There’s more to life than basketball, but as far as the Phoenix Suns are concerned, Devin Booker might be the only one who had a positive summer.

While the team’s Game 7 collapse, COVID reports, Kevin Durant trade rumors, Deandre Ayton contract scenarios and the NBA’s horrific findings in the Robert Sarver investigation cast a pall over the offseason, from an individual standpoint, Booker had a life-changing couple of months.

Heading into Year 8, Booker is the rare seasoned pro who still has yet to turn 26; the established superstar whose status in that tier is scrutinized even after a top-five MVP finish and All-NBA First Team selection; the celebrity hooper who seemingly has it made in the shade if not for the absence of the one thing that’s driven him since he first arrived on the scene.

As the Suns’ 2022-23 campaign tips off Wednesday night against a Dallas Mavericks team that humbled Phoenix in Game 7 last May, the question remains: What is Devin Booker’s mindset after his team’s tumultuous summer, and how can a certified star get better?

Devin Booker’s life-changing summer

Booker knew long before the image dropped that he’d be the cover athlete for NBA 2K23; in fact, the first cover shoot in the video game franchise’s proud history had to be squeezed in during the Suns’ season to make it work.

Coming off the finest regular season of Booker’s career, this honor meant something special to a basketball star who’d grown up playing the game.

“Oh my God, I’ve never seen a visceral reaction like his, and obviously, I’ve done this for so many years,” Ronnie 2K said. “He was just, like, out of control.”

Choosing Devin Booker as the cover athlete drew plenty of ire online — as is often the case regardless of who’s on the front. But Ronnie 2K insists it was NBA 2K‘s best cover yet, and that Book’s reaction stemmed from a natural place: He’d been underrated for so long, he was almost taken aback when they asked him to do it.

“Usually, we look for guys with upward trajectory, really believe in what he’s got going on in his career, and obviously with Book, that speaks for itself,” Ronnie 2K said. “But I will also say, this is the year of greatness for us. So we put [Michael Jordan] on the other cover, we had the relationship with Sue [Bird] and Diana [Taurasi] on the WNBA cover. So Devin seemed like the perfect fit to kind of keep that theme going.”

That league-wide recognition and earning the respect of his peers has always been important to Booker. It’s why his father and co-agent, Melvin Booker, swore he’d buy a whole new video game system and a copy of the new game once it dropped despite not being a gamer.

For the Bookers, gracing the cover the world’s most popular basketball game represented another milestone of a journey that’s mostly been uphill since the Suns drafted him back in 2015.

“I think it meant more than just that for him, because Devin has been working so hard for all these years and he’s never gotten a lot of respect in this game,” Melvin Booker said. “To embrace the cover is almost like he’s finally getting his due as a player in this league and being mentioned among some of greats.”

Of course, a gamer landing on the cover of his favorite video game wasn’t the only dream Devin Booker accomplished this summer; he also happened to receive a four-year, $224 million super-max contract. The deal won’t kick in until 2024-25, but from now through 2028, he’ll be paid $294.1 million over the next six seasons.

His last max contract extension was life-changing money; this crossed over into the type of generational wealth that’s uncommon even for NBA players.

“It’s hard to describe in words, because me and Devin have had so many discussions about his career and the vision of what we saw his career to be for years,” Melvin Booker said. “It’s exciting just to see his hard work paying off right now. Beginning of his career here, individually, I thought it’s been a great career for him, but in the start, we wasn’t winning many games. So to help turn this around and be considered one of the faces of the NBA and also one of the top teams in the NBA, it’s just amazing.”

Booker’s coach, Monty Williams, hasn’t been around for all of it, but he’s more than aware of the journey he’s been on and the dedication it takes to help turn a losing situation around.

“I’m unbelievably happy for Book just because I’ve seen the work that he puts in and the sacrifices that he’s made,” Williams said. “Not just to get the individual achievements but to do it for the team, to do it for the city. To see him get a contract like that, to see him be the face of the video game, it’s a joy for me to be a fan and also to be a part of the process with him.”

Over the last half-year, Booker has been selected as an All-Star, led the Suns to a franchise-record 64 wins, finished fourth in MVP voting, earned All-NBA First Team honors, graced the cover of NBA 2K and gotten paid super-max money to remain with the team that drafted him.

So does he feel like a superstar yet?

“Still underrated!” Booker joked at Media Day, cracking a big smile. “Nah, man, it’s an exciting time, but the beauty of this sport, you have to keep going. The NBA doesn’t remember what you did last year, so it’s the next-year mentality.

“All those things are beautiful, especially the 2K cover, with people in here knowing how much I game and how much I played the game growing up and just understanding the impact of the video game and the reach that it has to multiple countries, to the whole entire world. So I’m excited for it. I’m excited to put Phoenix on the map, I’m excited for my family, my friends that are all enjoying this process, but we still have more work to do.”

The work left to be done

The main objective that’s missing, the work alluded to in the header above, and the obvious answer to the question posed in this article’s headline is: Win a championship.

That would cement Booker as the greatest Sun who accomplished what MVPs like Charles Barkley and Steve Nash could not. It’d silence the critics who question how good he actually is, wonder if he’s worth super-max money or doubt whether you can really win a title with Devin Booker as your best player.

Getting to the NBA mountaintop is easier said than done. Booker is mindful of that, given that he’s seen every valley (pun intended) along the way.

“I’d say it feels better because we built it,” Booker said. “I went through that, I went through being at the bottom of the NBA for years on end and multiple years and now signing [the contract extension] this time around with so much promise and so much hope and a great foundation of a young core mixed with great veterans — everything I always dreamed of, a chance to play meaningful basketball, playoff basketball, with a chance to compete for an NBA title. So that’s my goal here, I know that’s no secret to everybody. And I’m not gonna stop ’til I get it.”

Of course, if winning an NBA title remains the goal, Devin Booker and the Suns fell well short last year. As great as his summer was, the most humiliating playoff loss in franchise history can’t be swept under the rug so easily — especially when the face of the franchise tallied a combined 30 points on 9-of-31 shooting in the team’s final two losses of the series.

Which begs the aforementioned question: Where can a superstar reasonably improve?

The answers vary from one person to the next. Monty Williams struggled to label any one specific area.

“I get asked that a lot about him, it’s a hard one,” he said. “I mean, if you look at the top-10 players in the league, what would you say that any of ’em need to work on? You know, what part of their game? I’m sure there’s something that’s there.”

Booker’s star backcourt partner, Chris Paul, took a more hardline approach.

“Until a person goes perfect all season long — wins, losses, free-throw percentage, 3-point percentage — we always can get better, you know what I mean?” Paul said. “He’s a person that’s driven like that, so I’m sure he’d tell you the same thing.”

Booker himself took it a step further.

“Even if you did that, there’s still improvements to this game,” he said. “That’s the beauty of it. You talk to anybody, nobody feels like they’ve mastered this game, and I think being a little self-conscious and missing the game and not playing helps all into that. It’s easy to say you’re the most confident person in the world, but it’s just simply not true for everybody. You come in, you have a little bit of doubts, you push yourself to get through those, and something that coach said: ‘Reps remove doubt.’ And you just have to keep building, keep getting better and prove it every time you step out there.”

Okay, but any specific areas you’re focused on improving, Devin?

“Win more games than we did last year,” he said with a smirk. “That’s what it’s about, yeah.”

All right, guess we’re going to have to take a page out of Thanos’ book if we want to answer this one.

Areas for improvement

Last year, Booker averaged a career-high 26.8 points, a career-high 5.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game. He shot 46.6 percent from the floor, including a career-high 38.3 percent from 3-point range on 7.0 attempts per game. Defensive metrics still didn’t love him, but Booker’s effort on that end extended past the eye test for a top-five defense.

By most measures he was an elite player, but a dive into the advanced stats confirms some of the areas for improvement that occasionally showed up on the court.

For starters, Paul’s arrival has slightly diminished Booker’s ability to get to the free-throw line. It’s understandable, given that CP3 is a Hall-of-Fame point guard who commands the ball a lot of the time, but Booker’s foul attempts dropped from 7.3 per game in his last season without Paul to 5.9 and 5.3 per game over the past two years. With Phoenix ranking 29th last season in free-throw rate, that number has to improve.

On a similar note, while Booker’s increased output from 3-point range is a good thing, and his midrange prowess remains intact, he needs to find ways to attack the basket more. Book’s middy wasn’t quite as effective last year, and as a result, his 2-point field goal percentage dipped from 54 percent the two years prior to just 50.8 percent.

Part of the problem is he didn’t generate enough looks at the rim. According to The Bball Index, he ranked in the 35th percentile in total shots at the rim per 75 possessions, despite placing in the 84th percentile or better in rim shot quality, rim shot-making and adjusted field goal percentage at the rim.

Finally, with Cam Johnson replacing Jae Crowder in the starting lineup, rebounding will be paramount for a team that already struggled on the glass. Booker placed in the 28th percentile in offensive rebounds and the 49th percentile in defensive rebounds per 75 possessions. It’ll take a team effort to keep opponents off the board, so Booker will need to find a way to battle through fatigue and help close out defensive possessions.

The impact of Devin Booker

Fortunately, as much as there are tangible areas where Booker can improve, nobody seems particularly concerned about what he brings to the table.

Jock Landale, who’s only been in Phoenix for a few months now, can already see what makes his new teammate special.

“He’s not just an elite-level scorer, one of the best in the game right now, but he’s able to really see the game open up in front of him and not just rely on his shooting and scoring to be his defining factor,” Landale said. “He makes the game easier for others around him, he’s able to see the big picture and really shift the ball when it needs to be shifted, and that’s a rare talent for someone of his pedigree.”

That stat sheet and win-loss column over the last few years confirms Booker is already a star and a winner; now it’s a matter of fine-tuning the formula to find playoff success as a team, especially as a player who draws double-teams on a nightly basis.

“It drives him nuts, but I’ll draw up a play and I’ll be like, ‘Book, I want you to be a decoy here,’ and he’s like, ‘That’s an expensive decoy, coach,'” Williams explained, laughing. “You know, he’ll say something typical Book, but because he can do that, it opens up the floor for other guys. I think that’s how you have to measure it. I don’t think many of those guys go into the summer and they’re like, ‘Okay, I gotta [improve this and that].’ They’re usually pretty complete, and I think that’s where he is.”

Booker’s willingness to play more off the ball has been apparent since Paul’s arrival, and even Ricky Rubio’s before that:

Despite logging fewer touches than many of his star counterparts in the league, Booker has maximized those opportunities better than anyone. He’s been a sacrificial kind of scorer in that way, and in learning to optimize his chances when he does have the ball, he registered the best assist-to-turnover ratio of his career while still managing to lead a top-five offense in scoring.

At this point, the argument could be made that it’s time to unleash Devin Booker and let him resume more of the lead ball-handling duties. However, that may not be in the cards until playoff time, since Williams made it clear CP3 is not the only one they’re trying to preserve for the postseason by having him play off the ball more.

Doing so with Booker could pay dividends if he can find that extra gear to take over games at will like a Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry or Luka Doncic. We’ve seen more than a few flashes of it, but it’s something Booker still needs to display more consistently. In any case, he remains willing to do the dirty work to help his team win — even if he’ll crack a few jokes about being an expensive decoy along the way.

“Book is a hooper, and since I got here, day one, his focus is winning,” Paul said. “So whatever he gotta do to help us win, he’s gonna do it.”

Williams similarly praised Book’s enthusiasm for “laying the wood” on screens, using the man guarding him as a double screen, and even learning to “dominate with finding guys,” even when he doesn’t get credit for the hockey assist. The Suns coach saw it for the first time during must-win games in the NBA bubble, which not only empowered teammates like Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton and Cam Johnson to grow, but in turn, helped free up Booker too.

“I think the undertone of the league or the behind-the-scenes perspective was, ‘That guy can go,'” Williams said. “But when you put guys around him that can make plays, it augments it a bit. And then if you win a few games, it certainly gives you a different platform to do it.”

Booker certainly has the platform now: He’s a super-max multimillionaire on the cover of NBA 2K. From his dating life to his game-day outfits to his car wash coming to him, Book is a trendsetter, household name and star in every sense of the word.

After the summer of his life, it’d be easy to get complacent. Luckily for Suns fans, Devin Booker still isn’t satisfied.

“I’m moving forward,” he said. “All those things, the praises, the falls, I take everything that comes with this and I think that’s what makes this a beautiful sport. I think that’s what makes it my story. I’m just gonna keep working forward. Like I said, unfinished business. I’m gonna be on the grind throughout my whole career, throughout my whole life, so it feels like just the start for me.”

Author

Gerald Bourguet serves as PHNX's reporter, writing savant and podcast co-host for all things Phoenix Suns. He's been a basketball fan since the day he could say "Michael Jordan," graduated from the Walter Cronkite School at ASU in 2013 with a BA and MA in sports journalism and has been covering the NBA ever since. As a credentialed media member since 2015, Gerald dealt with his Suns-related depression through his writing...until the Bubble Suns changed everything. Now, the Artist Formerly Known as Zewio is just as excited to cover winning basketball as Suns fans are to enjoy watching it.

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