PHOENIX — One decision can have a profound effect on a career. For Suns standout Devin Booker, his came the summer after his freshman year in high school.
He moved 1,000 miles from Grandville, Michigan, to Moss Point, Mississippi, to live with his father.
“Culture shock for me,” Booker said.
Adapting has clearly been Booker’s strength. The 13th player selected in the 2015 NBA draft and third guard overall has emerged as one of the brightest stars the Arizona basketball community has seen in a long time.
He has been a dominant player among his draft class peers and is second only to top pick and Timberwolves center Karl Anthony Towns in points per game and minutes played. In two-plus seasons, Booker has flourished on a Suns team that has gone 66-164 and is ninth in points per game this season (25.2), developing quicker than anyone anticipated.
“We thought Devin would be an impact player in time but he has exceeded the expectations we had for him at this stage of his career,” Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said. “We felt he would eventually be very successful but we would be lying if we said that we expected him to become one of the most productive young players in NBA history.”
It’s hard to believe Booker once didn’t seem like a lock to make this far. One decision changed everything.
That decision came in the summer of 2011 when Booker moved from his mother’s place in Michigan to his father’s in Mississippi. Melvin Booker, a standout player at Missouri who enjoyed a long professional career overseas, pushed for the move to help his son develop. He says now he felt like a college coach as he tried to recruit not only his son but Devin’s mother, Veronica Gutiérrez, to make the life-alternating decision.
“At first they were against this and I understand, mom didn’t want to send her son away from her for the next three years,” Melvin said. “But once I convinced him that this was the step he needs to do, to come down there and work the way you need to work to fulfill his dreams, he was all for it.”
It was a tough decision for Gutiérrez. With Melvin playing basketball around the world, Devin spend most of his childhood with her. Though the couple never married, they worked together to raise Devin. She eventually agreed and the bond between mother and son remained tight.
“It didn’t change,” Devin said. “There’s still FaceTime. I used to talk to her everyday. I used to go there in the summer back to Michigan to visit her. It was a hard decision for her. She always talks about it now how she didn’t want me to go but it ended up being a good decision.”
The transition wasn’t easy at first.
“Whole different environment, going to a suburban school to … more of a inner city school (and) moving away from all my childhood friends, family, it was all new to me,” Devin said. “But it was a decision I made and I dealt with it and I think it helped me grow up and it had a big impact (on) the position I’m in.”
The move enabled Devin to spend more time with his father, who became an assistant coach at Devin’s school, Moss Point High. Melvin had a wealth of experience, with journeys that took him from a brief stop in the NBA to international leagues in Italy, Turkey and Russia.
The pair connected quickly.
“We kicked it right off,” Devin said. “Became my best friend, guy I go to for anything and you know, we both love the game of basketball so I feel like that’s where our relationship took off.”
As much as the move was about rekindling the relationship, it was also about elevating Devin’s game and helping him manipulate the club ball scene.
“He know all the tricks and traits of the games,” Booker said. “Where I think a lot of young kids are talented, kind of get taken advantage of nowadays if they don’t have guidance, (having) someone that’s around them that knows what’s going on — you have a bunch of AAU coaches trying to get to you, agents that deal with high school players now — and having a father that has been through it all, kept all that away from me.”
The change of scenery accelerated Devin’s growth as he learned from his father’s experiences in the game.
“He was getting it at 14, 15 years old so and he’s a very intelligent kid so he’s picking up on those things, never complained one bit, he was just like a sponge,” Melvin said.
The experience proved to be a crucial reason for his successful jump to the NBA, Devin said.
“Spending extra time in the gym, hour before practice, hour after practice that I really didn’t understand,” Devin said. “I was just a really talented kid, so putting in that extra work and that grind I feel like got me to the situation I am today.
“Everything was basketball when I moved with my father and that’s what I wanted it to be. We used to watch games even when I wasn’t on the court. We’d watch games together, he’d stop it, replay it like we’re in a film session … so it was eat, sleep, breathe basketball.”
When Melvin watches Devin on the court, he still sees the little kid that dribbled the ball around the house who wanted to make it in the NBA.
“Just to watch him go out there and have the success he’s had so early in his career, it’s just mind boggling right now,” Melvin said. “But I know he works extremely hard and he wants it and his IQ is so high and you know, sky’s the limit for him.”
Devin said he’s focused on improving and turning the organization into a “winning franchise.”
Taking his craft seriously and studying the game has helped him make significant strides from Year One to Year Three. Interim coach Jay Triano has noticed these adjustments, especially on the defensive side.
“He’s a lot more focused at the defensive end and I think that’s helped his overall game awareness,” Traino said.
He is not without flaws.
“Strength, the strength to be able to continue to play the minutes that we need him to play because we expect him to be on the floor a lot,” Triano said. “I think he’s a dynamic player and the better shape he’s in, the more he can stay on the floor and I think that’s (maybe the) key, getting stronger to withstand guys that are trying to be physical with him and not let him get the ball or trying to direct where they want him to go.”
Booker has endured though some of the franchise’s toughest times, including coaching changes, failed free agent pursuits and plenty of losses.
A fair share of top talent has left the organization. Eric Bledsoe posted an infamous tweet about wanting to leave the Suns and received his wish in mid-November, when he was shipped to Milwaukee. Isaiah Thomas was picked up in free agency and then sent out midseason to Boston. He was happy to leave too, saying to Boston Globe reporter Adam Himmelsbach, “It’s like they gave me a Christmas gift by sending me away.”
Some fans fear Booker could leave Phoenix for greener pastures. McDonough has said that the team will be aggressive in free agency and wants to move the timeline of the rebuild up.
Booker has two years left on his deal with 2018 being a team option. The Suns can offer him a contract extension after this season.
Is that enough to keep Devin here? According to AzCentral in October, Booker said he “would love to sign an extension” with the team if he’s offered one next summer.
“I’ve been treated right from the day I was drafted, even when I was a rookie and didn’t play much,” he said. “The city of Phoenix took me in with open arms and made me a part of their family. I’ve learned the history and traditions of the team. I know how much the city cares about the franchise and that means a lot to me, playing somewhere where people actually care about the franchise.
“I love it here, I bought a house here and I intend to be here for a long time.”
That was in October. When asked on February 9th if he anticipates signing his extension right away, Devin cracked the massive glacier of Suns concern by saying, “That’s a lot of money” and followed the comment with some laughter.
“I don’t know,” Devin said. “When that time comes man, I’ll just take it day by day but right now I’m focused on my task at hand. That’s turning this thing around and developing our team into a winning team.”
Booker, 21, has already had some Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant-like moments, scoring 70 points in one game and hitting big shots to either force overtime or pick up a victory.
“I’m trying to build my own (legacy),” he said. “But at the same time, being mention with those guys you know, two of the best to ever do it, it’s unbelievable company, I’d be blessed, fortunate enough to be mentioned with those names at the end of my career but like I said, I try to be the best and I think that’s what they did in their career also.”
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