I vividly remember that a season ago, the MVP campaign for Phoenix Suns All-NBA guard Devin Booker didn’t really start to pick up steam nationally until late in the process.
One particular night I can remember as a solidifying moment? March 24th on the back end of a traveling back-to-back going from Minnesota the night before and then going to Denver, where he totaled 49 points (64.0% shooting), four rebounds, 10 assists, and three steals. I left Disneyland early that night to do the game story, and Booker no doubt made the trade-off worth it.
Of course, all this game solidified for Booker’s individual awards case was getting votes and being part of the MVP conversation, but never being a real contender to win it, which makes sense; the top three — eventual winner Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo — all felt well above Booker. Naturally, he finished fourth with his first career First Team All-NBA award.
Booker didn’t notch his first 40-point game until his 36th (the team’s 41st) game of the season, but he piled on three more from then on. This season (20 games for Booker, who’s yet to miss any) — or better yet, over the last six games alone — he’s already posted two. Granted, part of that is he’s been asked to do more with Chris Paul and Cam Johnson out, but no matter: the MVP talk is coming earlier in the season.
In the more recent of this season’s 40-pieces, Booker absolutely stuffed the stat sheet in a comeback win over the Sacramento Kings, posting 44 points (60.7%), eight rebounds, four assists, and an unreal six steals. It’s the type of game that leaves defenders searching for answers; in Kings guard Malik Monk’s own words: “Book was doing Book, man. It’s kinda hard to stop an All-Star, especially when he’s rolling.”
Now, just days after the Sacramento showing, The Athletic’s Sam Amick sat down with Booker to feature all the work he’s putting in, Book’s reaction to how the off-season played out, and his approach overall.
It’s the type of player-service that some national outlets will take part in; Amick even includes “I’m just trying to give you the microphone here though...” at one point during the interview portion. Despite the uneasiness toward the journalism industry that even I feel (even having taken part in some player-service at points), those opportunities for Booker are huge for getting the credit he deserves.
The context of Amick’s pleading with Booker? Amick asked if the MVP race is adding fuel to Booker’s fire. “No.” Asked how Booker sees himself in that race. “I’m not even in that race. I just let these people say what they want. Like bro, I focus on hoops only.” And then the “I’m just trying to give you the microphone.”
Booker’s as real as they come. He joked about how the “Suns don’t do anything in the playoffs” narrative is a lot better than the “Booker can’t make the playoffs” narrative that he heard endlessly earlier in his career:
“I just realized the situation. Now, I’m more on the bigger stage, where people know about me, so there’s gonna be more haters. That’s life. There’s people that hate on LeBron James and Steph Curry — still, to this day. So once you embrace that (reality) and just realize that there’s different types of people, you get it. There’s haters, and there’s supporters.”
Booker also spoke to the Sarver process, and how he believes the media fabricated conflict onto a locker room that doesn’t stand for nonsense:
“I don’t think it’s fair to think that that would come in between what we have going on in this locker room. There’s too many level-headed guys. We have too many conversations that we keep in house between the team. Like, we have a lot of educated people on this team. We’re pretty close, and we talk about everything. Our group chat is going. And we keep everything in (house) and talk about it here. And, you know, a decision was made (regarding Sarver), so there’s really nothing else we can do or say about it. Media day was tough, and that was it.”
Amick also asked Booker about the continued growth of Deandre Ayton, coming off a Western Conference Player of the Week award, and how he’s responded from the weirdness around the game seven benching as well as restricted free agency.
“I think he grew up a lot. He’ll be the first one to tell you that it was just realizing what the NBA is about. You grow up and you’re like, ‘I want to play in the NBA,’ but you don’t realize it’s a business. There’s things that go on. There’s conversations that had to be had. And being a young top pick and coming in at 18 (years old), and him being all over in his childhood from the Bahamas to San Diego, I don’t think he realized that it’s actually business. And that was good for him. I mean, he got his money. He’s in a great situation now. He’s playing free. He’s happy.”
Booker added that he was a voice in Ayton’s ear throughout the process. He called him his little brother and expressed that honesty and transparency is key in those types of situations.
Booker is clearly focused on the right things, but the awards narratives are just part of the game. It’s a compliment to Booker that he’s in the thick of it, even if he doesn’t want to admit it. Even his newly-promoted president of basketball operations James Jones said on Tuesday that Booker is “rightfully in the MVP conversation.”
All this with the qualifier that awards aren’t won in a quarter of a season; only 20 games out of 82 so far. It takes a full season of this elite play before it can be rewarded, and frankly, it’s not the most important thing on our minds. We all know and admit that. For now, we’ll smell the flowers on our journey and appreciate the great things Booker’s accomplishing early.