Devin Booker embraces pressure as young NBA star


Dallas Mavericks guard J.J. Barea (5) tries to block the shot of Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) during the third quarter on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016, at the American Airlines Center in Dallas. (Ashley Landis/Dallas Morning News/TNS)

Kevin Erpenbeck

In front of an audience of amazed kids, Devin Booker went 25 of 29 from behind the arc, showing that he still has the smooth stroke that he did in college just two years ago.

But despite the shots being uncontested, Booker still felt the heavy pressure of not letting his spectators down.

“It’s the most pressure I’ve felt in a while actually,” Booker said with a smile. “Missed a few free throws. But it’s all good. It’s what it’s all about.”

Booker is just the latest former Wildcat to return to UK’s campus to help with the various basketball camps hosted by the college. The teenage up-and-coming NBA star said he remembers being a kid, sitting at a basketball camp and watching former Michigan State star Drew Neitzel (2004-08) dazzle in front of him, hoping one day that he could be just as great. 

Now, Booker is the guy that young kids want to be: An NBA success at the age of 19.

“I’m an actual role model now, and how I carry myself actually affects people’s lives,” Booker said.

Shortly after being selected 13th overall in the 2015 NBA Draft, Booker was thrust into the Phoenix Suns’ starting rotation after season-ending injuries hit teammates Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight. Such pressure might cripple certain young players, forcing them to play at a top level consistently before they’re ready to.

But Booker was not the average rookie. He welcomed the challenge at such an early stage of his career and rose to the occasion. The first-year player saw an average of 27.7 minutes on the court while starting 51 of his first 76 games in the league. Booker also averaged 13.8 points with a 42.3 shooting percentage (including a 34.3 percentage from 3-point distance). 

Booker was also selected to compete in the Three-Point Contest during the NBA All-Star weekend, finishing third behind Golden State Warriors superstar duo Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry.

Now that he’s in the conversation as one of the better shooting guards in the league, Booker was glad to have experienced such a challenging first season.

“It’s a good pressure to have,” Booker said. “Obviously I want to be the best 2-guards in the league. That’s why I play the game, to be the best. … When Eric and Brandon went down with injuries, it put more pressure on me. The ball was in my hand more. I think this rookie year is going to shape the rest of my career in a positive way.”

But the young guard’s growth of confidence didn’t stop at the end of last season, as Booker was invited to join the USA Select Team this summer. Working as a “defensive dummy” against this year’s Olympic national team in Las Vegas, Booker reveled from the experience in being a part of what he considers to be the “high society” of the sport.

“You know everybody that has been in those jerseys, all the legends that are walking around in the gym, coaches and players. It’s hard to explain,” Booker said. “It’s like you’re in the upper class. But it’s an unbelievable experience just being around them, being around Coach (Gregg) Popovich and Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski), all those guys. You hear things from all your coaches growing up. They might say the same thing, but you listen to them more because obviously they’re legends in this game.”

It’s all part of Booker achieving his goal of being on the Olympic national team one day in the future.

“It’s part of the process,” Booker said of the experience. “I’m on the right road.”

Now heading into his second season with the Suns, Booker gets the chance to play with his best friend Tyler Ulis again after Phoenix took the 5-foot-9 guard 34th overall in this year’s draft. Ulis turned many heads during the Phoenix’s Summer League action as he averaged 14.5 points, 6.3 assists, 2.5 rebounds and 2.8 steals in a starting role. Ulis also hit a buzzer-beating shot to advance the Suns to the Las Vegas Summer League semifinals.

But Booker, having played with Ulis on the 2014-15 undefeated regular season UK team, wasn’t surprised by the skill level Ulis has shown so far at the professional level, despite the continuous talk of the guard’s small stature.

“His size doesn’t matter,” Booker said. “I don’t understand how the draft always works. You take all these European guys that play three minutes a game overseas, but right here, you see Tyler play on the biggest stage in college basketball and performing. I’m glad (the draft) happened how it did because now we get to be teammates again. He’s just proving to everybody that all you have to do is watch basketball honestly. Proof is in the pudding.”

Ulis’ addition to the Suns roster gives Phoenix five different guards from UK’s last seven teams. Booker said there are discussions that spring up with his fellow UK brethren about whose team was better. Since none of them have the distinction of playing on the 2012 national championship team, Booker believes it’s easy make the case that his 2014-15 trumps the rest with talent.

“I always say we were the most talented team in college basketball history,” Booker said. “Not the best team because the best teams win championships, but the most talented team.”

As for the next step in his growth, Booker iterated that it’s all about winning. The Suns finished next to last in the Western Conference with a 23-59 record last season. But with a core of talented young players on the roster, Phoenix is seen as one of the teams in the league headed in the right direction.

Booker knows that a lot of attention will be on him during that process thanks to the fast start to his NBA career. But it’s not pressure that he’s running away from. Instead, he plans to use a lesson he learned during his college days in turning that pressure into even more success.

“I always knew I could do the things I’ve shown in the NBA. It’s just I had to fit in with the team,” Booker said. “That’s part of sacrificing, and I knew that coming here. That’s what (Coach) Cal preached to us. Everybody is going to eat, but you’re going to have to sacrifice.

“This year, I was getting numbers some games and we were still losing. I figured out when you win, everybody looks good. That’s why you see the Golden State Warriors, having their four All-Stars, everybody looks good, the Cleveland Cavaliers. When you win, everybody looks good. So that’s what I’m trying to do.”