EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK: Rookie Devin Booker Is Wildcats' Best Shooting Weapon; His Dad was a Missouri Sup
By Jamie H. Vaught
There have been some great father-son college basketball players -- such as Bill and Luke Walton, Dell and Seth/Stephen Curry, Doc and Austin Rivers and Milt and Dajuan Wagner -- over the years.
And Kentucky freshman Devin Booker will be joining his father, Melvin Booker, on the list soon if he continues to perform well.
The elder Booker was a big star at Missouri during the mid-1990s when the school was a member of the old Big Eight Conference, competing against teams like Kansas and Oklahoma State. Melvin is a former All-American who is ranked No. 7 in school's all-time scoring list with 1,697 points.
And the younger Booker, a 6-6 shooting guard, has been shooting the lights out in recent games at Rupp Arena. After a slow start, he was shooting 75 percent (18 of 24) from the floor, including making 12 of 17 from the three-point arc, during a three-game stretch in late November.
Before last Sunday afternoon's matchup with Providence, Devin Booker and sophomore Aaron Harrison were the Wildcats top scorers with an 11.2-point average. But Harrison is now barely ahead of Booker with 10.4 points as opposed to 10.3 by the freshman after Kentucky's 58-38 win over the Friars (when Booker only hit 2 of 4 field goals for five points).
In UK's 92-44 victory over UT Arlington on Nov. 25, Booker took the game's scoring honors for the second straight time when he gunned in 19 points, including five three-pointers while missing only one basket. He did all of that despite seeing only 17 minutes of action.
Previously, Booker had struggled in season-opening games, especially against Grand Canyon and Kansas. In the first three games, Booker only made 5 of 20 shots, including 1 of 11 three-pointers.
A McDonald's All-American who was rated as the 18th overall prospect in his class by ESPN, Booker said there was no difference in his shooting even after improving his field goal percentage.
"I didn’t change anything," said Booker, who is regarded as the team's best shooter. "They’re falling now. I guess there’s just not much to it. I’m shooting it all the same. It’s just going in now."
Booker said he always takes the extra shots before and after practices.
"He has a shooter mentality," said Kentucky's Tyler Ulis, a 5-9 freshman from Lima, Ohio, adding Booker is going to continue shooting baskets whether he makes it or not.
Before they arrived at Kentucky, Booker and Ulis were already friends after meeting at summer camps.
Coach John Calipari of Kentucky commented he would like to see Booker drive to the basket, especially at the beginning of the game, increasing the chances of getting a free throw (after a foul) or a layup.
How does Booker decide on whether to shoot downtown jumpers or drive?
"It’s all a read or how your body is feeling," said Booker. "Towards the beginning of the game, you want to get more involved in the paint area or get a free throw just to get your rhythm going. From there on out, if you’re feeling the three, then just keep shooting it."
Ulis marvels at Booker's shooting technique.
"He’s probably got the best form I’ve ever seen," said Ulis. "You know, he has a beautiful shot -- perfect shot. His dad’s shot is just like that. He’s a great shooter and I love passing him the ball."
Ulis also has seen Booker's father shoot. Asked who is better -- the father or the son, Ulis wouldn't say.
"I’m not going to put that out there, you know," said Ulis with a smile. "Book told me a couple stories of some of the shootouts they’ve had. Dad won a couple of them, but Book’s younger and he’s still working on it, so hopefully he gets there."
When Booker is hitting his long-range jumpers, it certainly creates UK's scoring opportunities in the paint.
"When he’s falling, they have to guard him and it just opens things up for Trey (Lyles) and Dakari (Johnson) and everybody else," said Ulis.
Unlike in high school, Booker, along with his teammates, are learning to play very aggressive defense.
"(Calipari) told me I wasn’t accustomed to playing defense in the beginning," said Booker. "The defense in high school depended on the game, honestly. In high school you don’t always have to lock in defensively, but in college you have to or you’ll get exposed out there. The talent level is higher so you have to play defense.
"We just want to lock the teams down and we take pride in it so that’s what we’ve been doing," said Booker, who added the squad wants to be one of the defensive teams ever.
In their first seven games of the season, the Wildcats have allowed just 44.6 points per game with their opponents shooting a mere 27.9 percent.
With Calipari's two-platoon system in place, the Kentucky players usually will see action in no more than 20 minutes a game, affecting or lowering their individual statistics.
With that in mind, UK, in its pre-Providence game notes, published a new set of individual statistics for each player assuming he has played 34 minutes at the same efficiency rate as their 20 minutes each. In a normal situation, Calipari theorized that outstanding college players will average 34 minutes a game.
For instance, had Booker played 34 minutes instead of a 17.7-minute average, his scoring average would have jumped to team-leading 21.5 points, along with 4.5 assists and 2.9 steals.
Over a year ago, when Booker -- who lists Grand Rapids, Mich., and Moss Point. Miss., as his hometowns -- was thinking about where to play in college, his father was hoping his son would choose Missouri. As it turned out, Booker picked the Wildcats over Missouri and Michigan State even though the latter two schools had recruited him hard for several years.
While Melvin Booker obviously was disappointed, he supports his son's decision. At the time, he said he had a new school to cheer for. It's the Kentucky Wildcats.
And it looks like things are working out very well for the younger Booker on Rupp Arena's hardwood floor.
Said Calipari of Booker in late October, "When he shoots it, we all think it's going in."
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of the growing KySportsStyle360.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. Reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle360@gmail.com.