Before this past season, injuries had often been the thorn that kept Trevor Booker on the sideline. Thanks to a knee injury and several other ailments, the Washington Wizards forward played in just 98 combined games across the previous two years, which limited his opportunities to show why he had been selected in the first round and just 22 picks after top overall selection John Wall in the 2010 NBA Draft.
But when Nene went down with his own knee injury in February, Booker served as the beneficiary. In some respects, the Wizards had no choice, having traded away original backup power forward Jan Vesley to Denver and with new signee Drew Gooden almost a year removed from his last NBA action. Ultimately though, despite dropping out of the rotation during an early-season stretch, Booker ensured that he emerged as the right choice.
Though he’s far from the mid-range shooter that Nene is, Booker’s activity on the boards and evolving ability to hit the open shot helped the Wizards go 13-9 in Nene’s absence and remain in the playoff hunt, averaging 7.8 points and 4.8 rebounds. And even when Nene returned, Wittman’s confidence in Booker as well as Booker’s confidence in himself remained evident behind a scoring clip of 13.8 points during the final five regular season games and hustle plays in the Wizards’ first-round playoff series with Chicago that led Steve Kerr to label Booker as his “new favorite player” during a TNT broadcast.
“I was sad and happy,” Nene recently admitted about Booker. “Sad because no one get happy when they get injury. But a lot of negative things are for the good, sometimes. He have his minutes, I believe he show he’s capable. He show he’s a really good player and we can depend on him. The opportunity’s right there and he took opportunity so I was very happy for him and his performance.”
As the Wizards’ season came to a close, however, some of the holes in Booker’s game — his inconsistent jumper, smaller frame compared to power forwards and defensive struggles — resurfaced against the big, physical Pacers. With Gooden eating up more minutes due to his rebounding prowess and ability to stretch the floor, Booker played just 24 minutes in the six-game series, totaling just two points and six rebounds.
“It was definitely tough,” Booker said. “I’m a competitor so it was tough to sit there and watch. But it wasn’t up to me, it was up the coaching staff. Unfortunately I didn’t get to play and there was nothing I could do about it.”
Booker’s injuries and up-and-down playing time during his first four seasons will make him somewhat of a mystery as an unrestricted free agent this summer. There’s always a demand for players willing to bang inside and infuse energy into the lineup, whether it be as a starter or reserve. But after starting 45 games, Booker’s qualifying offer has gone up under the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, which could make the Wizards or other teams wonder how to value Booker and if he is worth the subsequent gamble, so to speak.
With the Wizards being the only NBA uniform he’s worn, Booker said he hopes to remain in the familiar, family environment that’s been nurtured to reality within the Washington basketball franchise following its rise from pushover to playoff contender.
“This is the only team I know,” Booker said. “Of course I want to come back. But I have no clue what’s going to happen now.”
John Wall, who along with Booker and Kevin Seraphin stand as the longest-tenured Wizards, hopes to have him back as a teammate for their fifth NBA seasons. The All-Star point guard sees the growth in Booker — who hit 41 percent of his mid-range shots compared to 36 percent the prior season — and believes the “bruiser’s” elevated play coincided with the Wizards’ ascent into playoff contention.
“He started shooting the ball better, he started playing with more aggression, being aggressive offensively,” Wall said. “I think with Nene being down, that kind of built his confidence up of knowing that he had opportunity to play through a couple mistakes. I think early on, he’d make a mistake or two and he knew he was coming out and it gets frustrating.”
Booker also developed a knack for overriding some of the Wizards’ mistakes and misfires. While he’s capable of pulling down strong rebounds, Booker is proficient in tapping rebounds out to his teammates, leading to second-chance opportunities that proved critical in the playoffs against a defensive-minded team like the Bulls.
Gooden, Seraphin and forward Al Harrington will also be free agents come July 1. But at 26, Booker has both age and production on his side as the Wizards consider which pieces of their core to bring back for the 2014-15 season, when expectations will certainly be heightened and depth will be necessary.
“Book was instrumental,” Wittman said. “To have pieces like that on your team is important to be able to plug a guy in when someone goes down. Nene goes down 22 games and he starts 22 games and we finish pretty strong with that. That has a lot to do with what Book was able to give us and that’s part of having a good bench and having guys that can step in and start if need be, and also versatility that your bench provides is all important.”