In theory, Wednesday night could have gone down as one of the most significant evenings of the John Calipari era at Kentucky, not because of the opponent the Wildcats played, but because of what could have conceivably been on the line. That’s because in theory, Wednesday night’s game versus Ole Miss could have been “Senior Night” for one of the most talented recruiting classes to ever come through Kentucky, the 2014 group which included Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis and Trey Lyles.
Of course that Senior Night recognition never came, if only because that group was simply too talented to stay in Lexington for four years. Towns went on to be the No. 1 pick in the following year’s NBA Draft and earned his first All-Star nod this year. Lyles was also a first round pick that year, and Ulis came out the following season, after winning SEC Player of the Year as a sophomore.
— Devin Booker (@DevinBook) February 28, 2018
Yet of all the players in that group, the one with the most intriguing future is probably Booker. Booker joked on Wednesday night that he wonders if Calipari would have actually started him on Senior Night, yet at 21-years-old is already one of the most uniquely gifted young players in the NBA.
One person who has seen Booker’s progression into a budding NBA superstar – former Phoenix Suns coach Earl Watson – joined the Aaron Torres Sports Podcast on the KSR network (which you can download by clicking here) earlier this week to discuss Booker’s evolution as a pro. And it’s safe to say that Watson thinks very highly of his former star.
“‘Devin Booker [will] be the best player to ever wear the Phoenix Suns jersey,’” Watson says he told friends after Booker’s rookie season. “And I still believe it to this day.”
Watson first came to Phoenix as an assistant with the Suns, and he was actually the guy who worked out Booker during the draft process. Booker came in with the reputation as just a spot-up shooter, but Watson quickly realized there was more to his game, and began expanding it after Booker was drafted No. 13 overall that year. They worked on pick-and-roll offense and elbow jumpers behind the scenes, as Booker grew more comfortable in the NBA. In those early days, Booker wasn’t playing much. But the coach told him to be patient.
“At that time he wasn’t really playing and he was starting to get frustrated,” Watson said. “I just kept telling him ‘The NBA is 82 games. A season can change so quickly. Things can change so quickly. You always get your chance through injury, trade, or the team is not performing well. You will get your opportunity, so just be ready.’”
That moment came late in the season. By then Watson had become the Suns’ head coach and the franchise as a whole had decided to go younger. They traded away starter Markieff Morris and even at just 19-years-old, the organization made the decision that the focus of the entire team would be Booker. Booker responded by going on a tear to end the season – in his last 25 games, Booker scored in double-figures 24 times, including five separate 30-point games.
Even despite the upswing, there were still doubters.
“[I was told] You guys were young, anyone can score if they play that many minutes,’” Watson remembers friends saying to him. That’s when he made the comment that he believed Booker would go down as the best Phoenix Suns player ever.
And by the beginning of that second year, Watson looked like he might be onto something. Booker led the Suns averaging 22 points per game and added three assists and three boards a game, while becoming one of the league’s best scorers. That season was also the year that Booker went off for his monster 70-point game against the Boston Celtics, a mark that only five players in NBA history have ever reached.
Watson remembers that night vividly and shared the details with the Torres Podcast.
For starters, the Suns were playing the Celtics, a team they’d beaten just weeks before. Unfortunately it was now the end of the season, and the franchise had basically gone into ”tank mode” resting a number of key players (including, ironically, Eric Bledsoe) and were really just looking for some positive momentum for an especially young team. And it’s insane to think about just how young the Suns were. That weekend the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 was going on, and Watson says that the Suns were younger than 15 teams actually in the Sweet 16.
In terms of the particulars, the night started off mostly forgettable for Phoenix and Booker. They fell down by 13 after the first quarter, and Booker himself showed no signs that he’d soon make history. Booker had “only” 19 points at halftime and “only” 42 after three quarters. Watson planned to give Booker a rest prior to the start of the fourth quarter – but then, a couple hard fouls from Boston’s Marcus Smart changed everything.
Booker wanted back on the court, and he wanted revenge.
“Devin’s face completely changes [after those fouls],” Watson said. “The quarter ends, he looks at me, I look at him, and no words were even spoken.”
And then from there, Booker went on a tear. He made basket after basket after basket, to the point that eventually the crowd started cheering him on, even though the Suns trailed. When Watson asked his assistants what all the commotion was about, they responded simply that he had 65 points. Watson’s reaction was classic. “I said ‘Oh s**t!” he says now. “I’m coaching the score of the game. Not points per game, per player.”
Eventually Booker got his 70 and while and his teammates celebrated, both the media and opposing players criticized the decision to go for such a lofty point total. In a close game throughout, Watson defended the decision, telling the media “I was trying to get the game into overtime, so we could get him 80.”
More importantly however, Watson realized something: In their two years together, Booker had done everything his coached had asked. He had stayed strong through losing streaks and never stopped working when his team struggled. And his coach wanted to reward him.
“I had a young kid, who has been nothing but positive and high-character going into a tough situation, tough season losing, and just fighting every day for his team,” Watson said. “He deserved the opportunity to do what he can do. There’s no way I could shut him down and stay at 68 or 65 or whatever it is. There’s no way I could have done that. He deserved it. We teach them to play until the end.”
Watson also mentioned another exchange, which had happened earlier in the day which helps explain what motivated Booker that night. Watson said that in Booker’s rookie year he’d set up a meeting between Booker and Kobe Bryant before a Suns-Lakers game, and in that game, Bryant told a young Booker – a player Kobe admired – to be “legendary.” He signed a pair of sneakers with the same phrase, and it was a phrase that Watson dropped on Booker that night.
“Before the game I told Dev ‘be legendary,’” he said.
And that’s something that Booker appears on his way to being. Although Watson is no longer with the Suns, he has watched Booker continue to develop this year, to the point that he is now averaging nearly 25 points per game, tied with Russell Westbrook for ninth in the league.
Booker has the chance to be legendary. And according to Watson, he’s just now beginning to scratch the surface of his potential.
“You have one of the best basketball players in the NBA regardless of age,” Watson said of Booker’s future. “And with that, anything is always possible.”
To listen to Watson’s entire interview – where he shares more stories on Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis, download the entire Aaron Torres Sports Podcast.
It’s available through the KSR feed on iTunes and Google Play. Streaming online is simple through Pod Paradise. You can also get it directly to your phone by subscribing to the Aaron Torres Sports Podcast feed on iTunes or via Android’s Podcast Addict app.