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Devin Booker pulling out all the stops to heal, return to winning basketball

Published December 15, 2021, 7:00 AMMark Medina
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The 2-time All-Star has been sidelined since suffering a hamstring injury in the first half of the Suns-Warriors showdown on Nov. 30.

LOS ANGELES — The two connected on FaceTime to catch up. When Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams saw the bright red lights on the video screen, he also learned more of what All-Star guard Devin Booker has done to heal from a left hamstring injury.

“He just has some bed in his house that helps him recover,” Williams told NBA.com with a laugh. “So it’s a little bit more money than I have to spend on an injury.”

Booker spent money on a LightStim infrared healing bed to treat a strained left hamstring injury that has sidelined him for five consecutive games, including the Suns’ 111-95 loss to the LA Clippers on Monday at Staples Center. Booker has not only used the healing bed at his Phoenix home. He also had the same bed arrangement in L.A. following

Monday’s morning shootaround, a routine he also followed in every road city during Phoenix’s run to The Finals last season.

“It penetrates the cells. It’s good for healing,” Booker said. “It works for me. Some people feel it’s a myth.”

What isn’t a myth? Booker’s investment in LightStim highlights two things about his mentality during the 2021-22 season:

One, Booker has invested heavily in his treatment so that he can return from a left hamstring injury that he strained in the first half of the Suns’ win over the Golden State Warriors on Nov. 30.

Booker participated in shooting drills during the team’s morning shootaround on Monday while also spending the past week completing non-contact work and weight-training exercises. Although Booker stressed that his “hammy feels good,” Booker said the Suns’ medical staff wants him to complete contact drills. Since the Suns (21-5) will likely have an off day after playing the Portland Trail Blazers (11-16) on Tuesday (10 ET, TNT), Booker may not practice until after the Suns host the Charlotte Hornets on Dec. 19.

“You never want to miss games, especially with the way we’re playing and balling,” Booker said. “But we’ve put some work into this season already and it shows. I just want to make sure I’m 100% before I get out there.”

Two, Booker has entered his eighth NBA season eager to build off what has already become an impressive resume. He has appeared in the NBA All-Star Game in each of the past two seasons and is coming off his first Finals appearance. And before his injury, Booker led the Suns this season in scoring (23.2 points per game) while shooting a career-best 40.3% on 3-pointers.

“I expect him to give more attention in other areas of his game because he’s getting so much attention on other team’s defenses,” Williams told NBA.com. “I think there is going to be a level of growth as far as being able to apply what he learned last year to this year.”

What Suns hope from Booker this season

What did Booker learn as the Suns made their first NBA Finals appearance in 27 years?

A lot.

Booker learned what it was like to dominate in playoff games with three 40-point performances. He learned what it was like to experience shooting slumps when he shot below 50% in 15 other playoff games. He learned how to help the Suns take advantage of their injury-riddled playoff opponents, including the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets and L.A. Clippers. He learned what playoff heartbreak felt like after the Suns squandered a 2-0 Finals series edge to the Milwaukee Bucks.

Booker learned how to manage his workload after then playing for Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics. Booker learned how to manage his emotions by teaming up with Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton shortly after competing against them in The Finals.

“For him to get on that plane and play with the USA team with those guys that they lost to says a lot about how much he wants to win,” Williams said. “He’s brought that into the season. But I think the journey last year helped him realize how hard it is. There’s a respect for winning that he probably wouldn’t have, unless he went through what he went through last year.”

Consider the conversation that Williams and Booker had on the team flight after the Finals loss to the Bucks. They talked about how small details often determined the difference between postseason elation or failure. Booker remarked to Williams, “Coach, those details are important. I had a greater respect for it.”

Booker then had a greater appreciation after playing for Team USA for reasons beyond having nationalistic pride. He played for a head coach that has won five NBA titles (San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich). He played for an assistant coach that has won three NBA titles as a coach and five as a player (Golden State’s Steve Kerr). And he played with teammates that already won NBA titles (Holiday, Middleton, Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant, Golden State’s Draymond Green, Phoenix’s JaVale McGee).

“These guys that have the best winning reputations and personal reputations in this league,” Booker said, “we’ve created relationships that will last forever.”

The learning lessons will last forever, too.

“There’s a sacrifice that you have to make to win that long,” Williams said. “So as good as he is, I know he probably thought ‘I have to work even harder.’ I’ve seen that with him.”

Williams has seen that in numerous ways.

Even though Booker missed the beginning of training camp after entering the NBA’s Health and Safety Protocols, Williams observed that Booker looked sharp upon his return because “he’s unbelievably conditioned and he loves to hoop.” As the Suns struggled through a 1-3 start and wrestled with allegations that owner Robert Sarver made racially charged comments in a toxic work environment, Williams described Booker as having “a pound-the-rock mentality” with a stoic demeanor and consistent work habits. Before and during his injury, Booker also has sat next to Williams during the team’s film sessions.

“That’s something people don’t realize with him,” Williams said of Booker. “They think that he’s just a natural scorer, which he probably is. But he works at it in every area.”

In related news, Booker contributed to the Suns’ 17-game winning streak just before his injury. The Suns then set a franchise record for most consecutive wins (18) and have gone 3-2 overall during his absence.

“Just relying on the culture and the system,” Booker said. “We’ve had guys in and out of the lineup dealing with significant injuries and finding ways to win. That’s what we always talk about. We always have the next man up mentality. I go out and somebody comes back in. We just keep the train moving.”

Plotting Booker’s return

The Suns would like to keep the train moving with Booker back on board, obviously. Williams observed that Booker’s “itching to get back,” but he said he has yet to talk to the Suns’ medical staff about his pending return.

Booker still has kept a presence around the team, though. With Suns All-Star guard Chris Paul bringing his son and his friends to a practice last week, the Suns’ veteran guard had them observe Booker’s shooting stroke when he took stationary shots.

“I try to be locked in more into my form when the kids are watching,” Booker said. “That’s what it’s about, inspiring the next generation and paving the way for them. I remember I was that age and I was never fortunate enough to sit in an NBA practice facility and watch a pro shoot. But I’ve watched a lot of YouTube videos and imagined myself being there.

“Any advice and anything I can walk by and say to them that they can take and bring back to their friends at their school, that’s what I try to do.”

After all, the 25-year-old Booker idolized and studied Kobe Bryant and Paul during his teenage years.

“They have Chris Paul every day with them,” Booker mused. “So I don’t think they care what Devin Booker says.”

Booker had plenty to say following the Suns’ morning shootaround. When he participated in the Suns’ shooting contest, Booker became increasingly vocal after every shot. He also tried to distract Paul by waving his hands from the opposite side of the court.

“I’m never really far from them,” Booker said. “If I’m not in the shooting game, I’m right behind them on the bench. I feel like I’m still part of the [trash] talking with them.”

Until he is part of the actual NBA games again, however, Booker plans to spend more time in the LightStim infrared healing bed. Perhaps more FaceTime sessions with Williams and teammates await during that time. Then, they will have another window into Booker’s quest both to return from injury soon and to pick up where he left off.

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Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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