Devin Booker already had poured in 45 points, but even with his first playoff series victory in hand, he had a few last points to make. So with 40 seconds left in Game 6 of the Suns’ first-round matchup with the Lakers, Booker dashed in front of teammate Chris Paul, called for the rock, and jammed said rock with both hands. The basket put the finishing touches on a franchise-altering win, and sent a message to anyone who had counted the no. 2-seeded Suns out because they were too young or not talented enough to hang with the reigning champs.
“What?!” he barked at a Lakers player on his way back on defense. “I thought so!”
Jae Crowder then broke out into a salsa dance in the Lakers’ paint to mock a recent LeBron James commercial, earning an immediate ejection. But as Crowder bolted for the exit, Booker doubled down on his trash talk, stepping to Markieff Morris and keeping the barbs going well after he got hit with a technical.
Some may see Booker’s trash talk as unnecessary, just braggadocio from an inexperienced player trying to make his mark. But those who know him best, the ones who’ve followed his rise from a player pigeonholed as just a shooter to a driving force behind the Suns’ revival, know that his maniacally competitive mindset is what’s made him the league’s next superstar. Now, with the Suns up 1-0 on the Clippers in the Western Conference finals even without Paul, it may also help propel Phoenix farther than even its Seven Seconds or Less predecessors ever got.
“That’s the only way I know how to play, honestly,” Booker said on Saturday. “That’s how I played for a very long time, since I’ve been a kid.”
Kenny Payne’s high school coach, Keith Robinson, kept telling him he needed to see this kid back home. It was nine years ago, and Payne, a burly Mississippian with the voice of a deacon and the command of a traffic stop, was an assistant coach at Kentucky under John Calipari. The kid was a 29.7 points-per-game scorer at Moss Point High School, and a son of a former pro, who outscored Ocean Springs High School himself in three quarters’ work and finished with 48 points. He dropped 49 a few weeks later against Brewbaker Tech. “You’ve gotta see this kid,” Robinson said a few more times.
Finally, Payne heeded the advice and traveled to the famed Peach Jam in North Augusta, South Carolina. Only the kid wasn’t in the main gym, which features the top Nike teams in the country. Instead, he was sequestered in a side facility. Nonetheless, Payne was astounded when he saw him. He was throwing dimes, running the pick-and-roll, playing point guard, 2-guard, and small forward, and guarding big men. Floored, Payne summoned Coach Cal to join him at the kid’s next game. “I just need three minutes,” he pleaded. By the end of that game, both coaches were convinced Devin Booker needed to be a Wildcat. “He was a pro,” Payne says.
Up until that point, Booker’s shot was known more than his overall game. After the Michigan native moved to Mississippi for his sophomore season, he made all the camps and played in all the All-American games, but he still couldn’t play his way out of being known as just a shooter. The distinction built resentment, and also a dogged work ethic.
“Devin always had an edge about him,” Payne says. According to Payne, Booker would bristle at people who made assumptions because of his looks or because of his skin color. “Being light-skinned, they think I’m soft,” Payne says, echoing what he remembers hearing from Book. “More than I could ever tell you,” Payne says, “he was out to prove that, ‘I will fight you. I will prove to you that I’m not soft. I’m not just a basketball player. What makes me special isn’t the fact that I can shoot. What makes me special is I’m a warrior.’ He’s always had that.”
The animosity kept building until chips the size of football pads built up on his shoulders, making him a perfect addition for the pro factory in Lexington.
“When you come to a school like Kentucky, it’s not about just winning college games,” Payne said. “You’re fighting for your life. You’re fighting to be an NBA player. It’s different than most other schools. You’re not coming to Kentucky to just be a good college player.”
But even by Kentucky standards, Book’s fight to prove himself was difficult. Calipari had rebuilt the Wildcats by relying on elite one-and-done players. But Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson, and twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison all stuck around for Booker’s freshman season, and he was joined by newcomers Trey Lyles, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Tyler Ulis.
Payne warned about the excess of talent. But Booker was undeterred. “I want them to stay in school,” he told Payne. “I want them to come back. We won’t lose a game.”
Booker’s prediction was almost right—the Wildcats finished the regular season 31-0 and swept through the NCAA tournament before losing to Wisconsin in the Final Four. All the while, Book was clawing his way into more opportunities. By the end of the season, Booker had figured out ways to get shots out of play sets designed for other players.
“Athletes are apex predators,” Payne says. “And so, when you put these predators in a cage, they’re not competing to just win or lose and then you go on to the next thing. Predators are going to the death. Somebody’s got to die. Somebody’s got to eat.”
“He’s a big shit-talker,” Booker’s former teammate Marquese Chriss said by phone last week. “But I love it.”
The Suns drafted Chriss in the lottery the year after they selected Booker no. 15. The two grew close after meeting at Chriss’s introductory press conference—they lived in the same high-rise about 15 minutes from the Suns’ arena and stayed up late playing video games, working out, and trying to figure out life in the NBA when you’re not even old enough to legally drink. In his two years around Booker, Chriss learned that there are two sides to Booker: Devin, the easygoing Southern gentleman; and “Book,” who calls himself “Book” in third person during games and will cut your heart out at a moment’s notice.
“It kind of sucks because he’s killing you at the same time,” Chriss says. “It’s that type of trash talk. It’s never anything to really try to piss somebody off, or say rude things about somebody or somebody’s family or something like that, it’s just always in the realm of basketball, and it’s just like, ‘Damn, he’s really going crazy.’”
But behind the shit-talking is a deep sense of loyalty. In 2017, Ulis, their teammate and Book’s friend since middle school, got into an altercation with a group of guys by an apartment elevator. When Booker caught wind of this, he went down to help him. Though the video doesn’t show Booker throwing a punch, he was clearly willing to set aside the career implications of getting involved to help his friend.
“He’s for sure a loyal dude,” Chriss says. “And there’s been situations where I’ve gotten into things with other people and then he’s right there with me.”
On the court, Book was holding his own as well. He averaged 13.8 points in his rookie season, bumping it up to 22.1 in his second season and a tick under 25 in his third. Klay Thompson said he was “going to be one of the best 2-guards in the league one day,” KD proclaimed he was “next,” Kobe told him to “be legendary.” But his Suns teams stunk, never winning more than 24 games over his first three seasons, and bottoming out at 19-63 in his fourth. Without the success to show for his troubles, Booker was labeled an empty-calories scorer, perhaps best evidenced by his scoring 70 points against the Celtics in March 2017 but losing the game by 10.
During the lean years, Booker developed confidence that bordered on clairvoyance. He’d often say, “It’s done already,” suggesting that all he needed to do was put in the work to reach the heights he knew he could. A year or two after Booker left for the pros, he showed up to Payne’s office in Kentucky’s Joe Craft Center.
“Unc, let’s go!” he demanded after popping his head into Payne’s office. “It’s done.”
“Devin, man, you got a family here,” Payne responded, noting the two recruits in front of him. “Say hello.”
“Hi, everybody,” Booker said. “I’m Devin Booker. Nice to meet you. Unc let’s go, it’s already done.”
Payne, still confused, and a bit shocked his star pupil might be sabotaging potential recruits so he could work out, asked once more, for clarity, “What are you talking about?”
“The money’s been deposited. I’m an All-Star. We’re winning,” Booker said, before any of it was true. “All that needs to happen now is Phoenix needs to go ahead and put the money in the bank account. It’s already done. Now come train me like I’m a $200 million athlete.”
So they trained. “I had no choice,” Payne says, chuckling. “He’s telling me it’s done. … He basically talked it into existence.”
Suns coach Monty Williams has been around the block a time or two. He’s on his second stint coaching Chris Paul, and he’s been an assistant on teams featuring Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Basically, he has 10,000 hours overseeing some of the game’s most maniacal competitors. Booker is no different, so Williams tries to make sure the young guard uses his passion constructively.
Williams knows opponents will try to get under Booker’s skin by picking fights or starting verbal spats, or maybe get at Booker’s teammates, knowing he will stand up for them if needed. That happened after Booker’s dunk last month against the Lakers, when Book’s words led to a brief verbal spat with the Lakers bench. And it happened in Denver when Booker’s teammate Cameron Payne was smacked across the face by Nikola Jokic in the Suns’ series-clinching win over the Nuggets. Like he did years before for Ulis, Booker beelined to defend his teammate. Despite the outbursts, Williams says Booker has learned how not to let his competitive streak get the best of him.
“That’s a sign of maturity and growth from a guy who’s been in a ton of situations,” Williams said. “But on the big stage, he’s been able to use that edge to his advantage.”
“It’s an emotional game and we try to channel that energy in the right way,” Booker said on Saturday. “I’ve learned how to channel it a lot better.”
As the seconds ticked down on Sunday’s win over the Clippers, Booker, in the midst of a 40-point triple-double, looked at the crowd along the baseline and told them, “That’s one!” as if he had plans for more. Reining in Booker’s raw emotion may be a wise move, if only to ensure he stays on the court when the Suns need him. But his passion and his edge have gotten him to this point, on the verge of the NBA Finals in his first postseason.
Payne says Booker’s trash talk goes beyond basketball. “It’s bigger than that,” he says. “It’s about who you are, what you are, how you’re wired, how you’re not going to let someone else take food off your plate. That’s a metaphor for, ‘I’m dominating you. There’s nothing you can do about it.’”