Overshadowed by Suns point guard Chris Paul's late-career pursuit of his first NBA championship and his ascent among the all-time greats at his position, another fascinating big-picture narrative is developing in Phoenix: Devin Booker is establishing himself as the alpha dog of the league's promising next generation.
Once branded as a brilliant individual scorer whose team's failure to make the playoffs in the first five years of his career was blamed on his braggadocious brand of basketball, the confidence with which the 24-year-old Booker has carried himself is now translating to playoff success on a level greater than any of his peers.
We have long wondered who will assume the mantel as the NBA's alpha once LeBron James passes the torch carried by Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan before him. These playoffs have proven the game is in good hands, because a host of under-25 talents are already grabbing for the reins. Luka Doncic and Jayson Tatum flashed MVP potential in first-round exits. Trae Young hauled the once-dormant Atlanta Hawks to the Eastern Conference finals. Donovan Mitchell is special. The Denver Nuggets felt Jamal Murray's absence.
Second-year stars Zion Williamson and Ja Morant will nip at their heels in no time, but Booker outlasted them all to reach the game's grandest stage in the months before his 25th birthday. His 31 points, seven 3-pointers, six assists and five rebounds in Tuesday's Game 2 lifted the Suns within two wins of their first title.
The list of players to drop a 30-5-5 on better than 50% true shooting in a Finals game includes only Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal, Penny Hardaway, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Russell Westbrook and now Booker, according to Basketball Reference. Hardaway and Westbrook are intriguing comparisons, because their success was tied to O'Neal and Kevin Durant in much the same way Booker's is to Paul.
Of course, the same could have been said about West, Bryant and Wade before their careers rounded out the list of top five greatest shooting guards in NBA history behind Jordan. Booker has time to join them.
(Wade was the only one of those five to win Finals MVP before turning 25. With intangibles on his side, Paul will almost certainly win the award if Phoenix is crowned champion — he's a -135 favorite at BetMGM — but just for fun through two games:
Paul: 55 PTS (22-39 FG, 7-12 3P, 4-5 FT), 17 AST (8 TO), 8 REB, 2 STL,
Booker: 58 PTS (20-46 FG, 8-20 3P, 10-10 FT), 12 AST (6 TO), 7 REB, 3 STL)
Durant may well be the best player alive, but he and Stephen Curry will be 33 years old by the time next season starts. The game will not belong to them long, if James ever cedes control of it. Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic turned 26 in February, 27-year-old Joel Embiid finished second, and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo — the best player on the court in a losing effort on Tuesday — is somehow still only 26.
But 7-footers do not carry the alpha aura the same way a pure scoring guard can. There are parallels between Booker's run this season and Kyrie Irving's in 2016. Irving was 24 when he hit the iconic series-winning shot for the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the Finals, capping a series in which he averaged 27.1 points on 47/41/94 shooting splits, but that championship will always first be attributed to LeBron.
For good reason, Paul will similarly receive the bulk of the credit if the Suns get to four Finals wins before Antetokounmpo's Milwaukee Bucks. Some of the shine on a Larry O'Brien trophy can always be rubbed off by career trajectory. Just ask Irving, whose pre- and post-LeBron stints have come with much criticism.
Paul is 36 years old, but with DeAndre Ayton and Mikal Bridges — two more rising stars — under team control for the foreseeable future, the Suns are built to contend well beyond Paul's influence in a way Irving's Cavaliers were not. And a ring carries gravitas with the rest of the league. Despite breakups with Cleveland and the Boston Celtics, Irving still has talented players lining up to play with him five years later.
Booker garnered similar respect before he even reached the playoffs. Paul embraced last year's trade to Phoenix in large part because of his belief in Booker's potential to help carry them into contention. That was not consensus among fans and media, but players sniff out the alpha in a pack before we ever do.
"Book had 70 in a game before, you know what I mean?" Paul said after Game 2. "So, you don't do that being shy. You don't do that being shy. He puts the work in. That's what a lot of people don't see. You see the games, you don't see all the shots after practice and all this different type stuff. So, he’s built for it. He’s built for it. Like I said, that was something that I saw before I came here, and it's nice to be on his team."
Likewise, Suns veteran Jae Crowder, who was on the other end of Booker's 70-point night in Boston four years ago, saw a budding superstar who did not shy away from the spotlight and joined him in free agency.
"I wouldn't be here if he did," said Crowder. "I wouldn't want to play with a guy who runs from the moment. He does a great job seizing the opportunity. I knew playing against him what type of competitor he was. ... He's not going to run from any fight, battle, situation that the basketball court presents. He's a hell of a player, a hell of a competitor, and I'm glad to be a part of playing alongside him at this time of the year."
Everyone around the NBA is watching what Booker has helped build in Phoenix, the way he defers to Paul, the bonds they have formed throughout the roster, and how coach Monty Williams holds them all together. In a year's time, he has gone from ball hog to cock of the walk in a way Doncic, Tatum, Mitchell and even Young will be chasing through chemistry, roster reconstruction and individual improvement this offseason.
Just as there is time for Booker to grow into an all-time great, his peers have the potential to surpass him. Doncic was on 22 MVP ballots this season and probably should have received more votes. But in a week's time, Booker could have something else to hold over them — a championship ring. Bryant famously gave Booker, then a rookie, his shoes after a game in 2016, inscribing them with the message: "Be Legendary."
The endorsement of Booker's alpha potential is tattooed on his left forearm. Asked what the late Bryant might tell him now, Booker told ESPN's Malika Andrews, "Finish the job." Legendary is now two wins away.
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