When perennial All-Star Damian Lillard suffered a strained groin on Wednesday night, rendering him unavailable for All-Star weekend activities, nearly all NBA media and players — and even coaches — outside of Memphis targeted one name to replace Lillard on the All-Star team: Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker.
Memphis rookie Ja Morant’s name was bandied about next to Booker’s at the time of the coaches’ voting, but in the 12 hours between Lillard’s injury and the official announcement from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, only one name was dominating the social media and sports shows as deserving of the replacement nod.
Lillard named Booker immediately after the game, unprompted, as who he’d want taking his place as an All-Star. Several past and present NBA stars echoed Lillard on social media over the next few hours.
And then the Trailblazers social media team shared a Lillard quote:
“Book is my favorite — my personal favorite — player to watch in this league. Every time I can catch a Suns game I watch.”
Booker had been left off the All-Star team this year by the coaches’ vote because they prefer playoff pedigree, and Booker’s teams have never even sniffed that level of success. No matter how good Booker is, these coaches have beaten the Suns 73% of the time since he’s entered the league.
To be frank, they’d have preferred leaving Brandon Ingram off the All-Star team too, but the list of star-level playoff-proven healthy forward/centers in the West was too shallow so he got the nod.
Not so, among guards. But we can see now that Booker was universally considered the next best available player in the West. If the rosters were 15 deep just like a regular NBA team roster, Booker would have been named. But going only 12 deep, Booker was on the outs this year until Lillard became unavailable to play.
Now the Suns have their first All-Star since Steve Nash. In this respect, the dark days of the post-Nash era have brightened a bit to show some sunlight at the end of the tunnel with a new homegrown All-Star around whom to build the team.
But make no mistake: Booker would not have been chosen even by Commissioner Silver or been universally assumed as ‘next up’ if not for the work of General Manager James Jones over the past year, coupled with smart spending decisions on the part of managing partner Robert Sarver, to stabilize the image of the Suns franchise.
Booker was nearly as good at basketball last year, but his team was in shambles. A joke on the national stage. We saw more stories about crappy goats than about potential All-Star players on the team. Never was hardly in consideration for All-Star or All-NBA.
Now, after surrounding Booker with legitimate NBA players and hiring a proven, experienced coaching staff, the Suns are playing respectable basketball. They lead the league in assist ratio and their net rating (points scored vs. points against, per 100 possessions) is 15th best in the NBA.
While the current record is only 22-33 with 27 games to go, that’s already more wins than either of the last two whole seasons and just three short of being the most wins Booker has ever enjoyed since entering the league.
“It’s been hard to win here,” Booker said earlier this season in a Captain Obvious moment.
Until yesterday, Booker was experiencing what I guess was the most frustrating two weeks of his career — being snubbed for All-Star, losing 6 of 8 games to virtually kill off all playoff hopes, and seeing no trades to improve the team at the deadline.
He just looked depressed. After averaging 31.9 points per game in January on 52% shooting, Booker’s numbers dropped to 22.9 points on 41% shooting in the 8 games after the snub.
And he was thisclose to going off-the-grid for the 9-day All-Star break. The last time a beloved Suns player took some time to clear his head during All-Star break to flush out a frustrating pre-break losing streak was Goran Dragic in 2015.
Booker was on the verge of being marginalized once again. His heroic feats — including 4th fastest ever to score 7,000 points — were dangerously close to being forever lumped into the cadre of good-but-not-star players throughout history.
But now he’s an All-Star.
His franchise is heading in the right direction. They’re on pace for 33 wins this year with what is still the youngest team in the league. He’s got a potential All-Star teammate in Deandre Ayton (2-3 true centers make it each year) and a potential All-Defense teammate in Mikal Bridges. And he’s got a legit chick-fan magnet in Kelly Oubre Jr.
In this moment, all is right in the world.
Yes, the Suns have a LONG way to go to become truly legitimate. While 33 wins is better, it doesn’t get you anything but a low lottery pick. Managing partner Robert Sarver — whose seen his franchise quadruple in value during his tenure from $400 million to $1.6 billion despite the losing — knows that you need at least two All-Stars to be a contender. He knows they need to add more players around Booker this summer to help him win. The Suns are only STARTING in the right direction. “We’re still pushing, still going in the right direction,” Jones said on the radio on Friday.
But at least Devin Booker isn’t being individually held back by the franchise anymore. What was one the more frustrating stretches of Booker’s career has suddenly become one of the sweetest.
Booker has often repeated his coach’s mantra this season in the face of adversity: “Everything you want is on the other side of hard.”
Well, that last two weeks were HARD. The last 4.5 years were HARD.
Now he has what one of the things every player wants: legitimate recognition as one of the very best in the entire league.
“He gets a recharge by going,” Jones said of Booker going to the All-Star game. “Being around the best players in the world.”
Booker will compete in the Three-Point Shootout on Saturday night. This will be Booker’s fourth appearance, winning it in 2018 and coming in 3rd in 2016. He participated but was not a finalist in 2019.
On Sunday, Booker will compete in the big-boy All-Star game on Team LeBron.
That is certain to be an emotional day for Booker, not only for experiencing his accomplishment in real time but also because they plan to dedicate the game to the memory of Booker’s idol, Kobe Bryant. Booker was often in tears before the games immediately after Kobe’s passing, so I expect the emotions will be quite high on Sunday as well.