Friendship of Suns’ Booker, Ulis ‘greater than basketball’

PHOENIX — Since Kentucky’s 2014-15 Final Four season, NBA teams have drafted 12 players from the men’s basketball program, including Suns guards Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis.

The two young guards became best known in the 2016-17 season: Booker with a 70-point game, and Ulis with a number of spectacular plays and buzzer-beaters. Their friendship, however, goes back far beyond their year together in Phoenix.

“It’s greater than basketball, me and Tyler,” Booker said. “He’s one of my closest friends.”

As top-level prospects throughout their youth careers, the two said they have known each other since middle school. Through playing AAU, and eventually a shared year at Kentucky, Booker said they would work out around midnight every day, playing one-on-one and training late into the night.

Now, as professionals, Booker said he and Ulis still spend most of their time together outside of the court. Most nights, the pair will head over to Booker’s house to play NBA 2K, compete in ping-pong and eat together from their shared personal chef.

Booker played just one year at Kentucky, and made a splash in his rookie year before Ulis finished his second, and final, year for the Wildcats. The two were even at the same draft party in Chicago when the Suns selected Ulis with the 34th overall pick in 2016 draft.

For Ulis, the opportunity both to play in the NBA, and to immediately have somebody so close to him is a blessing.

“You don’t see many guys on teams with their best friends or their brothers, and when it happens it’s just a great feeling. You wake up every day like, ‘I can’t believe we’re on the same team again,’ ” he said.

That bond, shared outside basketball, has manifested itself on the court for the Suns as well.

“I’m a playmaker on the court myself, and he’s a scorer, so we feed well off each other, know what each other wants to do, what each other likes to do, and that’s why our chemistry is so good,” Ulis said.

Coach Earl Watson said he has seen the chemistry between many of his young players, Ulis and Booker included, grow to a surprisingly high level.

With many of the team’s main contributors being so inexperienced, building a foundation of willingness to play with and for one another is not always easy, but Watson said the players’ dedication to the city and the team during the offseason is a solid first step.

“I think our team, we’ve been together all summer. They’ve made a commitment to being here all summer,” Watson said. “They love the community, they love just being a part of this program and it shows.”

There are four former Kentucky guards on the roster, and Booker said that the culture playing under coach John Calipari taught them the sacrifices they would have to make to mesh onto a high-level team.

Having so many five-star prospects on one squad, Booker, who has shown tremendous ability to not only score but also dribble, pass and make plays for his teammates, said he was relegated to just a spot-up shooter. Understanding his role as a part of a larger purpose, he learned how to attack, while still maintaining humility on a basketball court in just one year of college basketball.

“We thought somebody would get left behind or a couple people get left behind, but we all sacrificed a part of our games,” he said, “We all gave up part of our game, and I think that directly translates to the NBA.”

Though the team will compete in an extremely talented Western Conference, and accumulated the conference’s worst record at 24-58, Ulis said the young group is looking forward to working toward success in the future.

“It’s a great feeling for us, we’re happy to be here and we’re just trying to make something special happen,” he said.