NBA Finals: Earl Watson's early confidence in Devin Booker has paid off

PHOENIX — In 2015, Earl Watson was in his first season with the Phoenix Suns as the new player development coach under then-head coach Jeff Hornacek. He was quickly assigned to work with the team’s No. 13 pick in the draft that year, Devin Booker.

Watson didn’t know much about Booker, so he did his research.

“I couldn’t believe it. His dad is Melvin Booker. I am from Kansas City and Melvin played at Missouri. I was the biggest fan of his pops when I was in high school," Watson told Yahoo Sports. "So when I met Devin, I was just talking about his dad and just fanboying.”

Watson immediately noticed Booker’s maturity level and his swag. Watson thought “so far so good." Once they took the court for the first time in Phoenix for a workout session prior to his rookie year, Watson asked him one question.

“How good do you want to be?” Watson remembered asking.

Booker’s response was, “One of the greatest to ever play the game.”

 Interim head coach Earl Watson of the Phoenix Suns talks with P.J. Tucker #17 and Devin Booker #1 during the second half of the NBA game against the Golden State Warriors at Talking Stick Resort Arena on February 10, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Warriors defeated the Suns 112-104. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Former Suns head coach Earl Watson had a direct impact on Devin Booker's career. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

“That’s when I knew he was serious,” Watson told Yahoo Sports. “But you still didn’t know if he had the talent to back it up. I told him he can’t just be a catch-and-shoot player and a line-drive guy. He needs to learn to manipulate the pick-and-rolls. What I learned was that his GATE is tremendous, which is what I call it to describe how much ground a player covers off a dribble. His GATE, to me, was comparable to Kobe Bryant. That’s why we would break down the film of Kobe in our workouts.”

Earl Watson's impact on Devin Booker's career

The 2015-16 season was underway and it was clear, skills-wise, Booker was ahead of many of his veteran teammates. However, the elevation in minutes didn’t come fast enough for him.

It reached a point in the season where he felt his lack of playing time was absurd. He was so fixated on playing ball and honing his craft that he would work out at night on practice days on the campus of Arizona State University with his brother Davon, led by Watson.

Before many of those night sessions, a frustrated Booker would start off complaining about his situation.

“We would be in the gym and he’d start off venting about his lack of playing time,” Watson told Yahoo Sports. “I would listen for five minutes. And at the end of five, I said, ‘I hear you, but f*** that. You’re going to eventually get an opportunity via trade or injury. We’re here to f****** work.’ And then we would have the most intense workouts.”

Booker has blossomed into one of the league’s great young stars and he credits Watson, who would eventually become his head coach, for instilling confidence and a belief he values to this day.

“[Earl means] everything,” Booker said on Wednesday after practice. “I credit Earl [for] a lot. He was one of the early ones in the NBA industry to believe in me to that extent. I think it started with him being my player development [coach] before he was the head coach. So he watched the work that he put in with me. He was on the court with me, sweating with me, putting in the work with me and just coincidentally happened that he ended up being the head coach.”

Hornacek was fired midway through Booker’s rookie season and Watson was appointed interim head coach. Soon after, Watson said he had a meeting with team owner Robert Sarver and then-general manager Ryan McDonough. Sarver explained that he wanted Watson to accomplish two things: Get Markieff Morris to play at a high level to increase his trade value and develop the young players in Booker, Alex Len and T.J. Warren. Watson said it was in that meeting in early February that he first said Booker would end up being "the greatest player to wear a Suns jersey."

According to Watson, Sarver’s retort was, “Maybe he will be, but you won’t be the head coach next year.” Months later, Watson was indeed offered the head coaching job largely due to his rapport with players and his skill-enhancing approach.

Subsequently, from that meeting with team ownership and management, Watson met with the players and handed out roles from who will play and who will not. Morris was informed that he would have the opportunity to lead the team in scoring, and Booker received the news he had been waiting for.

“I said, ‘Devin Booker, you’re going to be getting 16 to 22 shots a game and averaging 20 points,'” Watson told Yahoo Sports. “And when I looked at Booker, I saw a switch in his demeanor. It was almost as if he didn’t want to let me down as much as he wanted it for himself. But privately, I told him I’m just an interim coach. I’m not going to be with you the whole time. I knew my time in Phoenix was limited. I remember he was hesitant to shoot initially because he was trying to be efficient. I had to yell at him to shoot the f****** ball. I told him to shoot 25 times. True scorers have to play with a level of freedom and comfortability to create. He eventually got the hang of it, as you see now.”

“[Earl] threw me in the fire,” Booker said of Watson. “He gave me the chance to go out there and make mistakes and play through mistakes, which a lot of young players don't get the chance to do that in this league. So having a coach behind you like that, that believes in you to that degree, that gives you a confidence that you have never felt before.”

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) reacts with guard Chris Paul (3) against the Milwaukee Bucks during the second half in game one of the 2021NBA Finals at Phoenix Suns Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Devin Booker and the Suns are three wins away from the NBA championship. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

The infamous 70-point game

The 2017 game in Boston in March illustrated how much confidence Watson had in Booker when he allowed the young star to go for what would be a controversial 70 points in a 130-120 loss to the Celtics.

The final score doesn’t tell the full picture of how out of reach the game was for the Suns. For a young team outmanned and reeling, Watson was determined to accumulate anything that could be a positive for the team. And so, he left Booker out there with very little chance of making it a game.

This did not please then-Celtics head coach Brad Stevens and his coaching staff.

“We had just shut down our veterans after the All-Star break and we had to fill the roster with some G League players,” Watson told Yahoo Sports. “It was a back-to-back. Book comes to me saying the Boston coaches are trying to get my attention. I look over there and Brad and his entire staff are pissed. We all just start cussing each other out. I wasn’t about to sit here and get beat by 30 and then I’m fired.”

Watson was fired early in the 2017-18 season after the team got off to an 0-3 start. His tenure as head coach was ridiculed, but what no one can take away is the impact he had on Booker’s career.

“Finally, people are looking back and saying I was right,” Watson said. “And honestly, this is just the beginning. Book has so much room to grow.”

Phoenix is up 1-0 in the 2021 NBA Finals on the Milwaukee Bucks and at the conclusion of the series, Booker will be heading to Team USA training camp in preparation for the Olympics in Tokyo.

He has come a long way, and he hasn’t forgotten about those who have helped him along the way.

“Me and Earl's relationship is still here today like that,” Booker said. “So I credit him for a lot, man. I'm just thinking back to all the times that we were out on the court together and we were playing real ones. I wasn't getting any playing time at the time, so we were getting after each other. And then the next year, he's my head coach. So it was a quick turnaround, but that man believed in me to the fullest.”

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