Conversations about offseason preparation dominated the next few days. For every take on what players need to do to get better, a shot at Devin Booker almost always followed, delivered by a former player coming off the top rope with a hot take. Back then, Booker had built a reputation for being a good player on a bad team – one who can put up his own numbers while barely elevating his teammates' level of play.
In the same summer of 2019, Booker, who made clear on numerous interviews his focus on getting better, passed up a prime chance to improve, turning down a spot on Team USA for the FIBA World Cup.
In 2017, at just 20 years old in his sophomore season, Booker dropped 70 points on the Boston Celtics at TD Garden. The Phoenix Suns lost that game. In the summer of 2018, Booker got a name drop from Drake on “SICKO MODE”, way before he led the Suns to any meaningful wins.
This was the Devin Booker story for the first four seasons of his career – some contradictions, too much expectations, too soon. At least this was the case for people outside the inner circle of players. Stars like Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant were on the Devin Booker hype train early.
Respect was put on Booker’s name in the bubble. The Suns entered Disney with a 0.6 percent chance of making the playoffs. By all means, they were there just to make quorum.
But the Suns blew past all expectations. They went 8-0 in the bubble. One loss by the Trail Blazers would have sent them to the playoffs.
Devin Booker (35 PTS & 6 3PM) powered the @suns to the win with his incredible game-winner! ?? pic.twitter.com/pHTN1YgyKU— NBA TV (@NBATV) August 5, 2020
For all the great stats he put up in his career, Booker’s averages in the bubble – 30.5 points, 4.9 rebounds, 6.0 assists – were something else, mostly because they led to wins. It felt like his first true step towards superstardom.
This season, Booker got a first-hand look at what it took to be a winning player. The Suns traded for Chris Paul in the offseason. Unlike Booker whose teams languished out of the playoffs in his first seasons in the NBA, Paul came out of Wake Forest ready to lead the then New Orleans Pelicans to the postseason. Paul has made dragging teams to the playoffs a career, whether they wanted to (like with the Los Angeles Clippers) or not (like with the Oklahoma City Thunder).
From almost making the playoffs last season, the Suns finished with the second best record in the West and broke a 10-year playoff drought. While drawing the limping defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the first round barely counts as a reward, the Suns were still poised to make a deep playoff run… until Paul suffered another untimely injury.
Chris Paul suffering a major shoulder injury not even half into the playoffs almost seems scripted, given his history of putrid postseason luck. The Suns, pummeled by Anthony Davis and LeBron James, were down 1-2 in the first round with their home court advantage erased.
Every past NBA superstar needed a playoff moment to signal their entry into the upper echelon of the league. Nobody hesitated to call rookie Ervin Johnson “Magic” after he carried the Lakers in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals. Michael Jordan had a few highlights in his first two seasons in the league, but he truly arrived when he scored 63 points on the Celtics in the 1986 playoffs. We truly became witnesses of LeBron's spectacular playoff debut in 2006 against the Washington Wizards.
The Suns’ last two games against the Lakers felt like the same announcement to the league from Devin Booker. He has arrived. We finally know what Drake meant when he said he was “wet like I'm Book".
The Lakers were hobbling in their final three games, but no one’s going to remember that. We’re going to remember Booker dicing up the Lakers for 30 points in Game 5, then pouring in seven 3s in the first half of Game 6 to put the defending champs out of their misery. We’re going to remember Booker turning into an unstoppable force, looking like the final evolution of ‘90s scoring wings like Alan Houston and Latrell Sprewell.
We’re going to remember Booker heeding the words of the late Kobe Bryant and being legendary. He finished Game 6 with 47 points. He averaged 29.7 points for the series.
And most importantly, Devin Booker finally won.