After three years of aggravation, there’s still not a youth-spoiling line in Devin Booker’s face. He’ll be 22 shortly after the season starts in October, with 200-plus professional games in the rearview, most of them meaningless in the over-by-the-fourth-quarter sense, all of them meaningless in the sense that the Phoenix Suns haven’t sniffed a playoff spot since he showed up. Booker stands alongside Kyrie Irving and DeMarcus Cousins as a recent lottery talent who plays about as well as anybody could have hoped—better, considering Booker was a 13th overall selection—and gets totally hung out to dry by playing on a bad team. Before LeBron James returned to Cleveland, Kyrie was slumming it with Jarrett Jack and Dion Waiters. Boogie was moping through bleak Februaries alongside Jimmer Fredette and Marcus Thornton. Booker’s been running beleagueredly with Dragan Bender and a washed up Tyson Chandler. The novelty must wear off at some point: it’s cool to make the NBA and put up big numbers, but after a while you wonder what you did to deserve a front office for whom you represent their lone unqualified success. You’re stranded.
On a grand scale, this predicament is only a little bit pitiable. Booker signed a five-year, $158 million extension over the summer. That’s enough cash to buck up an entire city block. But also: the Suns just recently traded 2016 eighth overall pick Marquese Chriss and Brandon Knight to the Rockets for Ryan Anderson and De’Anthony Melton, who is either a rangy guard out of USC or a late-80s R&B singer who once toured with Keith Sweat. It’s not great to be a Sun at the moment, even if you’re getting paid yacht money to do so.
You could say the same about the past handful of seasons, but it feels a bit more possible this time around that things could soon be looking up for Phoenix. If DeAndre Ayton is as talented as he’s supposed to be, this is perhaps, after numerous false starts, the year in which the Suns take a step forward and start to approximate a real basketball team. This is an exciting prospect for anyone nostalgic for the Charles Barkley-fronted squads of yore, or the Seven Seconds or Less era—it just makes sense that Phoenix should at least make the playoffs—but more immediately, we might soon finally get to see what Devin Booker can actually do.
There’s an underdetermined quality to good young players on bad teams. We know they can do some stuff—in Booker’s case, he can score from anywhere—but we don’t know how applicable their skills are because they’re so rarely truly applied. The dregs of the NBA are casually brushed aside by title contenders, effortfully walloped by the middle class, and they stage strangely languid anti-competitions against fellow basement-dwellers, especially in the spring when they’re gunning more for increased lottery odds than victories. The season is six months long, and so of course there are glimpses of real effort, but most games are pretty empty exercises, lacking gravity or stakes. The difference between a Thursday night Rockets-Warriors tilt and a way-down-the-programming-list matchup between the Pistons and Suns is the difference between a Coppola epic and a TV movie. The Suns game’s just got no scale.
You can still learn things, obviously, but three years is enough. We understand what Booker can do in a vacuum. With Knight joining Houston, it looks like Booker’s going to start at point guard next season, which is an interesting development for somebody who averaged only 4.7 assists last year. If he’s running the offense, he’ll need people to pass to. Anderson, Trevor Ariza, and a very green Ayton don’t constitute an ideal stable of additions, but along with Josh Jackson, who might be good, and T.J. Warren, who’s definitely solid, Booker should have some competence around him for the first time in his career. If it won’t be Booker Unleashed in 2018-19, it’ll at least be the end of Booker In 10-Pound Ankle Weights.
I’ve previously lamented the way young players are shackled to the teams that draft them through—well, first the draft itself, and then restricted free agency—because it’s a closed, labor-encumbering system that prevents workers from choosing where they want to work for, at minimum, five years and usually considerably longer given that a player has a choice between a lucrative long-term contract with the franchise that drafted him or dangling himself over the cliff’s edge of accepting a one-season qualifying offer. If young players want to play for a winner—or in a city they like, or for a particular coach, etc.—basically their only recourse is to hope like hell that their general manager knows what he’s doing. Unfortunately for Booker, Ryan McDonough’s drafting and trade-swinging have yet to turn the Suns around.
Maybe this is the beginning of McDonough’s redemption. Though, I don’t know, taking an athletic seven-footer everybody thinks is going to be really good with the first pick in the draft isn’t exactly a difficult call. Regardless, it is maybe more promisingly, and more importantly, the beginning of us finding out what Devin Booker can accomplish with some bona fide NBA talent around him. It’s not the end of the world to chuck three years when you make your pro debut a couple days before your 19th birthday. At the very least, Booker has his feet now firmly beneath him. He knows he can hang, even excel. But surely he’s raring to expand his game, to play in more intense contests and strive, if not toward lofty goals, then for the type of modest ones that are thrilling when chasing them is new. This is the first Suns squad that might give him a chance to do that, and not a moment too soon.