PHOENIX — A month ago, LeBron James was asked on a podcast to name an under-the-radar “promising young gun” in the NBA.
He named Devin Booker, predicting the 19-year-old Phoenix Suns guard will be “a really, really, really All-Star player in this league.”
“It just means I’m on the right path,” Booker said Monday at the Suns’ media day. “I know I still have a long way to go, but to hear those words from one of the greatest to ever touch a basketball, it’s an unbelievable feeling. But at the same time, it still makes you want to work that much harder.”
The Suns, who have missed the playoffs in six straight seasons, have been looking for a superstar since Steve Nash left, and they just might have one in the making.
“I think you have certain players that come into this league that have their God-given ability and the mindset to have a true opportunity to be great,” Phoenix center Tyson Chandler said.
Chandler said Booker “has the opportunity to be definitely tops at his position in two or three years.”
The designated shooter off the bench in his one season at Kentucky, Booker was selected by the Suns as the 13th overall pick in the 2015 draft.
“We knew at a minimum he’d be a knock-down 3-point shooter,” general manager Ryan McDonough said. “But at Kentucky you really didn’t get to see the other stuff that he has.”
At first, he rode the bench in Phoenix, but as Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight were injured, Booker’s playing time grew.
It was, Chandler said, “a blessing to him, because it gave him the opportunity to play big minutes, learn, learn from his mistakes.”
Booker averaged 13.8 points per game, made the all-rookie team and, most impressively, became the fourth-youngest player in NBA history to score 1,000 points. The only younger ones who did it at a younger age are James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant.
Booker will turn 20 on Oct. 30.
“What’s impressed me about him more than anything is he hasn’t let that get to his head,” McDonough said. “Like a lot of our guys, he was here pretty much all summer. He wanted to play in summer league. We actually had to restrict him a little bit because he was going to the USA Basketball all-select team after summer league. But his work ethic’s been off the charts.”
Booker said he’s put on 5 to 10 pound in upper-body strength this offseason.
“I knew that’s one thing I had to do,” he said. “Toward late in the season last year, I think people started to get more physical with me. They realized I could play a little bit so they tried to take the bully route.”
His off-the-court persona has only enhanced his reputation among Suns fans who have weathered so much losing.
For example, when the Suns chose Booker to represent the team at the draft lottery this year, he took along 16-year-old Jenna Warren and her family.
Booker had met Warren, who has Down syndrome, after seeing her yell her encouragement during warmups at Suns games. He’d invited her in a video on social media.
McDonough said Booker is a natural in dealing with the public.
“It’s nothing really that we coach him to do or ask him to do, he just does it. He comes to us with a lot of ideas about things like that on his own,” McDonough said. “It’s really rare. … He handles all of it really well. It’s something he’s just had, honestly, from the moment he showed up here.”
With Bledsoe and Knight healthy, there is a crowd in the Suns’ backcourt. Someone will have to sit. But expect Booker to get plenty of time on the court.
“You can’t be jealous of somebody else’s success,” Bledsoe said. “You’ve just got to let them shine and be happy for them.”
There’s a chance that the 6-foot-6 Booker will be used some at small forward. Of course he believes he could handle it.
“He has all the tools,” Suns free-agent signee Jared Dudley said. “We expect him to eventually take over this franchise.”