Phoenix Suns rookie Devin Booker, a 6'6" shooting guard, knows his calling card is shooting. Above all else, he knows that with his off-ball movement, high lift and quick release he can get his shot off against anyone in the league.
But he also knows that fundamentals, and keeping the game simple, is key to making it a career.
"The area I grew up in, Grand Rapids Michigan," Booker said in a recent one-on-one interview with Bright Side. "Everyone was fundamentally sound. Everyone had the fundamentals but not many people were athletic. So when I made the switch to Mississippi, it was the total opposite. More people there were athletic that lacked fundamentals.
"I figured out that fundamentals will take you a long way. A lot of people have a lot longer careers."
Booker moved to Mississippi in high school to join his father and focus on basketball as a future. Booker's dad, Melvin, was a professional basketball player, first in the NBA in the mid-90s before playing overseas until 2008. After retiring, Melvin moved home to Moss Point, Mississippi and Devin joined him a few years later to finish high school.
Under his father's tutelage at Moss Point High School, Devin became Mississippi's Gatorade Player of the Year before committing to University of Kentucky, where he used a bench role to became the Sixth Man of the Year in the SEC.
In an NBA dominated by talent, fundamentals are slowly becoming a lost art.
When Phoenix Suns coach Jeff Hornacek first took the head coaching job, he mentioned the big difference between rookies in his day versus rookies in today's game, some thirty years later.
"The view when I played," Hornacek said when he got hired in 2013. "Was when you got to the NBA, it was all about strategy, all about the offense, all about the defensive schemes that you're going to use. Those guys already had the fundamentals."
Hornacek was drafted in 1986 as a 23-year old second round pick. He played his entire four years at Iowa State, which was quite commonplace back in those days. Only the rare athlete came out of college prior to finishing all four years of eligibility. So they had plenty of time to learn the fundamentals - how to play team defense, how to play team offense, how to set screens, how to take fouls, how to pass the ball for a better shot, how to shoot consistently the same every time, how to make a layup.
"When I was drafted by the Phoenix Suns and played for John Macleod, I would call a lot of plays," he recalls. "I kind of always knew what everybody was going to do. My advantage as a player was to really see and know what the other players wanted to do and use that to my advantage."
These days, the very best talents come out of college having been "the man" their entire lives, from high school to AAU to one year or so of college to the NBA. They don't have to learn fundamentals. They just play their game, dunk the ball and get pats on the back for doing it. The landscape has turned so far around that when a player does make it all four years in college, he tends to lose value in the eyes of NBA scouts.
This year's examples of four-year players range from Frank Kaminsky (9th overall selection, despite being one of the very best college players and prototypical stretch four) to Quinn Cook (undrafted, despite being a four-year rotation player for Duke).
In contrast, all top 5 picks and 11 of the top 13 picks were 20 years old or younger (Willy Cauley-Stein being the other exception). None of the 11 spent more than two years in college. The Suns took the youngest of them all, 18-year old Devin Booker.
You might think Hornacek face-palmed again, knowing that he had yet another guy on his team who knew nothing about fundamentals.
But Devin Booker might be a little different. On NBA-TV this summer, coach Hornacek talked a bit about the difference he's already seeing between Booker and (relative) veterans Archie Goodwin and T.J. Warren, who just turned 21 and 22 respectively, after having watched all of them in summer league.
"As coaches," Hornacek told NBA.com at halftime of the Summer League final, "we always say you're more likely to stay on the court if you're just playing good defense and not scoring, more than if you're scoring a couple of times and giving up a lot of points. We want to see both sides of that. We got some guys who can put the ball in the hole, but we got to see them play some defense.
"They're making some improvements. We want to see it on a more consistent basis. With T.J. and Archie, what I'm looking at is their team defense. Are they on the nail? Are they helping out? Are they getting back? Are they closing out hard? I've seen spurts of it, but we want to get that up to 95 percent of the time, not just 20 percent of the time."
Booker got a more positive review from his new coach.
"He's pretty solid all around," Hornacek said of the rookie. "Obviously, he can stroke it. And defensively, when I look at him, most of the time he's in the right position."
Indeed, watching Summer League was refreshing in some ways we didn't see last year in Phoenix. Booker was a guy rotating well on defense, cutting to the rim for easy buckets on offense and even making the extra pass for an easier shot despite knowing he was the best shooter on the court.
Just like any young guy, Booker knows his ticket to playing time is defense. It's like a mantra.
"Just a defensive mindset," he said of what it takes. "Every possession down, just focus in on defense. That's what gets people on the floor."
Every young player says this. Archie has said it over and over the past two years, that he needs to play defense. So did Warren all last year. But the key is actually doing it, and knowing that good defense means more than dogging the guy with the ball.
Booker won't be the best athlete on the floor in the NBA. Not even one of the best. But he knows that fundamentals can still help you succeed on defense.
"Having the IQ," he said to Bright Side. "Knowing the tendencies of who you're guarding, playing angles. If you're not as quick as the person, play angles, back up some, still use your lanes."
Booker has a lot of respect for coach Hornacek already, even though he was only three years old when Horny retired from the NBA. Hornacek made himself a great shooter after coming to the NBA, but needed his incredibly high basketball IQ to succeed as a 6'3" sneaky-athletic shooting guard in an era that oozed with 6'6" - 6'8" shooting guards like Clyde Drexler, Michael Jordan, Reggie Theus, Anfernee Hardway, Dale Ellis, Steve Smith, Jim Jackson, Walter Davis, Ron Harper, Gerald Wilkins and on and on.
Still, shooting was Hornacek's calling card. During that era, Hornacek was 6th in field goal % among guards, 11th in three-point field goal %, 9th in effective field goal %, 6th in total points, 5th in total assists, 7th in total rebounds and 9th in total steals. Among all those big guards.
"He gives me a lot of advice on my shooting," Booker said of Hornacek. "I respect people who have proof in the pudding, as they say. He's a good shooter, so I'm most definitely going to listen to him. I watched some film on him, now that I'm part of the Suns. He stresses to me, keep having arc on my shot, I kinda shoot flat sometimes. It's helped me out."
Then Booker said the words that every NBA coach wants to hear.
"At this point, we've basically heard everything," he said. "It's just you have to actually listen. That's a big part of it. I respect coach a lot, so I listen to him."
Let's hope Booker continues to listen to the coach when the season gets rough, or when his shooting percentages go in the tank. Lots of players sang Hornacek's praises when they first started playing for him. Some of them tuned him out when he said things they didn't want to hear anymore (which was basically anything that didn't start with 'good play!'). This isn't a phenomenon unique to Hornacek. NBA players tune out their all the time.
The NBA is a tough league. The most athletic and talented guys might not succeed because they can't figure out how to play the game the right way, and they won't listen to their coaches. The less athletic guys come in fundamentally sound and are more than willing to listen, but might not be able to keep up with the athletes they will face every night.
Booker brings a mentality that will help him transition to the NBA. He made it work at Kentucky without even getting a starting shot. That might give him a leg up on transitioning to bit-player in the NBA, as opposed to T.J. Warren and Archie Goodwin who were their team leaders in college.
"Not everybody can be the star player," he says. "Especially on a team like that (Kentucky) with so much talent. I figured if I just found my niche on the team that I'd be good and it worked out well for me."
He may find that he's not quick enough or strong enough to play full-time on the wing against the better athletes in the league. He may be limited to being a career role player, with some best-case examples being Kyle Korver or J.J. Redick in their early years. It took those guys years to cement their place on their team beyond just being a shooter off the bench.
He may never be close to as good as his coach Jeff Hornacek was.
But at least he's coming in ready to accept that he's not the most physically gifted player on the floor anymore, ready to do everything he can to succeed. That's a level of self-awareness quite uncommon among young NBA players.