PHOENIX — Driving on the Loop 202 is when Devin Booker first noticed the Phoenix Suns billboard with his likeness staring back at him high above the traffic.
A big deal, sure, but not the first time Booker had his face displayed on a billboard.
“I was on a billboard in high school, actually,” he said. “When I made the McDonald’s (All-American) Game they put me on one. That was pretty neat.”
As a professional now, Booker will need to get used to the increased attention, just as he did on the court.
In his first season, Booker went from seeing sporadic playing time off the bench — where he averaged 6.5 points and 14.7 minutes in 25 games — to hearing his name announced last during pre-game introductions.
His insertion into the starting lineup — where he averaged 17.4 points and 34.1 minutes in 51 games — accelerated his development and quickly earned him fan-favorite status.
Booker was a bright spot in an otherwise dull season.
“I don’t think a lot of people quite understood my game,” he said of a rookie year in which he finished as the Suns’ active leading scorer (13.8) and third-best overall behind injured point guards Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight.
“I think I showed that this year, my ability to create my own shot, get other people involved — things like that. Something, like I said, I always knew I had it in my game but a lot of people didn’t but that’s because of how I played at Kentucky.”
Not once as a freshman at Kentucky did Booker hit the 20-point mark. He did so 16 times this season, including six games of 30 or more points setting a Suns’ rookie record.
On April 9 in New Orleans, Booker surpassed 1,000 career points, becoming the fourth-youngest to do so in NBA history, trailing only LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant. He’s only the fifth rookie in Suns history to top the 1,000-point mark, putting him in a category that includes Walter Davis, Alvan Adams, Michael Finley and Amar’e Stoudemire.
And no, the Suns didn’t expect such prolific scoring (at least not this soon) when they selected a then-18-year-old Booker with the 13th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.
“It was incredible to watch,” center Tyson Chandler said. “You see some young players and they got a chance, and he has a chance. It’s all about his work ethic and his decisions.
“Everybody doesn’t have that chance to be a special player. He has a chance to be a special player. I thought he grew throughout the season in his decision-making, his understanding of the game and that’s only going to continue to grow.”
At the end of the season, head coach Earl Watson identified three areas of growth for Booker.
“I think the main thing is physically and you can’t really rush that,” he said. “It’s a process that has to happen naturally, but also, we have the best staff, I think, training and weightlifting staff in the business, medical staff, so building positive muscle, not becoming too bulky and then the next thing after that is stamina. He has to be comfortable being held, being grabbed, being shoved, being hit, and still have the ability to play defense and still hit shots, so stamina is going to be key and then lastly, defending the ball more than two dribbles, three to be exact and defending the post because he’s still going to be young.”
Booker, who stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 206 pounds, will be 20 when next season begins.
“The rookies are probably going to be older than me,” he joked.
The Suns turned to Booker after Markieff Morris was traded and asked their young superstar to be the team’s number-one scoring option, a role he not only embraced but excelled at.
Over 16 games in March, Booker led all NBA rookies in scoring (22.4) and tied for the lead in assists (4.9); marks only James, Stephen Curry and Blake Griffin can claim to have reached in a calendar month as rookies since 1997-98.
Booker doesn’t figure to have the ball in his hands as much next season with the returns of Bledsoe and Knight from injuries, but he did show enough playmaking ability to leave the Suns excited, especially on pick-and-rolls.
“I haven’t played (point guard) since my junior year in high school,” he said, before adding about sharing the court with Bledsoe, “I don’t think there can be as much attention on me with Eric on the floor also. That’s going to open up a lot of open shots for me. I took a few shots this year I didn’t want to take, just late in the shot clock when I had to. Eric obviously is one of the best creators in the league, so that will be a big help for me.”
Booker is anxious to learn, but he admitted to needing some down time at season’s end.
Booker experienced the highs and lows that every rookie goes through, and then throw in a coaching change, player trades and injuries, which caused a dramatic shift in role, and yes, he could use a break.
“The season is so long, people don’t understand that,” he said. “Control the controllables while you’re out there. There’s a business side to the game that you can’t control so you just have to focus on yourself sometimes.”
Speaking of the business of professional basketball, there likely will be more than just billboards in Booker’s future — much more. Perhaps, entire Suns’ marketing campaigns.
Booker gave fans a reason to watch and care about a season that unraveled mid-year.
Fans enjoyed his on-court play and appreciated his humility off-court.
“It’s like a dream come true, especially at this young of age,” Booker said of being a potential face of the franchise. “I always dreamed at one point in my life I would be that guy. I never knew it would be this soon. Here in Phoenix, I love it here, so it’s exactly what I want to be. It comes with a lot of pressure, but it’s a good pressure to have. Like I said, it’s something I always wanted.”
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