Earl Watson reveals a communication approach to his Suns coaching: he gets on Devin Booker the most out of any player on the team, wanting to “push him to be great every day, leading him to greatness.” But Watson said the shooting guard has “embraced everything” that comes along with being the Suns’ brightest star.
And he’s only 20—the youngest top scorer in the NBA at 20.6 points per game. In fact, Booker is on a current streak of 20-plus points in 10 straight games—including back-to-back 39-point performances—as the Suns have gone 5-5 and are only a few games out of the eighth spot.
“He’s beyond his years,” Watson told the NBPA. “He speeds up when he wants to speed up. He shoots when he wants to shoot. He gets to spots on the court when he wants to get to those spots. He plays at his pace. We like to call that, ‘He’s at peace with his game.’ But what makes me most proud is just as good as he is on the court, he’s a better person off the court. He has a passion for being a leader in the community.”
Just how good is Booker’s potential? Just hear it from LeBron James.
“If it’s someone who is under the radar right now that I believe is going to be a really, really, really good, All-Star player in the league, it’s Devin Booker from the Phoenix Suns,” he said on Uninterrupted this season.
This past weekend while in New York City, the NBPA sat down with Booker to break down his unique evolution on and off the court in only his second season. The 10 insights gleaned from the conversation are presented below in a first-person perspective and edited for clarity and length.
1. Preparing for the Big Moment
I was getting a lot of spot minutes at the start of the 2015-16 season. Some games I played really good, then the next game I wouldn’t play at all. So I was messed up in the head; I didn’t know what to expect. But every game, I prepared like I was going to play 30 minutes. If I didn’t play, after the game I was working out, keeping in shape, just getting ready for my chance.
So when that chance came—when Eric Bledsoe went down with a sprained left knee on Dec. 26, 2015—I didn’t want to look back. I didn’t know how serious Bledsoe’s injury was going to be, but once we found out that he’d be most likely out for the season, I knew that I was going to have the opportunity. So I just focused in. Every time I was out there, I just tried to do anything to stay on the floor.
2. Awakening the Full Repertoire
I was a complete shooting guard in high school. I think people didn’t get to see that at Kentucky. I was more of just a spot-up shooter at Kentucky, but more offense was always in my game. I’ve always trained for it. It’s just the team that we had at Kentucky, we were just so crazy talented. We all took a step back honestly. We could’ve all went to any other school and been the man, but we all shared and we all sacrificed. So once I got to Phoenix, it was kind of a refresh method. I had to redo it all, work on it some more and I’m still working to this day.
Not many kids are in my situation to get this many minutes in their second year. I’ve just been happy with the growth, the trust I’ve gained from my coaching staff, my teammates and the whole Phoenix Suns organization. So we’re building, we’ve got a lot of young guys, we’re mixing with a lot of vets. So we’re learning each and every day. Earl Watson always says, “One percent better each and every day.”
3. Emphasizing Different Daily Approaches in Workouts
On the court in the summer, I’m going hard. I just work on everything with the Suns’ staff—there were was five, six coaches on the court last summer—and my trainer, Robbie Haught, when I go out of town. I’ll come in one day and work on all post-ups. I’ll come in the next day and work on all pick-and-rolls. Some days, I’ll come in and do a mix of everything. So I mix it up, just work on all aspects of my game.
Some days, I’ll go in there and nothing feels right, and I don’t want to leave the gym until it feels right, which might take some time. Some days, I’ll come in and it’ll be an official workout—just go really hard, a quick 30 minutes. Some days, I’ll go in two, three times a day. So I don’t really have a set plan that I do. I just go off feeling.
4. Sticking to the Blueprint
When I’m missing a lot of shots, I try to go back to fundamentals—watch old tapes of me doing 10-toed-facing shooting, holding my follow through. I try to hold my follow through every time when I shoot, but you get away from fundamentals sometimes. It’s such a long season, it feels like some games just don’t matter, some shots don’t matter, but once you start missing a couple in a row, you realize you’ve got to get it going. So I just try to stay consistent with my fundamentals.
5. Self-Assessing and Studying Specifics in Game Film
I analyze my play first by did we win or not. But you just have an overall feel of the game, how you played, defensively, what you could’ve done to help your teammate out, put your teammate in a better position. So there’s just so much to the game that I just break down in a lot of ways.
The Suns’ staff sets up our film study perfectly. Whatever we need, we’ll ask. I can tell them, “I want every time Klay Thompson came off a pin-down screen,” and they’ll have it on my iPad. I’ll have five turnovers in a game and I’ll be, like, “Pull up all my pick-and-rolls. I want to see what the defense did.” So it just depends on who I’m matching up against. I’m becoming more familiar with all the 2-guards because it’s like my fourth, fifth time seeing them. You can watch all the film you want, but until you actually get out there with them, that’s when you actually learn their tendencies.
6. Analyzing the Top Shooting Guards
I always looked at Klay as a really good two-way player. He can score the ball, but what’s most impressive is his defense. He has a really good team around him, so it kind of reminds me of my Kentucky situation. I think if he was somewhere else, he can show a little bit more of what he can do. But he’s just doing what he has to, and that’s making a lot of shots. I’ve studied a lot of film on him, and all the 2-guards in the league, including Kobe Bryant.
Kobe changed my life. He’s impacted it from a mentally standpoint. Growing up, I always respected Kobe. I even wear his sneakers. I was with Ronnie Price last year, and he was a former teammate of his, and I’m really close to D’Angelo [Russell] and he was a teammate of his, and you hear so many stories about Kobe—just all the extra work he put in and just the mentality he took to the game that I’ve heard is just unbelievable; also, the way he took care of his body. I feel like I most relate to his competitive nature, just always wanting to be the best at everything.
7. Adjusting to Different Pick-and-Roll Coverages and Defenders
I notice defenses coming at me a lot now. They always depend on what big I’m going against. Sometimes you get a more athletic big, like a Tristan Thompson, where [the team is] probably going to be switching that game. Or when you go against the Spurs, they’re trying to give up long twos. They have the big back. Some teams will trap me. So it’s just matchups—who you’re playing against. You have to be ready for anything because the NBA’s good at scouting. If you have it rolling two or three games in a row, just know a trap’s coming.
Also, usually the best wing defender will be on me. It’s a tough league, a lot of good defenders. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kawhi Leonard are two of the best. KCP’s just so active always—always touching, always hands on. You can’t ever take a play off or he’s going to steal it. And Kawhi, who I faced in Mexico earlier this month, is just so strong. He’s always attached to your body. He’s just a hawk on defense. I think Kawhi’s the best defender in the league.
8. Developing as a Leader
Earl and Tyson Chandler always tell me they want me to work on communicating more, talking more to my team because they’re telling me eventually I’m going to be that man. We have a young team, and I’m the young guy that has been through it. Tyson, Leandro Barbosa, Jared Dudley and P.J. Tucker want me to be the vet for the young guys. They help me each and every day, and I try to relay those same messages that they’re telling me to Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss and Tyler Ulis.
From the beginning of the season, the main message has been “playoffs.” We know the eighth spot is going to be a fight for a lot of teams. We didn’t have the best start that we wanted, but we’re getting better. This month, we’ve been fighting, we’ve been in every game, and now we’re starting to figure out how to close them out.
9. Soaking in the Increased Media Attention
I’m enjoying the whole process. I want to be a great player in this league and I know media comes with it. So it’s just gaining support from other people all across the world, impacting a lot of peoples’ lives—not just in the states, but it’s all across the world. That’s what means the most to me.
I know a lot of people across the world follow me. I see people tweet at me in Chinese, people tweet at me in Spanish. So I need to hit the translate button now to see what they say. I’m working on my Spanish. I need to work on my Mandarin for business, they say. We had the chance to go down to Mexico City and I gained a lot of fans there. So it’s crazy the impact that you can have on somebody’s life just playing the sport that you love.
10. Becoming a Bigger Community and Business Leader
Community work puts everything into perspective for you. We’re so busy sometimes, it feels like we don’t have time to do everything. Our bodies are tired, but once you can make somebody’s day, make somebody’s life, it just shows you what we’re here for. We know it starts in basketball, but honestly it is bigger than basketball, like my friendship with teenager Jenna Warren, who’s a Suns’ season-ticket holder and has Down Syndrome.
She’s doing real good. She’s still coming to the games with her family. So seeing them, good game, bad game, they’re always happy. When I’m warming up, they’re always courtside corner. She claps every shot I make. I always hear her. We always talk pregame, she’s always on the jumbotron during the game and when my family comes to town, we’ll all link up postgame.
Also off the court in Phoenix, I took a bunch of kids shopping this past Christmas. I gave each one a gift card. And with the team, we built a Suns’ park in the Guadalupe area. It’s not the nicest area, so it’s having a place where kids can go. They now have a landmark that they can always talk about for the rest of their lives. I know I have parks that I grew up in that I’ll never forget, so hopefully that’s a moment in their life they’ll never forget.
As for business, I take it a day at a time. I know it all starts on the court. I meet a lot of new people, and that’s the great thing about this. Somebody can have a billion dollars, but they’re still a fan of sports. Everybody I meet, I just link up with. You meet so many people, so it’s just treating everybody the same. That’s what I try to do.