The first player to text Suns coach Monty Williams once the NBA’s restart plan became official was Devin Booker. It was a fortuitous sign, a start on the right foot while the rest of the basketball world either ignored or complained about Phoenix’s seemingly meaningless inclusion in the bubble. The team’s star wanted to let the first-year head coach know he was excited about coming back, in large part because he had been putting in work during the break.
He wasn’t the only one. Ricky Rubio soon called Williams from Spain and expressed a similar sentiment. Then, once players were allowed to start practicing in Phoenix, Williams saw the excitement firsthand. Dario Saric, Mikal Bridges, and Jevon Carter, among other Suns players, spent as much time in the gym as possible.
“I think that mindset—to want to play and have an objective to get better—I think it’s helped us come into this thing,” Williams said. “We wanted to be here, we heard all the stuff being said about us. That creates a fire.”
Has it ever. After arriving in Disney World, the Suns have gone an improbable 7-0. Barring a whole host of circumstances that would need to happen on Thursday and two straight wins against the 8-seed in a play-in format, Phoenix will likely still miss out on the postseason. But this stage hasn’t just served as a learning experience—it’s also shown that the “potential” we’ve been hearing about through 19- and 21-win seasons and several coaching changes is finally turning into results.
“None of us came in here just to half-ass it around,” Bridges said Wednesday over a Zoom call. “Even if we would have been eliminated already, Coach wouldn’t have allowed us to relax.”
In the bubble, Williams seems to have found an effective starting lineup that’s spearheaded by Booker’s superstar play, and includes an older rookie in Cameron Johnson and Bridges, who looks the part of a 3-and-D wing. The tangible improvement across the roster—from Deandre Ayton’s defense all the way down to the Suns’ pesky bench unit, led by Saric—has been undeniable. It’s all added up to a March Madness–like run that feels fitting for the youngest team in the league.
In between practices, bonding time playing video games, and kiddie-pool ice baths, the Suns are playing the Cinderella role perfectly. And don’t think they haven’t been paying attention to the odds, either. “What was our chance [of making the playoffs] coming in here, 0.01 percent, something like that?” Saric said after the Suns beat the Thunder on Monday. It was 0.1 percent, to be exact, but with one game left, those odds now sit at 25 percent. “Since they opened the gym, we’ve been working hard—seven, eight, nine guys were there every day, one time per day, six times a week, lifting, shooting,” Saric said. “We were hungry, and in practice you can see this is a quality team.”
The rest of the league now has had no choice but to see it too.
For Booker, getting better started early during the hiatus, when he and his father, Melvin, got in touch with Cody Toppert, a former Phoenix assistant who still informally consults with the Suns star. Booker and Co. wanted some workouts and drills he could do while they waited for the league to resume. So Toppert typed up some examples and sent along a file that included an in-depth analytical assessment of Booker’s season, plus video clips to study—everything from defensive positioning to different dribble handoffs and pick-and-roll coverages. Booker wanted to use the time off to improve, but also to get his video fix.
“He’s the type of player who gets excited every night to put another game in, another clip and watch it, but he doesn’t watch it as a fan. He watches it to study. He almost sees it like a coach,” Toppert says. “To me, it’s led to him coming back hyper-focused.”
Booker has said that the Orlando environment—all basketball all the time—has created an ideal scenario for him, and that’s borne itself out in the numbers. Over seven games, he is averaging 31 points and just over six assists per contest—both well above his career averages—and posting a true shooting percentage of 63 percent. He’s also doing all this while his usage rate is higher than ever—34.4 percent, second only to Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Knowing that Phoenix’s margin for error was slim coming into Orlando, Toppert figured that Booker’s offensive load would increase. So in the information he sent along, Topper emphasized the importance of defensive positioning, showing Booker data about how he was being attacked on defense and forcing him to be smarter about his every movement.
On the offensive end, Booker takes what is used against him on defense and flips it to pick those same units apart; the bubble has served as an elevated stage for his offensive handiwork. Toppert watches from afar as Booker puts into practice the things they worked on when they were together, namely drawing contact for free throws in a way similar to James Harden.
“It’s actually a strategy,” Toppert says. “An off-ball scoop, an on-ball scoop, hunt the hand like you’re James Harden. And then the bonus scoop—if it’s a bonus, you’ll see him purposely sweep through arms knowing that it’s not a natural shooting motion. But if you’re in the bonus, it doesn’t matter because you’re going to get the free throws regardless.”
Despite those tactics, it hasn’t been grating to watch Booker in the bubble. If anything, it’s been a revelation and proof that his reputation as a good-stats-bad-team guy is a fallacy. Booker is getting to the line just over seven times a game (something Williams has praised), but his scoring, particularly his 3-point shooting and finishing at the rim, is aesthetically pleasing enough to cancel out any foul-seeking behavior. A few extra free throws are not an eyesore when he’s also doing this with his off hand:
“He’s amazing, and it’s so fun to watch him and play with him,” Saric said after Booker’s 35-point game on Tuesday against Philly. “To be part of a team with that kind of player—he’s the guy who wants to prove every night he’s that man.”
Saric’s description lends words to a feeling that few players can create. Booker is consistently delivering that intangible vibe you get when you watch star players alter a game’s pace to their liking. He has taken over games, sped them up and slowed them down, as if he were holding the match’s remote control in his hands. And though he’s had no trouble scoring in bunches before, Booker’s bubble output has felt more controlled and purposeful, and impactful. This may feel like he’s “making the leap,” but for Booker and those who have been working closely with him, it’s more like he’s reaping what he’s been sowing for the past few years.
“I’m comfortable in these situations. I’m comfortable on the court knowing the work I’ve put in,” Booker said. “These are the games I’ve been waiting to play in.”
As Booker has improved, defenses have adjusted accordingly. He’s routinely getting double-teamed with, as he put it, “junk defenses.” But the catch now is that he’s good enough to still score 30—and the team around him has been good enough to make defenses pay for those double-teams. The latter has been a surprising development.
“What’s working for us is that we committed to a style of play, and we’ve been able to adapt to different situations,” said Williams, who tracks the number of passes the team has every game. Put simply: Give Booker the ball while still prioritizing ball movement, let Ayton grow in the paint, and surround them both with shooting and a bench that can maintain leads.
Ayton, for his part, has shown small signs of defensive improvement, and his offensive potential remains high. What’s more: He’s been more open to feedback lately. As he said on The Woj Pod this week, he finally became a student of the game during his 25-game suspension for a failed drug test. Ayton also credited Williams for his buy-in, and to hear any Suns player talk about their new coach, it’s impossible to ignore the effect that he’s had.
Williams has been a stabilizing and unifying presence, and has given this team an identity. In practice, he may be quick to get on players’ cases, but his approach has them listening to learn instead of complaining about getting put on the spot. Off the court, he’s been part of team dinners and watch parties, gone fishing with a couple of players, and given his young team a needed strong voice.
“We’re becoming closer, learning each other, and communicating with each other,” Booker said.
That has trickled down to help even the Suns defense, which is fourth best in the bubble and is about four points per 100 possessions stingier than their unit was earlier in the season. As Ben Falk pointed out on Cleaning the Glass, that area may be where a small sample size might be doing a lot of heavy lifting. But it is one of the things Williams hopes the Suns can take forward, playoffs or not.
For the first time in a long time, the Suns suddenly have something resembling hope and excitement heading into next season. And for a small-market team looking to propel themselves out of the bottom half of the West, you can’t buy the type of experience, exposure, and growth that Phoenix has extracted out of Orlando.
“I don’t think there’s going to be any sad faces around here whether we make it to the playoffs or not,” Booker said. “We’ve put the work in, and we’ve grown as a team. We’ve taken tremendous strides that I think will build for us and continue for years to come.”