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The Beauty (and Angst) of Devin Booker’s Game Is in the Eye of the Beholder

The Phoenix Suns guard became the subject of a workout-video-gone-viral last week, and the controversy likely just solidified whatever opinion you already held about him

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Aside from the Dwight Howard-sized tumbleweed that rolled from Memphis to Los Angeles on Monday and the random radar blips that come from Team USA dropouts, the NBA’s hyperactive news ticker has slowed to a crawl. But because fans now expect a 12-month sport, nothing stories become sensationalized.

Enter the slew of offseason workout videos, or as I like to think of them: the small bag of pretzels you get on a five-hour plane ride. These videos spring to life around this time each year, when a new shooting form can become an entire segment on First Take, and a picture of a slimmed-down player can go viral. Interpretation of the footage is in the eye of the beholder. Think a player is overrated? You’ll probably brush aside their summer highlight reel with something like, “Let’s see him do that in May.” Think a player is underrated? Don’t hurt yourself smashing that eye emoji in response to an Instagram video showing him dominating an open gym.

By now, most people—even players’ trainers—acknowledge these videos are often heavily edited in order to make a player look good. But not with Devin Booker. Last Monday, Booker found himself at the center of a (very lukewarm) offseason controversy when he was filmed complaining about being double-teamed during a scrimmage by well-known trainer Chris Johnson:

Plenty of opinions were offered about how Booker handled the situation. On Instagram, Gilbert Arenas argued the difference between a star and a superstar is to not only accept double teams, but to demand them. Jameer Nelson wrote Booker should willingly take on the challenge of a double team in any setting. On ESPN, Jalen Rose also disagreed with Booker’s plight, saying you should double team in pick-up because “it’s all about winning.”

Booker, to his credit, poked fun at himself and tried to explain his reasoning in a lengthy response to Arenas, in which he said he wasn’t opposed to being double-teamed in certain settings, but he didn’t want to spend his “lovely Tuesday afternoon passing out of a double.” Other NBA players backed him up, too. Trae Young tweeted: “When you trying to work on your game, and work on the moves and things you do individually in pick up ... it’s annoying getting double teamed in that type of setting.” Kevin Durant also hopped online and defended Booker harder than the 22-year-old has even defended himself:

I polled a few trainers around the league about whether or not it’s kosher to double in a summer run. Some said it was an unspoken rule that a player shouldn’t get double-teamed in this setting because, as Booker pointed out, it helps neither the player on defense nor the player on offense improve their individual skills.

“Don’t rag Book for killing fools. Learn to guard,” said one former trainer via text. “I’m surprised any sensible hooper would go against Book on this. As a player, I wouldn’t want a double team, I want to improve my one-on-one defense.”

Other trainers argued the opposite—that the goal should be to replicate game action as much as possible, especially when there are other NBA players on the floor. Doubling in these games is rare, trainers told me, but there’s no unspoken code that it can’t be done. “I mean you generally don’t double at the start, but if someone starts cooking you’re not just going to keep doing the same thing,” said another trainer. “I think that the top players like Booker have to learn how to make their moves quickly and efficiently because the double is coming. If you want to ‘work on your game,’ either do it quicker or save it for individual workouts. Scenarios aren’t perfect in games, you just have to adjust.”

The video had a few crucial elements that helped it catch fire. First, the footage seemed more revelatory than most of the summer content we see—like the clip that came out a few days earlier showing Ben Simmons shooting and making all of his 3s in a workout. And second was its subject.

Booker is the poster boy for the “good stats, bad team” player, the guy who puts up gaudy numbers but has yet to translate them into wins. He averaged a career-high 26.6 points per game last season, yet his team won 19 games. He’s playing on a maximum extension while the rest of the organization burns around him: Phoenix has gone 87-241 in the last four seasons, fired four coaches since 2013, had a player tweet he didn’t want to be there, and of course, had goats defecate inside the GM’s office. Booker’s flaws can either be written off as a result of his youth (he’s still two months from turning 23, after all) or his experience in the league can be cited as a reason he should have figured out how to win by now.

Booker has flashed moments of superstardom: His 70-point game against the Celtics in 2017 and his back-to-back 50-plus-point games this past season stand out. His numbers have increased each season, and even if his efficiency has fluctuated some, he’s trending in the right direction. His 34.1 assist percentage last season was 10 percentage points higher than the season before, and he produced 43.1 points per game by either scoring or assisting. Given who he was playing with through the early part of his career, that number could be even higher.

It’s unfair to put all of Phoenix’s issues on him given that so many of the factors that lead to success are out of his control. But in basketball, only five players are on the court and the sport is run by superstars, so it’s not uncommon to expect more. The backlash comes with the star branding.

If Booker was in a better situation, his stats may not feel as discounted, and we might be more willing to praise him—and even brush off last week’s video. But because of how he’s perceived, it’s easy to latch onto a clip to confirm a belief or to critique him. The controversy is not really about whether Booker was right or wrong about getting doubled. It’s more about the video confirming whatever opinion you already have about him. Ironically enough, he is the offseason workout video personified.