If you can score, you don’t have to change. The league goes through cycles, the value of centers who live at the rim, wings of various sizes and skillsets, smallball bigs, secondary playmaker types, point guards who can play off the ball or ones who need it in their hands—that’s a shifting economy, dependent on imagined playoff matchups, the tastes and analytical models of individual front offices. Seven-footers who once made their money diving off high screen-and-rolls have had to adapt, fan out to the corner or land on the bench. Floor generals are few and far between; maybe you move most of your offense through your star small forward and run your shortest guard off a highway roadwork stretch’s worth of screens. But the demand for scorers is inelastic. Coaches mostly leave those guys alone. Keep doing what you’re doing. Because you need somebody who can get buckets, create out of nothing and at the end of games, drag you to wins on nights when the offense is out of sync.
Devin Booker’s been good enough since about his 22nd year. He went from nice pick—13th overall, Utah just had to have Trey Lyles—to burgeoning star to not messing around in a rapid climb. The raw numbers ticked upward and the efficiency soon followed but more than that he kept adding moves to his shot-making array. Some players markedly improve simply by extending their range. (Going from 34 percent from deep to 39 percent can make quite a difference in what you look like on the stat sheet.) Booker’s been up and down as a three-point marksman throughout his career. His real growth has been in his ever-expanding ability to make difficult jumpers, particularly from midrange, where you can freeze the picture when he’s dribbling at the elbow and not have much of an idea where the play is going. He’s comfortable pulling up, fading to the baseline, driving in a step or two for a floater, attempting some baffling spinning maneuver, all of it. Year over year, guarding him has become increasingly aggravating guesswork, and sometimes he shoots like he’s zooming through dance steps alone in the gym. You brush his eyelashes with your outstretched fingertips, and he doesn’t even see you. Swish.
For most of his career, this gorgeous fluency found no more meaningful application than putting the ball in the basket. Booker would score 20, 25, 35, even 70, and the Suns would lose. Before Monty Williams showed up in Phoenix, the most games Booker had ever won in a year was 24, under Earl Watson, who was fired three contests into the following season. At around the same time Booker arrived as a star, fans and media began to question if anything that he was doing mattered, like it was his fault that Trevor Ariza was too old, Deandre Ayton was too young, and Josh Jackson was a bust. We set the bar almost impossibly high for talented players in bad situations. They all have to be young LeBron, racking up Ws in spite of their mediocre teammates, or we insinuate that they don’t have it.
To be fair, Booker cut a figure both princely and oblivious. There was that pickup game where he whined about Joakim Noah hitting him with a double team. The 70-point celebration was a whit triumphant considering the Celtics beat Phoenix by double-digits. The SLAM cover story, where he and Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell radiated powerful Empty Calorie Guys energy. They said they all wanted to play together one day, and the NBA-watching world sniggered: yeah, and that superteam’ll win 42 games three years in a row.
It doesn’t take much for us to form an impression of a player—or for our ideas to change. The Suns play great at the end of the 2019-20 season, then Chris Paul goes to Phoenix, Ayton and Mikal Bridges start coming into their own, and suddenly the smooth 26 points per night that Booker has been putting up for a while put the team over the top instead of narrowing the losing margin. 51 wins, a slightly flukey but still impressive Finals appearance. This is not to be obtuse about the fact that there is a difference between draining buckets in a Tuesday night tilt against the Hornets and dropping 40 in a Finals game, but Booker—much like his Eastern Conference counterpart Trae Young—didn’t have the opportunity to do the latter until last season. We tend to ex post facto this stuff—so-and-so was good or bad or clutch or fraudulent the whole time—in ways that are intellectually dishonest. In Booker’s case, he had been the guy he was in 2020-21 for at least two seasons, and his trajectory toward that plateau was as steady as it gets. He has scored well, he does score well, he will continue to score well. It is what he does.
And success has not changed him. He caught a mild case of corona heading into training camp and skipped the first few days. Asked whether he was vaccinated, he at first didn’t answer, then confirmed that he was and admonished the press for not Sticking To Hoops. “The whole media day felt like a political debate,” Booker complained, missing the point, as he typically does. It’s fine, he’s fine. There’s nothing malignant about him, he’s just kind of peevish and self-absorbed. Not unusual for a bucket-getter, who doesn’t like to be told what to do and frequently isn’t, because he is indeed special. The stuff that happens around Devin Booker doesn’t concern him. He does a job that he’s extremely good at, night after night. Everything else only flavors his brilliance.