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Devin Booker brings optimism into Suns’ second half

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

PHOENIX – During his short time in the NBA, Devin Booker has established himself as one of the best outside shooters and scorers in the league.

His offensive exploits made him one of the steals of the 2015 NBA Draft, when he was selected No. 13 overall. Now at only 22 years old, he’s become the face of the franchise and one of the league’s up-and-coming stars. He signed a five-year, $158-million contract extension last summer that will kick in next year.

And for the third time in four years, he took part in NBA All-Star Weekend festivities in Charlotte, where he attempted to defend his crown in the 3-Point Contest.

Booker took advantage of last season’s 3-point competition to break into the national spotlight when he broke the record for most points in a round, notching 28 points to defeat fellow sharp-shooting guard Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors in the final.

Despite scoring 23 points in his first round, Booker failed to advance this year. Joe Harris of the Brooklyn Nets upset Stephen Curry of the Warriors to win the title, beating competition that included stars like Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki.

Booker said before the competition that he would use the same preparation he did when he won in 2018, which was basically no preparation at all.

“I’m not shooting until I get there, that’s my preparation,” Booker said before leaving for Charlotte. “First year (2016) I had the racks out, went over and put the time on the clock (to practice). The year I won (2018), I didn’t do any of that. So I’m just going to stick with that.”

His 23 points beat the 19 he scored in the first round in 2018 but it wasn’t enough against a deep field of long-range shooters.

At least it provided a break from a difficult season for the Suns. Booker has had a series of nagging injuries after missing training camp and the preseason following thumb surgery. Still, improvement has been evident when he’s been on the court. Booker is averaging 24.6 points a game, and while his 3-point shooting has dropped from 38 percent last season to 32.5 percent this season, he is shooting 46 percent overall, the most efficient rate of his career.

Despite Booker’s individual success, the Suns went into the All-Star break with an 11-48 record, worst in the NBA. They will be riding a franchise-record-tying 15-game losing streak when they come out of the break to begin a three-game Eastern Conference road trip Thursday against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Philadelphia holds the NBA record for consecutive losses with 28 in a row from the end of the 2014-15 season into the 2015-16 season. The Sixers and Cavaliers share the single-season record of 26 consecutive losses.

That isn’t the company Booker wants to keep.

While he has continued to develop as an offensive force and was invited to take part in All-Star festivities, he wasn’t named to the All-Star Game because of the team’s record. He is driven to get there.

“Going into Toronto for my first All-Star Weekend, just looking around and wanting to be a part of this weekend for the rest of my career. … Obviously Sunday is the goal,” he said.

Much of the optimism that arose around the team after last summer’s draft, when the Suns had the first overall pick and selected Arizona center Deandre Ayton, has dwindled as the losses have piled up.

Still, Booker’s emergence – along with the addition of Ayton and the potential for another high draft pick – has provided Suns fans something they’ve lacked since the days of Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire.

Hope.

Despite his age, Booker is in his fourth NBA season and understands his role as the man tasked with making the Suns relevant again by leading them out of a playoff drought that will reach 10 years at the end of the regular season.

The Suns could even have the top pick in the draft again, but James Jones, who is serving as the team’s co-interim general manager along with Trevor Bukstein, has said that he will also target veteran free agents in the offseason.

Booker believes the Suns are only a couple of good players away from turning things around, and he’s happy to do his part to lure stars who can help the team win – and help him reach that goal of suiting up on an All-Star Sunday.

“I think people see what we have here with the young talent,” Booker said. “Phoenix is a place I love dearly, and I’ll relay that message to anybody I try to get here.”

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