NEW YORK -- It's Devin Booker's 21st birthday, and he sounds like a grizzled vet. After practice on Monday, he tells CBS Sports that he is trying to lead by example. Regardless of what's happening with his team, Booker has learned that he must "control the controllables" and "have tunnel vision."
In other words, he can't let the chaos around him obstruct his path to stardom.
As a member of the bizarre and erratic Phoenix Suns, who now stand at 4-4, Booker has collected an absurd amount of experience in three years. When Phoenix fired coach Earl Watson last week, it was not a novel event -- halfway through Booker's rookie season, Watson replaced Jeff Hornacek. Watson had started that year, his first on an NBA bench, working with Booker as a player development coach.
This taught Booker that when you watch basketball on TV, you don't see everything that happens with management or inside the locker room. It also taught him that, when you lose, shakeups are standard.
"I've seen three coaches now, a lot of trades," Booker said. "I feel like I've played on three different teams. Every year, I have a new team in here."
Booker and T.J. Warren, a 24-year-old forward who also is a core piece in the Suns' youth movement, found out about both coaching changes on social media. Center Tyson Chandler was napping when Watson was fired; his younger brother called him with the news. The 35-year-old, described by Warren as a "super vet," had a message for his teammates: "You gotta wake up. People's livelihoods are on the line, whether it be yours or the person you're playing for. A lot of people are involved in this. It's bigger than yourself."
The 0-3 start that led to Watson's firing was nothing short of embarrassing -- it included a 124-76 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers and a 130-88 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. Under new coach Jay Triano, the Suns are 4-1 and trying to move forward. They desperately need to do that, as the franchise has been spinning its wheels for some time.
The team Warren joined never made much sense. He was drafted in 2014 with Phoenix coming off a 48-34 year when it was one of the best teams in NBA history to miss the playoffs. That success led a team that had been rebuilding into a full-on win-now approach, including a concept of three point guards that caused massive chemistry issues and probably led to Hornacek's firing. The Suns have never recovered, andis stomach-turning.
All of this means that when Bledsoeand was banished from the team, it wasn't exactly astonishing. Neither was the Watson firing, even though it happened so quickly.
The next time a Kentucky player asks Booker what the league is like, he will have plenty of stories. When Warren says "you gotta be prepared for anything, any changes, any mixups," it does not come off as a platitude. It is a fact of life in Phoenix.
Chandler and forward Jared Dudley are the Suns' only active players with more than five years of NBA experience. The big man did not sign with them thinking he would miss the playoffs perpetually and become a mentor.
"I wasn't expecting this," Chandler said. "At the end of the day, I'm a professional. I come to work every day, this is my profession. Whatever it is, I'm going to do my job. At this point, it's just my job title has changed a little bit."
What's the new job title?
"Babysitter," he laughed. "It's literally doing your job and trying to set an example, but then you also are teaching half the time." He then corrected himself: "More than half the time. Three-fourths of the time."
Chandler said that "every coach that has come through here" has been tasked with reaching and developing young players. Phoenix has no shortage of those -- beyond Booker, its rotation includes Dragan Bender (19 years old), Marquese Chriss (20), Josh Jackson (20) and Tyler Ulis (21). There is talent here, but the young Suns need guidance and time.
Encouragingly, Phoenix has shown signs of life under Triano. Perhaps it is the classic "dead coach bounce," perhaps -- as Dudley tweeted -- things are changing. Booker and his new backcourtmate, rookie Mike James, combined for 56 points in a 122-114 win Tuesday against the Brooklyn Nets. Warren scored a career-high 40 points on 16-for-22 shooting in a 122-116 win Wednesday against the Washington Wizards. Bender is quietly flourishing on both ends, displaying a feel for the game that is rare for a teenager.
"We're doing things differently now," Booker said. "After Earl was fired, I think it was eye-opening to us. Earl was dear to us, and we had to look each other in the eyes and know it's an effort and pride thing for us. The first three games, we got beat by 30-plus [twice]. You can't do that in the NBA. That's not coaching, that's not any offensive or defensive scheme. That's just pride in the game."
Pride alone will not lift the Suns out of the abyss. That will require player development, perseverance and patience. Considering all they've endured, though, it is a good place to start.