Chris Paul has taken Devin Booker and the Suns' young core to new heights
By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA Writer
Before a practice earlier this season, Phoenix Suns assistant coach Willie Green arrived at the facility first thing in the morning to get some work done.
He was expecting to be alone but instead was surprised to hear noises. In one of the conference rooms, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton were watching film, analyzing their pick-and-rolls. For hours, they dissected their footwork, screening angles and the best timing to set screens.
That moment showed Green a lot.
"It was a joy to watch that [Paul] took it among himself to say, 'I'm going to watch film with Deandre and help him,'" Green told FOX Sports. "And Deandre is explaining to Chris what he sees. We love that Chris is that type of leader. He's vocal, he puts his heart on his sleeve."
For the Suns, Paul's impact has been immeasurable.
Since they acquired him via trade in November, they've transformed from a team that missed the playoffs 10 straight seasons into a title contender with the second-best record in the NBA, at 41-16.
Paul, who turns 36 next month, has been to the playoffs 10 seasons in a row but has never won a championship or reached the NBA Finals. Meanwhile, the Suns' talented young core of Ayton, Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges has never been to the playoffs and needed the guidance of a savvy veteran.
The relationship is symbiotic.
"They need him," Green said. "But Chris needs them. He's not at the stage in his career where he wants to take on the heavy load night in and night out."
Paul has a knack for making every team he's on better.
He turned the LA Clippers into playoff contenders six straight seasons. He helped the Houston Rockets advance to the Western Conference finals in 2018. Last season, he led an Oklahoma City Thunder team that was going through a rebuild to the postseason.
With the Suns, Paul has helped them go from a team that had the worst record in the league just two seasons ago to the biggest surprise of this season.
"People have to take us seriously — not just because of Chris — but he definitely adds that component to our team," Green said.
Green and Paul go way back.
They were teammates on the New Orleans Hornets from 2010 to '11 and again on the Clippers from 2012 to '14. Now they're reunited on the Suns, with whom Green is in his second season as an assistant coach.
Green has watched Paul evolve over the years, especially in his role as a leader. When Paul was younger, he might have been too intense.
"Early when I played with Chris on the Hornets, he was a little bit more demanding," Green said. "He got on his teammates probably a little bit more than he does now — or a lot more than he does now. That's the way he was, and we all understood it and understood that it was about being competitive and going out and trying to win games."
That worked for Green, who calls Paul his brother and always knew he had the best of intentions.
But some other players found Paul's leadership style abrasive at times. The Clippers, for example, imploded amid chemistry concerns, leading the franchise's talented yet underperforming "Big 3" of Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan to blow up.
Green says Paul's leadership style in Phoenix is much more nuanced. He keys in to what each guy needs and adjusts his approach accordingly.
"I think through his trials in the NBA, he's come to the point where he has balance with that," Green said. "I think that's what makes his leadership at this stage in his career really good. He has a balance of knowing when to get on guys, knowing when to listen and not talk and knowing when to be vocal."
Even before Paul came to the Suns, the team's trajectory had begun to shift. Paul helped them take things to the next level.
The Suns’ metamorphosis started in the NBA bubble, where Booker's silky offense and Ayton's raw talent coalesced as the team went 8-0, despite eventually missing the playoffs.
Before the hiatus, the Suns skidded to a record of 26-39 and were six games behind the eighth seed. Luckily for them, the league decided to allow 22 teams to resume the season. It came down to math. Historically, at that point in the season, the most games a team had overcome to make the playoffs was five games behind the eighth seed, which was pretty much the position of the Suns.
As the league finalized its plan, the Suns lobbied hard behind the scenes to prove they still had a chance to make the postseason.
"Going back to the bubble, we really have to thank [Suns owner] Robert Sarver for pushing for us to be in the bubble," Green said. "I don't think many people know that he was on the phone with [NBA commissioner] Adam [Silver] and on the phone with other managing partners trying to get us into those eight games."
That environment was a game-changer for the Suns. It gave the team's young players confidence. They started believing in themselves and the team's potential.
"That momentum I truly believe is the reason why we're having success this season," Green said. "All of our guys grew up once we got to the bubble. They were, like, a step ahead of where they were before we stopped playing."
Then Paul joined the team, and things really fell into place.
From Day 1, Paul made sure to do everything in his power to ensure the team was primed for success.
Before the season began, he invited all of his teammates to his home to build chemistry. Throughout the season, he has organized private dinners at restaurants to help everyone bond. In a shortened, 72-game season with few practices and scant opportunities for normalcy amid the league's health and safety protocols, those gestures were deeply meaningful.
It has led to things coming together beautifully.
"It's hard to describe," Paul recently told reporters. "It's one of those situations where when you do have a day off, you come to practice the next day and you're like, 'Hey, man, I missed y'all, man.' It's just such a great group of guys."
Of course, Suns coach Monty Williams has helped create that culture.
Ever since taking over the helm in 2019, Williams has empowered his players to be the best versions of themselves. With Paul specifically, there was immediate ease and trust between the two men dating to 2010-11, when Paul played under Williams on the Hornets.
The effortlessness of their relationship was on full display during a recent game against the Utah Jazz, who have the top record in the league (43-15) and are 1.5 games ahead of the Suns.
In the Suns' 117-113 overtime win April 7, Williams trusted Paul to make the right calls with the game on the line. They didn't need to exchange words. With just a glance, they both knew they were on the same page.
"He helps me a ton going down the stretch because as soon as we need a play, we have eye contact, and usually we're thinking the same thing," Williams said of Paul, who finished with 29 points, nine assists and the highest plus-minus rating of anyone on the court (+17) in that game.
Paul and Booker also have history. Their relationship began long before they were teammates. Ahead of the 2015 NBA draft, Paul stopped by a gym in Thousand Oaks, California, and worked out with Booker, Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell.
Paul was so impressed by Booker that he approached his then-agent, Leon Rose, and asked him how old Booker was at the time. When Paul was told Booker was 18, he was floored. He invited all three young men to his house that day, and he and Booker stayed in touch over the next five years.
Their relationship has grown into a powerful mentorship.
"Just being around him every day and learning from him, learning through conversations, learning through stories that he's told," Booker said. "He's accomplished a big list of things in this league that all of us young players are trying to reach."
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With Ayton, Paul is helping him learn how to stay aggressive on a consistent basis. Paul has always had a special synergy on the court with bigs, dating to his pick-and-rolls with Tyson Chandler on the Hornets and extending to his time with Jordan and Griffin on the Clippers.
Paul, who is considered a coach in uniform for the Suns, is trying his best to make sure his young teammates will be ready to compete for a title in a month.
On the court, he’s constantly putting them in position to succeed. He had 13 assists in a 128-127 overtime win against the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday, passing Magic Johnson for fifth on the NBA's all-time assists list, with 10,145.
Off the court, he works just as hard. He’s constantly pulling guys aside during timeouts and telling them what he sees in addition to being vocal on the team's group chat.
"He understands that to get the best out of your teammates, you've got to have a relationship with them," Green said. "Chris is all about that."
This Suns team could be something special this season.
Green has been around a lot of great teams, dating to his three seasons as an assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors from 2016 to '19, which coincided with two championships.
But with the Suns, there's a different sense of excitement.
"We're building from the ground up, and it's really rewarding to see where we are as a team and the possibilities of where we can get to," Green said.
At the top of the season, the Suns weren't on anyone's radar. Now they're one of the most feared teams in the league.
With an extremely talented young core and Paul, there's no telling what they could accomplish in the postseason.
"Hopefully we can continue to surprise everyone," Green said.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.