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‘Push him to the limit’: Devin Booker is battling through the physical grind of a star’s workload

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VP of Basketball Operations James Jones said pushing Booker is “by design” and will prepare him to lead the team forward.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Phoenix Suns Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

The leap NBA players take from the time they are baby-faced college standouts to draft picks to prized assets is quick and multifaceted. Not only must players build their endurance to move from playing a few dozen games as amateurs to nearly 100 over the course of seven months as pros, they also must navigate the life-altering situation of suddenly having money, fame and opportunity. It also takes a physical toll. Injuries are a huge part of sports not only because athletes push their bodies to the extreme but because they continuously take on more responsibility within their team or at a new level of competition.

This rapid transition is what Suns star Devin Booker has made, moving from Kentucky sixth man to No. 3 in the NBA in usage rate over the span of just four years.

In an exclusive appearance with ticket donors and Bright Side of the Sun staff Tuesday night at Talking Stick Resort Arena, Vice President of Basketball Operations James Jones said much of the Suns’ culture stems from Booker’s unwavering, contagious desire to get better.

Comparing the culture in Phoenix now when he was here during his playing career, Jones said, “Devin has to be our Steve Nash but he’s not there yet. Our goal and our challenge is to continue to push him to be greater, push him to the limit. I know he’s been banged up a lot this year, and some of that is by design. We have to push him, we have to force him to get out of his comfort zone because that’s the only way the team moves forward.

“He’s up for the challenge. … I’m not saying there are any easy fixes but you have to come in every day and demand a lot but more importantly you have to put guys on the team who won’t settle for losing.”

When players show they are capable of more, the magnitude of what they are asked to produce on the field or court increases. Nearly right away, fans and those within the team alike knew Booker could do more than he did as a freshman Wildcat. Between his second and third seasons, Booker’s usage rate skyrocketed from 23 percent to 28.6 percent as he took on more of a playmaking burden on offense.

“Coming from college where you play 40 games and have fresh legs the whole season, now it’s totally different,” Booker said in an ESPN+ documentary short called “Recovery,” which highlighted the Suns’ training staff’s expertise in recovery methods.

It’s similar to what happened for a player to whom Booker is constantly compared -- James Harden. The bearded MVP’s leap to Houston coincided with an explosion in his usage rate as he became the top dog for the Rockets after coming off the bench in Oklahoma City. Harden’s usage surged from 21.6 percent in his final year with the Thunder to 29 percent when he got to Houston. Harden has managed to avoid severe injury all these years adding more to his plate but many have not been so lucky.

In Russell Westbrook’s first All-Star season, he surged to a 31.6 percent usage rate and took nearly 18 shots per 36 minutes for the Thunder. Two years later, a shot to the knee from Patrick Beverley resulted in a torn meniscus in his right knee. Westbrook has suffered from knee complications ever since, including eight missed games to start this season.

Over the course of two seasons, Derrick Rose’s usage rate jumped from 22.6 percent to 32.2 percent in his 2011 MVP campaign. His athletic, high-flying style resulted in a disastrous ACL tear that compromised his body the past several seasons as he struggled on minimum contracts in bad situations.

Booker’s circumstances are different -- his style less aggressive, his injuries less severe -- but history shows guards who take on so much responsibility early in their careers often struggle to handle the burden physically. That makes it more important to handle recovery slowly, as the Suns have this year.

After reaggravating his left hamstring strain in early December, Booker said he was going to make sure his body was right before returning to action, noting he hadn’t “played a fully healthy game all year.”

Coach Igor Kokoskov has joked while Booker deals with these injuries -- which include back spasms, right pinky knuckle surgery, right wrist surgery, the hamstring problems and various other minor injuries over the calendar year of 2018 -- that he can barely take his star playmaker’s word anymore when it comes to whether he feels healthy enough to play.

Fortunately, the Suns’ training staff, led by Aaron Nelson, remains one of the best in the league despite spending less than most units in the NBA.

“You hear from older guys around the NBA that say, ‘Take advantage of the training staff that you have because it’s not like that everywhere,’” Booker said.

The Suns spend most of their time preventing injuries rather than resolving them. While that effort hasn’t necessarily been successful with Booker, the recovery process will be key for Booker to get his body ready to handle a superstar-level burden for the rest of his career.

Booker has already missed 12 games this year getting his body right but Jones and the Suns are confident this patience will help their $158 million man in the long run.

“Our body is our career,” former Suns forward Jared Dudley told ESPN. Booker, like many stars before him, is learning how the truth of Dudley’s words and how much the physical grind of a superstar’s workload can get in the way of progress for both player and team. It’s a key part of the continued adjustments Booker must make as he enters his prime and the Suns’ rebuild nears completion.