When the Suns fell to the Bucks in Game 6 of the NBA Finals in 2021, superstar guard Devin Booker stuck around for an extra second to take in Milwaukee’s celebration on its home floor.
“Damn,” you could see him say as his team came so close to achieving the ultimate goal of winning an NBA championship in his first-career playoff run.
The Suns used their shortcomings as fuel last season, churning out 64 wins to claim the best record in the league — the most wins in a season since the 2017-18 Rockets (65). Phoenix entered the postseason as title favorites, but its end result was as embarrassing as we’ve seen in NBA history. The Suns were obliterated by the Mavericks in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals, losing by 33 points to get sent home early.
How do you respond to an outcome like that?
For someone like Booker, it’s impossible to take winning for granted. The Suns failed to win more than 25 games in the first four seasons of his career and it wasn’t all that long ago when his team didn’t even crack the 20-win mark in 2018-19.
Booker had seen individual success — he averaged a then career-high 26.6 points and 6.8 assists per game during the Suns’ 19-win season — but he was starting to be labeled as someone whose production didn’t translate to team success.
That became subjectively false once he was joined by future Hall of Famer Chris Paul in the backcourt, helping lead the Suns to a second and first-place finish in the West, respectively, in their first two seasons together.
This season, he has made that sentiment objectively false, navigating the Suns through a number of injuries to emerge as the undeniable MVP candidate in Phoenix.
Devin Booker’s MVP emergence
Before the season tipped off, reports surfaced that veteran forward Jae Crowder — who had started in 109 of 127 regular season games played with the Suns over two years — would not join the team until the two sides worked out a trade for the 32-year-old.
2022 Sixth Man of the Year candidate Cam Johnson was set to fill his spot in the starting lineup but eight games into the season, the former lottery pick suffered a torn right meniscus that required surgery, keeping him out for up to two months.
Two games later, star guard Paul — who had already been struggling early in the season, averaging a career-low 9.5 points per game on 36.8 percent shooting from the field — went down with a heel injury, keeping him out since Nov. 9.
MORE: When will CP3 return? The latest updates on Paul’s heel injury
Even down three key rotation players, the Suns still own the best record in the Western Conference at 16-8 over one quarter into the season.
To give credit to the team as a whole, Deandre Ayton has played like a franchise cornerstone, Mikal Bridges has continued to be a two-way iron man, Cameron Payne has stepped up to fill Paul’s shoes and Torrey Craig has plugged the void of both Johnson and Crowder — but Booker has been the catalyst and heartbeat leading the charge.
The 26-year-old is averaging a career-high 28.4 points with a 59.9 true shooting percentage — the second-best mark of his career. He has also taken on more playmaking responsibility with Paul out, averaging 5.9 assists per game, his most since the 12-time All-Star joined the Suns.
Booker has been an offensive maestro this season, scorching teams from all three levels of the floor with smooth footwork, fluidity and patience that would make his idol, the great Kobe Bryant, proud.
In fact, when you stack up Booker’s numbers so far this season to Kobe’s MVP year in 2007-08, there are some clear similarities.
|Devin Booker, 2022-23||10.2-20.8||48.8||2.4||39.0||87.2||4.9||5.9||1.0||28.4|
|Kobe Bryant, 2007-08||9.5-20.6||45.9||1.8||36.1||84.0||6.3||5.3||1.8||28.3|
In 2007-08, Bryant led the Lakers to the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference with a 57-25 record. At this current pace, Booker has the Suns on pace to win roughly 55 games, but there is no doubt that the eventual return of Paul and Johnson could put Phoenix on track to exceed that projection and reclaim the No. 1 seed.
Bryant’s MVP season came on the heels of back-to-back scoring titles and while Booker hasn’t accomplished that feat yet, he has averaged over 25 points per game for five consecutive seasons, really hitting his stride as a bucket-getter.
He’s been more efficient so far this season than Bryant was during his MVP year, and his big scoring nights have been as loud as Kobe’s to this point.
During Bryant’s MVP season, he had 29 (!) 30-point games, five 40-point games and two 50-point games.
Through the first 24 games of the 2022-23 season, Booker has five 30-point games, three 40-point games and one 50-point game — one of the most efficient 50-point outings in NBA history, reaching that mark on just 25 shots in three quarters of play.
MORE: Kevin Durant was in awe over Booker’s 51-point game
When you watch those highlights, it’s impossible not to think of Kobe on some of Booker’s silky midrange jumpers as he rises up over the top of defenders and releases a shot that touches nothing but the net as it falls.
“Be Legendary” was the message that Bryant wrote to Booker on his Kobe 11s after their one and only meeting as opponents in the NBA. It’s a message that Booker still wears like a badge of honor to this day, with the phrase tattooed on his forearm and written on every pair of Kobes he wears during games.
Through the first quarter of the season, Booker has been legendary. He’s been Kobe Bryant-esque as he has carried the Suns, cementing himself in the MVP conversation moving forward this season.