PHOENIX — Phoenix’s Mt. Rushmore of professional athletes will soon be in need of a makeover.
Shane Doan may or may not play another season for the Arizona Coyotes. Larry Fitzgerald will play at least one more season for the Arizona Cardinals. Diana Taurasi enters her final season under contract with the Phoenix Mercury. And Paul Goldschmidt’s future with the Arizona Diamondbacks may depend on whether or not the team is able to sustain one of its better starts in recent memory.
Absent from the above list is a member of the Phoenix Suns.
Their last star to capture the Valley’s attention was Steve Nash. Five years ago.
Guard Devin Booker may fill that spot.
Still just 20 years old — this would’ve been his junior year at Kentucky — Booker has already placed his name alongside some of the greats to play in the NBA.
Players to score 70+ points in a single game:
– Wilt Chamberlain
– Elgin Baylor
– David Thompson
– David Robinson
– Kobe Bryant
– Devin Booker
Players to lead their team in scoring twice before turning 21:
– LeBron James
– Carmelo Anthony
– Kevin Durant
– Devin Booker
Booker also became the fourth-youngest in league history to reach 1,000 career points (trailing only James, Bryant and Durant), while his 2,774 total points are the fourth-most by a player before their 21st birthday.
For a two-year stretch now, Booker has been the one constant for Phoenix, and often the lone bright spot, for a team that has lost 117 games.
“With what he’s done at his age, not only in terms of play on the court, the excitement he’s brought to the fan base, to the community, how he’s handled himself on and off the court … he’s a special talent and a special player,” GM Ryan McDonough said at exit interviews last week.
Drafted with the 13th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, Booker wasted little time in capturing people’s attention. It began with the fans, of course. His peers like Bryant, James and Dwyane Wade voiced their appreciation. And this season, with each passing performance, Booker earned more and more respect from opposing coaches.
“He’s probably at the top of the list if you talk to other coaches and teams around the league, as far as their defensive gameplan and scouting report, it’s how do we shutdown this 20-year-old kid and get the ball out of his hands, which is unusual,” McDonough said.
Golden State’s Steve Kerr called Booker the “centerpiece” for the Suns future.
Dallas’ Rick Carlisle, prior to their meeting against the Suns on April 9, offered up this anecdote.
“Last summer in Las Vegas, I was out there a few times with (Harrison) Barnes with the USA team,” he said, “and one of the gyms we were working out at I saw Booker. He was in there every night for hours just working on stuff, working on stuff, working on stuff. He’s a guy that’s wired to try to be great, there’s no doubt in my mind, and he’s on his way.”
Booker’s reaction to all the praise?
“It’s a big statement coming from them,” he said. “It just shows you I’m on the right path, but I still have a lot, lot, lot more to go, so that’s my goal is just keep working.”
And that right there may reveal more about Booker than anything that’s been said or written about him. For all that he’s accomplished in only two years time, Booker recognizes he’s not accomplished anything, at least not what he hopes to be remembered for.
“I never set limits on myself,” he said. “It’s good, individual accomplishments, but at the end of the day I’m here to be a winner and to turn around a franchise and turn us back into where it used to be and that’s winning a lot of games. That’s my main focus right now.”
It’s a focus McDonough saw very early on.
“He’s very driven, unusually driven and I mean that as a compliment,” the general manager said. “That’s what most of the great players have, that’s what most of the great players are.”
From the moment Booker arrived in the NBA that desire to be great fueled him.
Even at the end of last season there was talk of Booker and face of the franchise. That talk is growing louder given his successful sophomore campaign that included a 70-point outburst on March 24 in Boston. And to his credit, Booker isn’t shying away from the conversation.
“I grew up being fans of all guys that were faces of franchises. The Kobe Bryants. The Dwyane Wades. Michael Jordan. I always grew up wanting to be like those guys. I know what comes with it: putting a lot of time in the gym and winning, so I know we have to win. That’s my goal,” he said, adding about the responsibility of such a distinction, “Obviously you have to know how to speak. Carry yourself in the community. Be a role model. Be involved in the community. Those are all things I feel like I do naturally.
“It’s a big statement to say ‘be a face of a franchise’ and it comes with a lot of responsibility, but I feel I’m built for it.”
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