Only three years into his NBA career, Devin Booker has already produced a 70-point game, experienced tanking and seen a major franchise shakeup. How has he handled the highs and lows in Phoenix? We caught up with the Suns guard in a wide-ranging Q&A session.
I read that you were asleep when everything changed around here a few weeks ago. When you woke up how many texts and voicemails did you have?
Booker: I’d say over 50. Everyone. Other players around the league are like, “What’s going on over there?” A lot happened all at once. And it’s all over television. That’s all I heard about.
But the organization did what they had to do. Eric [Bledsoe] is happy he’s in the situation he’s in now. So I feel like it worked out on both ends.
Eric is one of your good friends. What have the conversations with him been like since everything went down?
Booker: Honestly, I wanted the best for him. Eric was at a point in his career where he’s ready to win. He’s 27 — he’s ready to win. So he’s in a situation where he’s in Milwaukee, he’s in the East now with a really talented team up there where I think he’s going to be in a great position.
Has anyone actually been to the hair salon Bledsoe said he was at?
Booker: (Smiles) I have no comment on that. I have no comment on that.
What’s it like seeing events like that play out on social media and television when you’re a part of it on some level?
Booker: It’s tough, because with the young team, we put so much work in out here. People don’t realize how talented the NBA is. So if you don’t have a lot of experience in this league it’s hard to be a good team. People are saying, “What are the Suns doing?” and this and that.
For us, we have to keep developing, and we know that. We have a really good young core that is competing against grown men. The Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, teams that have been together for five, 10-plus years. So I think we’re right on track, honestly. In a few years with the experience that we have, with the young core that we have, we’ll be in a good spot.
You’re only 21. Is there anything you haven’t seen in the league yet?
Booker: The playoffs. The playoffs. That’s the next step for me. I’ve seen most of the trades, coaching changes, the whole tanking thing. So I learned that it was a business, so that was all new to me. But at the same time I’m still living out my dream. Usually young players in this league don’t get the opportunity that I have so every time I go out there I try to think back to that and take advantage of my opportunity.
Have there been times in the last few years where you’re thinking to yourself: I can’t believe all the stuff I’ve gone through already?
Booker: Yeah, sometimes I think about it. Usually when I’m hanging out with my childhood friends that are going into their senior year of college now, and I’m like, “I just bought a house.” I’m dealing with mortgages and everything else. So yeah, I had to mature really quick but I’ve always been a mature kid for my age, hanging out with an older brother, being around my dad a lot, so it was an easy adjustment for me.
You just became the fourth-fastest player to 3,000 career points. Are you surprised at how fast all the points have come?
Booker: I am, but at the same time I’m to a point where I’m never satisfied. I always find something I have work on [for] my game, something else that I have to do to get better. So for me those are great accomplishments, obviously with great company — legends of the game, future Hall of Famers — it shows I’m on the right path. But I still have a long way to go for what I want to become.
I can only imagine how many times people have asked about the 70-point game.
Booker: Oh yeah. Everywhere I go … after that game, obviously I was recognized a lot more by the standard average civilian in America. Where they just [say] “Oh, 70 points. Mr. 70.” Even in China they were saying “Mr. 70” in English, so it’s unbelievable.
How much motivation comes to prove that you’re more than just “Mr. 70,” and can do more than just score a lot of buckets?
Booker: It was a great night for me, but it was a stepping stone that I have to use for my advantage. A lot more people knew about me now, but now they’re realizing I was a player before [scoring] 70. And for me, when people kept mentioning 70 I was like, I was putting up a lot of 30-point games before 70 [laughs]. But now everyone knows me for that. It’s not a bad thing to be known for but obviously I want to be known as a winner.
What’s it like being the face of the team?
Booker: It comes with a lot of responsibility. But I’m in a great situation where I get to be a role model in this community. Growing up, I used to idolize those players, the faces of the franchise, the Kobe Bryants. For me, I grew up watching really good Detroit Pistons teams. There really was no face to that team, it was Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, all those guys were really good, but I know [being the face] comes with a lot of responsibility on and off the court that I felt I’ve been preparing for.
When people find out you went to Kentucky, what is the first thing that they ask you?
Booker: Did you like [coach John] Calipari?
And what’s the answer there?
Booker: I love him. I love the whole coaching staff there. Assistant coach Kenny Payne is someone I still communicate with on a day-to-day basis. He got me back to my roots in being in the gym extra hours and putting in the work.
Even with the talented team that we had, we were winning every game by 15-plus, still putting extra work, still getting better. So they push you to your limit, where you want to be. One of the best decisions I ever made, I wouldn’t be in the situation I [am] without Kentucky.
When people talk to you about Calipari, what do they say to you about him?
Booker: There’s no in between I’ve figured out with Cal. They either love him or they really hate him. [The people who hate him say] “Oh, he’s a cheater, he’s a liar! He’s this and that.” But they don’t understand when he’s on your side, he wants the best for you and your family. He’ll do anything in his power to make you be successful.
So a guy like that, I’ve seen him in person talk to the NBA guys, he started the combine training, where he called all the NBA execs in for our class. He wants his players to succeed. He wants you to go to the NBA, he wants you to live out your dream. He’ll always text me and be like, “What’s the last thing you bought your mom?” He wants to know about your family so that’s really genuine.
Do you think at some point he’ll end up back in the NBA?
Booker: I honestly don’t think so. When he says he’s staying in Kentucky, I really believe that. I think he’s in the perfect situation there, where the recruiting does itself now. Players are in high school and [they’re] like, “Oh, this kid went there, was a one-and-done and a pro? Why wouldn’t I do that?”
For me, that was my situation, I was looking at the class before and I’m like, “Oh, James Young was just there. He’s a pro now. Julius Randle went one year.” For me, when I was in high school that was my ultimate dream, was to make it to the NBA. So I couldn’t think of a better place to do it at.
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So as a guy who declared after one year, would you want the league to go back to allowing high schoolers to declare or do you think the college experience is something everyone should have?
Booker: That’s a tough decision because the college experience is good but it’s not for some kids. At the same time, that college experience was great. It’s something I’m going to miss; memories I’ve made [for] the rest of my life. But some people are born and train their whole life to be an NBA player. But some people, if it doesn’t work out, then they have no other option. It’s a tough decision, so I understand on both sides. I’d hate to have to be making those decisions.
It sounds like you’d lean towards if a kid is good enough after high school, you’d …
Booker: Yeah, if he’s good enough after high school, don’t hold him back, so he can take care of his family. The NBA is unbelievable.
Is it true your middle name is Armani after Giorgio Armani?
Booker: No, it wasn’t after Giorgio. My dad ended up playing for Giorgio’s team in Italy — Armani Jeans — so the correlation came from that. But no, my mom named me Armani way before that.
Did you meet him?
Booker: [Smiles] I did meet him.
What was that like?
Booker: It was interesting because all I knew was Armani and I went to Italy actually, my dad took me to a store and he just happened to be in the store that day. So you get the little discounts, I got my little shirt from there, I got a picture with him that I still have today so I’ve got a picture with Giorgio Armani, it’s pretty serious.
You told him about your name, right?
Booker: Oh yeah. My dad did because [Armani] owned the team.
As somebody like yourself who enjoys fashion, why do you think people have become so obsessed by what you guys wear?
Booker: Basketball players have always been a role model [to some fans], in everything they did from when A.I. used to come in with the oversized jerseys when jerseys were in. Wear the big hats, tattoos, wear the sleeves, it’s just — trendsetters.
I don’t want to knock any football players, but we don’t have a helmet on. People know what we look like. We’re on TV. And now with social media expanding, people walking into games [with cameras following them] and then Russell [Westbrook] took it to a whole ‘nother with his fashion. It’s just something that people like to see. It’s a way of showing your personality outside of the court.
You’ve had a solid relationship with Drake since college, so who, past or present, is the Drake of the NBA?
Booker: I’ll say LeBron. You can compare who was better, who’s done this in the amount of years, but at the end of the day you know who the best is. That’s just that.
So if we went down the list, who would the Jay-Z of the league be?
Booker: See, I don’t put Jay-Z in that … see Drake is so special because he is so versatile. He can go make Jamaican music, put out an all hip-hop [album], sing on a song. As far as just straight rapping, then I’m going Jay-Z, but as far as a musician Drake is the next level for me.