With all of their young talent, teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Lakers are viewed by most as the most promising of the up-and-coming teams. You don't hear many people talking about the Phoenix Suns. But maybe you should. The Suns have an intriguing mix of veterans and blossoming talent.
Most notably, they have Devin Booker.
Yes, Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight are, when healthy, known commodities, and T.J. Warren's development has been noteworthy. But Booker is the guy. He has future star written all over him, as evidenced by his recently becoming the youngest player in NBA history to post back-to-back 38-plus point games.
He can shoot. He can handle. He can make plays for himself and others. And his poise and basketball savvy, for a 20-year-old, are off the charts. In just his second season, Booker has increased his scoring average by seven points, leading the Suns at better than 20 ppg. He's also getting to the free-throw line, on average, two more times than he did his rookie year. The aggression, the angles, it's all coming together.
"I'm more comfortable this year," Booker told CBS Sports. "Last year, I was just thrown into the fire and didn't know what to expect. [It was] my first year in the NBA and I was playing a lot of minutes. But I got a lot of experience and it feels like I've been through everything. Now I can play at my own pace. I know what to expect. I know what players I'm playing against. I know their tendencies. There's a lot of things I'm more comfortable with this year."
Booker, who expertly uses his height advantage to get shots over smaller guards, credits aspects of his offensive repertoire to simply being a student of the game. Growing up in Michigan when the Pistons were in their heyday during the mid-2000s, Booker became a big fan of Rip Hamilton and has since developed a small relationship with the former All-Star guard. Hamilton texted Booker before the start of the season and told him to be aggressive right from the opening tip, advice that the Suns guard has embraced.
But besides for learning from watching Hamilton, Booker says legendary guards like Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen have had a profound impact on his own game.
"I try and take a little bit from everybody's game," Booker told CBS Sports. "From Kobe's footwork, Rip Hamliton's moving without the ball, Ray Allen's fundamentals. I try and pick pieces of everybody's game. Obviously I'm not going to be as good as all of them at that but if I can take a little piece from everybody, maybe I will be alright for myself."
So far, Booker has done a lot more than "alright" for himself. Kobe has complimented him. On the Open Run podcast, LeBron James listed Booker as his most promising young player, at least as far as guys who maybe aren't getting the attention they deserve, saying he will be an All-Star player. Drake even wore Booker's jersey during a summer performance in Phoenix.
And we all know Drake only jumps on the fullest bandwagons.
"It motivates me, hearing those compliments from those caliber of guys," Booker said of Kobe and LeBron. "Living legends, top 5 to ever do it, both of them. It's good to hear but at the same time it makes me want to grind that much more to be on the pedestal that they are on."
Booker's potential for stardom is clear, as is his room for improvement. Known as a knock-down shooter, or at least a potential one, this year he's shooting just 28.3 percent, on over five attempts a game, from beyond the arc. Last year he was just over 34 percent. The shooting needs to get better.
Booker also leaves a lot be desired on the defensive end.
But again, he's only 20 years old. This is a process -- one that Suns coach Earl Watson, who is learning on the job himself, and who worked closely with Booker as a player development coach before getting promoted, is thrilled to be a part of.
"When he first came into the league, he knew what his vision was supposed to be," Watson said about Booker at a recent Suns shootaround in Portland. "We talked about it every day. We visualized it every time we touched the court and we knew it was just a matter of time.
"Personally, I didn't think I would be here when it would happen. Just being really honest with you. I was on a one-year deal so I told him that at the end of [the 2015-16 season], most likely I won't be here but you have to remember to stay focused on the goal. And try to remember everything we talked about in our drills so when I leave, you have some carry over to whoever works with you next.
"To still be part of the process and to see him actually accelerate that growth, with a lot of room to grow, is an amazing thing."
Booker, for his part, is equally complimentary of his coach.
"When you have a head coach that has that much trust in you, that much confidence in you, it makes it a lot easier on yourself," Booker said. "It's easier to trust yourself, when your teammates and your head coach trust you in key situations. He was my player development coach and we spent countless hours in the gym together. It's crazy how everything happened where he turned out to be the head coach. He trusts me a lot. I trust him a lot."
That trust that Booker talks about is central any future success Phoenix might have. At this juncture, the Suns are a team in transition. They have a solid group of veterans, but with an average age of 25.2 years old, they're among one of the youngest teams in the league. That's where Watson comes in. He is a young coach that can directly relate while also helping his younger players like Booker develop. Phoenix's future is what makes them so intriguing.
"What I like about us is the ceiling's so big when it comes to Devin Booker, how good can Marquese [Chriss] be?" Jared Dudley pondered. "How good can some of these young guys be?"
It's a legitimate question. Guys like Warren and Alex Lenhave shown promise but it is unclear if they will ever take the next step as players. And then there's Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, both of whom were just drafted this past year and remain very raw.
Still, the Suns, as currently constructed, will go as far as Booker can take them, this year and especially in the future. Dudley knows that. Booker knows that, too. He's motivated to not only continue improving. but in the process, lead the Suns back to the days when Steve Nash had Phoenix as one of the elite teams in the league.
"Every time I step on the floor, I try to be the best version of myself and try to get wins," Booker said. "Winning is the most important thing. Everybody looks good when you win."