Burning Up in the Phoenix Sun

Devin Booker scored 70 points and reminded us that the time to appreciate him is now.

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker hit a lot of shots Friday night en route to putting up a historic 70 points against the Boston Celtics, but the most revealing shot he hit was one that didn’t even count in the final box score. With a little over a minute left in the fourth quarter and the Suns down eleven, Booker grabbed a defensive rebound and began pushing the ball up the court. Suns forward Jared Dudley set a screen for him in transition and promptly got bowled over onto his back by human bulldozer Marcus Smart. As Dudley fell to the ground, Booker pulled up, hoisting himself into the air more to avoid hitting Dudley than anything else. Hopelessly far behind the arc and with Dudley crashing to the ground beneath his feet, Booker launched the ball high into the air. It soared and came back down right on target. It dropped clean through the net.

What was telling about the shot wasn’t so much that it went in. NBA players hit crazy shots all the time; that’s partly why we watch them. No, what made that shot truly revealing was that when it sank through the rim, you weren’t surprised. It didn’t feel like a big deal, even though the Suns bench exploded into celebration. It didn’t seem significant. It felt casual. “Of course that went in,” you probably thought as the TV broadcast replayed the shot over and over, “because it’s Devin Booker.”

Devin Booker is a special player with the kind of otherworldly offensive talent that has only appeared a handful of times in NBA history. He’s the sort of player that makes scoring the basketball look so easy you can trick yourself into believing that its the kind of thing anybody can do. When normal players hit a shot like Booker’s waved-off three, we collectively lose our minds and loop it through our Twitter feeds for the next week; when Booker does it, we raise our eyebrows, yawn, and move on with our lives. Booker is a 20-year old who has done enough awe-inspiring things with the basketball that we’ve become numb to it.

That, more than anything else, is why Booker’s historic (and, sure, gimmicky) outing against the Celtics is so important. It’s a brilliant reminder that Booker isn’t just the guy with the creepily large pupils that block out the whites of his eyes and make him look like an extra from The Exorcist. It’s a glimpse at the hopeful reason to watch a Suns team that is awkwardly constructed and intentionally awful. It’s a notification that in the midst of all the hysteria around NBA Unicorns and Jokers and Beards, we have an old-fashioned scoring machine materializing right before our eyes like a shimmering mirage hovering over the scorched Arizona desert.

At 20 years old, Booker has already secured his spot in basketball history as the youngest of only six players to ever score 70 points in a game. Booker is one of only two players in NBA history to average over 20 points and three assists a game in their age 20 season, while shooting at least 40% from the field and 35% from three. The other was reigning NBA champion Kyrie Irving. At 20 years old, Booker is already special. By the time he enters his prime in six or seven years, he could be more than that.

He can do so much already that when we talk about Devin Booker’s game, it’s easier to talk about what he can’t do. And the answer is: nothing, really. The Boston game was a comprehensive snapshot of the boundless nature of Booker’s game, a primer in his versatility, a masterpiece by a young savant. It is a time-capsule of where he was at 20 so that when he gets where he’s going, we can look back and marvel at how far ahead he always was.

Booker does everything already, and in the Boston game, he did it all. He pulled up from behind the arc. He pulled up inside it. He pulled up off the dribble. He pulled up in transition. He pulled up on the run. He hit jumpers with a hand in his face. He hit turnaround jumpers with a body in his chest. He pump-faked his way into stand-still jumpers. He shot over guards. He shot over bigs. He attacked closeouts off the catch. He glided to the rim with the ball in his hands and slashed there without it. He posted up brick wall-incarnate Marcus Smart, backed his way into position, turned around, and scored. And then he did it again.

Devon Booker did it all, and he looked psychopathic and bored doing it. The Boston game was a reminder that we shouldn’t be as bored as Booker is about his game. The time to appreciate Booker is now, while the Suns are bad and while even his most incredible efforts won’t save the Suns from defeat. Booker will get better and one day the Suns will get good. Once that happens, enjoying his cool brilliance will become more complicated as he calmly tears the heart out of your favorite teams night after night. The time to appreciate Booker is now, because the time to fear him is coming. Let Friday night in Boston serve as a warning.

Nick Martinez

Martinez is a beat writer covering the New York Knicks for the Hoops Inquirer.
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