As Booker spun, Boston Celtics RJ Hunter and Guerschon Yabusele collapsed on him, trying to rip the ball from Booker’s grasp. With the nearby baseline acting as a third defender, Booker was trapped. Without hesitation, Booker took one dribble toward the middle of the paint, bumping Hunter out of the way, and laid the ball in over the outstretched arms of Jordan Mickey.
The effortlessness with which Booker evaded the trap and created an opening to score was similar to watching a star varsity player pick apart a junior varsity defense, which is exactly how Booker treated most of the defense thrown at him during his two-game stint at the Las Vegas Summer League. He was simply too smart, swift and skilled to be stopped.
Even before his 28-point, eight-rebound, six-assist performance in his first outing on July 9 against the Portland Trail Blazers was over, the buzz around the Thomas Mack Center was that Booker, who already was overqualified to play in summer league, was the best player there.
“I think he’s the best player playing in this thing right now,” Suns center Alan Williams said. “You can call me biased, but I think a lot of people would agree.”
When asked if he has heard the same chatter, Booker admitted he has — and that he agrees.
“I always feel like that,” Booker said. “Not just in summer league. That’s just the confidence I have. I know there are a lot of other people in there that feel the same way. Every time I step on the floor, especially with new guys to the league, I feel like I have experience over them.
“But every time I step on the floor, I want to be the best player.”
Booker could have sat out summer league, as other sophomore standouts such as Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis and Jahlil Okafor did. Instead, he chose to showcase the strides he has made this offseason and develop on-court chemistry with the Suns’ young core of Chriss, Dragan Bender and Tyler Ulis.
Booker, the 19-year-old Kentucky product, is wired differently than most young stars:
Despite being a first-team All-Rookie selection last season, he doesn’t view summer league as beneath him. The common fears that hold other young players back from playing in summer league — such as underperforming on a big stage or risking injury — don’t concern him, either.
“That’s my work ethic,” Booker said. “I stay in the gym. I don’t want last season to be known as a fluke season or something that happened just because of injuries. Every time I step on the floor, I always feel like I have something to prove. I’m trying to win, most importantly.”
Booker broke out after the All-Star break last season, averaging 19.2 points, 3.0 rebounds and 4.2 assists in 35.3 minutes per game after the Suns suffered a slew of injuries. He established his shooting prowess and some off-the-bounce potential, but the next step was rounding out his game — specifically, his ballhandling, passing and defense — and strengthening his body.
It’s been only three months since the season ended, but Booker already looks considerably better.
His handle in traffic is tighter. His court vision and ability to create for his teammates has improved. His footwork in the post and on the elbow is more efficient. His shot release off the dribble is quicker and more fluid. He’s stronger and more physical when attacking the offensive glass and driving the lane to draw contact.
“Everything,” Booker said of what he has worked on this summer. “Mostly my body, though. Eating right. Getting more flexible. At the same time, more leadership skills. That’s why I was at summer league — just getting acquainted with the younger guys and trying to teach them the ropes.”
Overall, Booker averaged 26 points (on 60 percent 3-point shooting), 5 rebounds and 6.5 assists during his two games in the summer league, leading the Suns to wins over the Trail Blazers and the Celtics.
If his stretch at summer league is any indication of how he’ll play next season, Booker is destined for stardom, and the Suns might have finally found a franchise player.
“I think you’re seeing a star in the making,” Williams said. “He’s already a star, but he’s taking his game to the next level. It’s unfair to a lot of people.”
Suns summer league coach Nate Bjorkgren offered his impressions.
“The thing about Devin is, he keeps growing as a player every day, from last season all the way through this summer,” Bjorkgren said. “With the work that he’s put in, he’s a player that’s going to keep getting better.
“You see him utilizing his post game a little bit. His elbow work. We know what he can do behind the arc. You’re seeing him handle the ball. He’s just becoming more and more versatile. He does a great job guarding the ball, and when he’s in ball screens, he’s really engaging the basketball and pursuing the ball.”
With his summer league tenure over, Booker now turns his attention to the USA Men’s Select Team, which will practice against the men’s U.S. Olympic basketball team from Monday to Thursday in Las Vegas.
The grind never stops.
“Within the last month, his work ethic has been crazy,” Williams said. “He’s really in there working, drilling, getting better on what he needs to get better on. He’s tough. He’s a tough guard. I think it shows. He’s got the post work. He has the ability to drive the basketball and get to the free throw line. And, of course, that jump shot is money.
“It’s so much fun and really easy to play with a guy like that on the court, because he’s going to look for you at the same time, but he’s ultra-aggressive and he loves that big moment. When the ball’s in his hands, you know something good is going to happen.”
A lot of good happened when the ball was in Booker’s hands in Las Vegas.
So how high is his ceiling if he keeps up his current rate of improvement?
“He’s a great one,” Bjorkgren said. “Only time will tell.”