The Phoenix Suns dug themselves out of the Western Conference cellar this season and, for much of the year, were a factor in the playoff picture out West before tailing off late.
The Suns made some major changes in the offseason, bringing in a new coach in Monty Williams and some veteran talent like Ricky Rubio and Aron Baynes, but the team’s engine remained Devin Booker. The 23-year-old took the next step in his journey to superstardom, picking up his first All-Star nod of his career as he was averaging near-career best production while significantly boosting his efficiency across the board.
With the NBA on hiatus, Booker has been able to show his talents extend far beyond being one of the league’s preeminent shooting guards, as he won the NBA 2K tournament televised on ESPN and regularly streams on Call of Duty on Twitch. He’s also picked up some wins in Slam’s COD tournament with Ben Simmons.
Booker spoke with Dime over the phone on Wednesday to discuss how he’s trying to use the time to kickstart some off-court personal goals he has, prove he’s the NBA’s best gamer (and why he thinks no one really challenges him for that title), his thoughts on his season and the Suns as a whole, and why he’s been geeking out watching all the Michael Jordan footage from The Last Dance.
First off, how are you doing and what have you been up to pass the time at home?
Yeah, man, I’m doing good. Just kinda making the most of the situation, spending time with family and friends and keeping it tight knit. It’s been a good time, a lot of free thinking time — sometimes too much thinking time — but praying for everybody and hoping everyone stays safe through it. I know a lot of families were touched by this tragedy, but trying to see the silver lining in it.
I talked to Victor Oladipo the other day and he said he’s picked up ping pong and says he’s gotten good at it. Are there any hobbies you’ve picked up and started doing now that you’re at home and have a little extra free time on your hands?
Yeah, I did a couple piano lessons so far, via Zoom. I’ve done piano lessons in the past, so I want to rekindle that fire and get going. I actually have Spanish lessons today. [Learning] Spanish is one of my five-year goals that I want to get in touch with. So hopefully I can pick up on those things and get a little kickstart with them during this time.
There you go. I know you’re also playing plenty of video games, got the Twitch streams going. Gaming online and streaming on Twitch is the rare opportunity right now for a lot of folks to get real interaction while we’re all at home. How important is that connectivity for you right now to get to talk with your friends and fans and guys from around the league?
I think people have seen a lot of athletes pick up and start [streaming] in this time that we have. I think it gives them a different aspect of us outside of the court and how we are when we’re just chillin at the house, kickin’ it and playing video games. My household has been big into gaming for a long time now, so I never really watched any streamers, but my brother did and all my friends do. So I kind of grasped the concept of what was going down and made some relationships with some really good streamers. You know, Nadeshot from 100 Thieves and Cloakzy, we’ve played a lot together during this time. Overall it’s been a pretty good time, cause I’ve always been a fan of video games, just could never be consistent with it with time. So this definitely gave me more than enough time that I needed.
You won the 2K tournament and you’ve won some Call of Duty stuff. Are you the best gamer in the NBA?
Yes, I am [laughs]. I honestly don’t think it’s close, but there are some good guys in the NBA that play Call of Duty. We did a Slam-type tournament back-to-back weekends and it was a good time. It was a really good time, but you know you can see the skill levels and you actually plays and put the sweat equity into the Call of Duty for sure.
Now I’m not asking who are necessarily the best, but who are your top-5 favorite guys in the league to play Call of Duty with?
I’d say I like playing with Mikal Bridges, my teammate. Karl Towns is one of ’em. Paul George, we’ve ran some Warzone together. Probably Meyers Leonard and Ben Simmons, those two are probably next in line when it comes to the talent level of the Call of Duty.
I’m good at sports games, but I’m pretty terrible at Call of Duty and other first person shooters. Do you have any tips, just some basics, on how to get better? Anything?
Honestly, just like anything bro, you just gotta put the time in. Like, honestly, I’ve spent many, many, many all-nighters playing Call of Duty through the night and that’s where I picked up my hand-eye for video games is Call of Duty. I told people during the 2K tournament that I’ve never really played 2K that much, but a lot of it’s just hand-eye, timing, and just knowing the basic movements. It’s all really tactical. Video games, I always have a fun time with this. It’s my way to be competitive off the court a bit.
I asked you at training camp up here in Flagstaff this summer about your responsibility as the longest tenured guy on the Suns, and you said you wanted to really start changing the perception of the franchise. How do you feel you guys did this season in terms of starting to gain more respect around the league and laying a foundation to keep building off of?
Yeah that was Monty’s biggest thing coming into the season. When we made the hire and the addition of coach Monty, we had many conversations and his first step he said is we need to change the perception of this team and how people view us. And if that’s having to get a little nasty, play tougher, more physical, but people are going to know when they play against up some talented, hard working guys. I think we showed a lot of spots of that, especially towards the beginning of the season, but we dealt with some injuries. I think we were at our best when we had our full roster, and recovering when two or three guys would go down was tough for us this year. But we definitely showed we’re not going to be a walkover team, and I think that’s the first step in recreating a franchise or a culture is gaining respect from around the league.
And for you personally, getting that first All-Star nod, where do you think your game grew the most this season?
I’d say just efficiency. You know, playing within the system. Trying to find the fine balance between being aggressive and at the same time playmaking for my teammates. It’s a lot. My goal is for my reputation to be a winner, so it’s been a process for me to do for five years now. But I’m enjoying it and having fun with it and getting better every day. So, I felt like that All-Star is obviously a dream of any hooper growing up. It’s first to make the NBA, and then once you’re in the NBA, it’s to be an NBA All-Star. I mean, growing up and watching nearly every NBA All-Star game and then being in it is a crazy feeling.
You mention the efficiency, and you’ve always been known as a capable scorer. What have you learned over the last few years about being a more efficient and better playmaker, both for yourself and your teammates?
Yeah, I always wanted to pride myself on playing the game the right way. Not having any type of label — not say role — but just do a little of everything. I think the game has transformed to positionless basketball, you see a lot of smaller lineups, so I think everyone is trying to learn how to play the game in every aspect and not get caught being known as one thing. So I took pride in that a lot of my life, and just put extreme work in. And then with Monty coming in and implementing this system with the players we have has also helped my game develop tremendously. Playing with Ricky Rubio, this year being my first full year with Kelly Oubre, Dario Saric, Aron Baynes, guys who have playoff experience. You can definitely feel it this year, and I definitely felt my game elevate because of the people around me.
Have you been watching The Last Dance?
Yeah I have. I have.
I know you’ve said you model a lot of your game off Kobe, and he modeled so much of what he did off of Michael. Seeing all this Jordan footage, are there things you’re looking at and going “oh man, I want to work on that” and picking stuff up as you’re watching this?
Yeah, man. This footage is unreal. I’ve probably seen every video of Kob’ in this aspect, but I’ve never seen this footage right here of Jordan. This is behind the scenes, I’ve only ever seen YouTube highlights. Like you said, I never got to watch the man play live. Just to be inspired by somebody that much that you never watched live play basketball, just shows the effect that he had. And I think my respect and love for Kobe and how much he was inspired by MJ, I think it’s just such a respect level for guys that inspire the next generation that much.