PHOENIX – Over the course of their careers playing at basketball’s elite level, Suns franchise player Devin Booker and Nets star D’Angelo Russell have become the best of enemies on the court and the best of friends off the court. Call it a flight of fantasy, but in their heart of hearts, Booker and Russell admit they would love to one day play together.
Booker just signed a five-year maximum extension worth $158 million with the Suns, while Russell still is proving whether he should be the future leader of the Nets as he approaches restricted free agency. But when asked about the trade that sent Russell to the Nets a year ago that prompted Lakers president Magic Johnson to say Russell doesn’t make his teammates better, Booker backed his friend to the hilt.
“We’ve seen him since Ohio State and all the things that he can do,” Booker told Newsday before the Suns were shut down by the Nets, 104-82, Tuesday night. “I mean, he has the ‘clutch gene,’ he has the ‘it factor.’
“I would love to play with him. He makes people around him better. He’s a dynamic player. He has the utmost confidence in himself that I don’t think will change ever. That’s why we have the relationship that we do.”
When those words were relayed to Russell, he said, “Wow. I mean, you never know. It’s not something I really can control. But no one would ever have thought K.D. and Steph [Warriors stars Kevin Durant and Steph Curry] would be on the same team either. When you come from a long relationship, if you end up on the same team one day, that would be really great.”
Booker’s max contract argues against a pairing ever happening with the Nets. But Suns owner Robert Sarver fired general manager Ryan McDonough shortly before this season reportedly because he wants to make a “win now” push. If it doesn’t materialize, Booker’s deal might be viewed as too weighty for the Suns to carry.
Wherever their future paths lead, Booker and Russell know their friendship is a lifetime thing. Booker said it began when they were in ninth grade and met at Elite 100 camp.
“That’s the first time we actually matched up against each other,” Booker said. “We both had great games, and we were both competing with each other at the highest level. We just went right at each other. Somebody who competes like that earns the utmost respect from me. We started hanging out outside of the court and the hotel rooms. It lasted since then.”
Russell smiled at the memory. “We were both kicking each other’s [butts], and we earned each other’s respect just like that,” Russell said. “We were at a camp with like 200 different people. We were going at it, guarding each other. After, we shook hands, like ‘Man, we’ve got to keep in touch.’ ”
The friendship between Booker and Russell quickly grew to include their families. The brothers from both families all are friends and reunited in Phoenix five days before the Nets arrived.
“You develop that relationship with somebody and it’s real and genuine,” Russell said. “You see that it can go a long way. We’ve gone on vacation together. We do a lot of things together . . . I just think he comes from a good place and I come from a good place. He helps me be better as well.”
Told how Nets fans have fantasized on social media about seeing him join Russell in a Barclays Center backcourt, Booker laughed and said, “No, I think he’s in a perfect place in Brooklyn. Whatever happens in the future, happens. But I think he’s off to a pretty good start, and I think he’s going to build on it and get better.”