A new season brings new players and new stories to tell. Over the next several weeks, CoachCal.com will be profiling Kentucky’s newcomers in its annual and exclusive “Meet the Wildcats” series. Each story will be accompanied with video. Next up is sharpshooter Devin Booker.
From that foundation, Ray “Rock” Oliver, coordinator for men’s basketball performance, can figure out what he needs to do to strengthen a player, what he needs to do to boost his conditioning, to push him and to prepare him for the season.
Date of birth: Oct. 30, 1996
Parents: Melvin Booker and Veronica Gutierrez
Hometown: Grand Rapids, Mich., and Moss Point, Miss.
High school: Moss Point High School
Favorite TV show: Doesn’t watch TV
Favorite food: His grandma’s cooking
Favorite superhero: His mother
Favorite player: Klay Thompson
Favorite hobby outside of basketball: Playing NBA 2K
Favorite movie: Happy Gilmore
Favorite artist: Jay-Z
In other words, without knowing the limits of a player, how can you inspire him to get there?
When Devin Booker did his treadmill evaluation at the start of this summer, Oliver, as he instructs every player, told Booker to tell him how difficult, on a scale of 1-10, the workout was at the end of each interval – which changes speed and grade every two minutes — so he could compare it to the scientific numbers. Oliver tells each player to go as hard as he can and for as long as he can, but to stop once he can’t go any longer.
Oliver says specifically, “You can get off when you want to.”
The directions aren’t said as a test or a challenge to go until Oliver says stop; they’re said to ensure a player’s safety and to make sure he understands it’s just a way of setting a base — and nothing more.
Booker heard those words in June and started running. He knew he could get off at any point, but his legs kept churning.
One minute passed. Two minutes passed.
Oliver, again reminding Booker that he could get off whenever, looked down at his watch and noticed five minutes had gone by.
At this point in the evaluation, most players start describing the workout as an “eight” or a “nine” when Oliver asks and either heed Oliver’s advice to step off the treadmill or start thinking about it. But Booker, sweat running down the sides of both cheeks, kept running.
Seven minutes passed. Eight minutes passed. Ten had gone by and Booker wasn’t slowing down.
Eventually Oliver had to step in and tell Booker enough was enough. The freshman, whether he was trying to prove a point or not, was ready to go until his legs stopped working.
“I’ve never been the type to quit,” Booker said. “When someone puts you in that situation, they tell you like, ‘You can get off when you want to,’ I’m going to go until I fall off.”
When it was all said and done, Booker had posted numbers Oliver had never seen during his time at UK. He was the only one on this year’s team – including the veterans from last season – to grade in the “superior” category and the only one who had to be told to stop.
Booker wasn’t impressed with himself.
“It really wasn’t proving a point,” he said in an exclusive interview with CoachCal.com. “That’s more of a self thing. You know, just not giving up and just never quitting.”
That mentality is likely what got Booker to this stage in his career. And that’s not to say he’s lacking athletically.
Booker produces – and did so in his final year in high school to a tune of 30.9 points per game – by just trying to outwork you. A rival head coach of Booker’s high school team once said: “He has no weakness in his game.”
“I’m always going to play my hardest on both ends of the court,” Booker said. “I can stretch the floor (with my shooting ability) and also I can shoot off pick and rolls, off screens, pin downs and things like that. But also I just want to play the right way. You know, my whole life my IQ of the game has been the best part of my game. Just knowing how to play will separate you from other people.”
When he first arrived to campus early in the summer, there were rumblings that Booker was struggling to keep up with the pace and physicality of the college game.
“Everybody’s bodies are developed,” Booker said. “(Some of them), they’re two, three years older than me.”
But as Booker has gotten more experience and attuned to how John Calipari wants him to play in some of the preseason practices, his mind and work ethic have helped him catch up and even exceed some of his freshman counterparts.
Like everything else – like finding his classes (Booker got lost on campus on his first day) – sometimes it just takes time to adjust.
“It’s just more of the transition to the college game that I have to get used to,” Booker said. “I’m just looking forward to (working with) a great group of guys with all of the guys here to help us.”
Adjusting is a bit of a Booker specialty.
Booker grew up with his mother in Michigan but moved to Mississippi after his freshman season in high school to live and to learn from his father, Melvin Booker, who starred in basketball at Missouri, spent time in the NBA and flourished overseas.
“He asked me if I loved the game,” Booker said. “That’s where it started. I always told him I loved the game and he noticed my love and passion for the game. He decided that he wanted to train me, so then I made that move and I’m glad I made the move. … My dad, he instilled that hard work and that effort in me. It just brought the best out of me.”
Booker wasn’t a big-time prospect on the recruiting scene when he transferred to Moss Point High School, but under the tutelage of his father, Booker took his game to the next level and averaged 23.6 points per game as a sophomore.
The two grew closer as they spent more and more time on the court, time the younger Booker didn’t get when he was a child and his dad was playing overseas.
“On the court and off the court it was basketball, and that’s what I wanted to be,” Booker said. “I love the game and he loves the game, so that’s a perfect combination. All we did was talk about basketball, and when we were in the gym we sweated together. That was also what I liked about him: someone that’ll train with you and sweat with you, someone who’ll be out there with you and someone that truly loves you. That was just great for me.”
Of course, it wasn’t easy leaving his mother in Michigan.
“I’m a momma’s boy,” Booker said. “My mom’s been there for everything for me, but at the end of the day I felt like it was the best decision for me and ultimately the decision is for her.”
“That was tough to deal with,” Booker said. “I’ve never seen anything like that when I was in Michigan. So just to adapt to that, you just have to get the other players involved. There’s nothing really much you can do about that once you’re being triple teamed, but I think it made me into the player I am today.”
Booker adapted to the high-school attention and won Mississippi’s Gatorade Player of the Year despite being on a team that had little firepower around him and went 12-16. He didn’t disappoint in his senior season, becoming his school’s all-time leading scorer, making the McDonald’s All-American and Jordan Brand Classic games, and leading his team to the state tournament in its first year in Class 4A.
When it came time to choose a school, Booker had a lot of ties pulling in him in different directions.
Being a Michigan kid, Michigan and Michigan State were in strong pursuit of Booker, and Booker certainly thought about going home.
“I had all of my friends in my ear from back home telling me to come back because obviously they’d like to see me play there,” Booker said.
But saying no to Missouri was especially difficult for Booker for a couple of reasons. For one, Mizzou had been recruiting him since the eighth grade, well before he blew up on the national scene. Even tougher, his father, who he’d built a bond with over the last few years, had strong ties to Missouri.
Melvin Booker, a former All-American, was a star in Columbia, Mo. He led the Tigers to a Big Eight championship and Elite Eight berth in 1994, was named the conference’s player of the year, and was eventually inducted into the university’s hall of fame in 1999.
Following in his father’s footsteps was tempting for the younger Booker, but his father never put any pressure on him to go there.
“He just told me he wanted it to ultimately be my decision,” Booker said. “We talked about it almost every night. I mean there was times where, you know, I felt like I was going to this school or leaning to that school, but finally I just settled with Kentucky and … I just felt like this was the place I wanted to be.”
Booker committed to UK in late October after an official visit to Missouri a few weeks early, citing comfort, his relationship with the coaching staff and his friendship with previously committed point guard Tyler Ulis.
“Coach Cal, he didn’t promise me anything,” Booker said. “He told me I’d have to work for it, and that’s what I wanted out of a coach and that’s what he told me. I felt comfortable here. I just felt like this would be a home away from home.”
Booker, as he showed Oliver that first day in the strength and conditioning room, is keeping his word and working hard. It’s helped him fit right at home at Kentucky.
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