. Just gotta keep going. Turn these losses into wins and make the playoffs and go from there.”
Booker wants to win, clearly. Remember “The Proclamation?” He said at the end of last year’s 24-win season, “I’m done with not making the playoffs. I’m serious.”
It came up repeatedly as he thought about the season ahead. He’s excited about rookies Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges for what they can do offensively. And he’s looking forward to playing with free-agent addition Trevor Ariza, a veteran who brings “that winning mentality that we need.”
He’s been getting ready this summer, working out with Team USA.
“It was great,” he said. “… Coach Pop (Gregg Popovich), Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) was there, Jerry Colangelo, that’s just a few names, but it’s a long list of living legends that are there.”
Booker was the youngest guy on the roster. He and 22-year-old Indiana big man Myles Turner were the only players there younger than 25.
“Getting a chance to go one-on-one with KD, Paul George,” Booker said. “It’s always fun getting that many talented guys with similar mindsets in the same gym. It felt great. It’s supposed to be like a chill camp, but every time we had a chance to go at it, all those competitive people, the intensity got up there.”
If he can turn all of this into “The Playoffs,” it’ll bring national attention. Everyone will learn the stories we’ve been collecting.
It’s never easy to make the postseason in the West, but it’s not unrealistic to think the Suns could jump by 20 wins or more over last season. If a few teams take a step back — and we’re looking at you San Antonio, Denver and Oklahoma City — the Suns could be hovering around the bottom of the playoff pile late in the year.
It should be enough to help Booker make his first All-Star or All-NBA team.
But this much is clear: He’s tired of losing, and he remembers every diss.
Just ask that kid who traveled from suburban Lexington, Ky., to visit the two-day Pro Camps event. Booker sent him back home with a smile and a message for Coach Cal.
“Ask him why didn’t he start me when I was in college,” Booker said.