Sidelined with a sore right knee, Booker still wore his practice jersey and shorts as if he were moments away from getting into the action.
When he started to feel better, Booker grew more impatient watching his teammates tussling for rebounds and fighting inside for position. Before every practice, Booker would approach Wizards head athletic trainer Eric Waters and ask, “Can I go out there?”
“And he told me the same answer every day: ‘No,’ ” Booker said.
Booker continued to strengthen the muscles around his knee until he got better and admitted to sneaking into a few full-contact drills before he had been cleared. But the muscular, 6-foot-8 forward is back healthy and on the floor, tossing around opponents, setting screens and raising the intensity level with his infectious energy.
“His go-get-it attitude is amazing,” teammate Martell Webster said of Booker, who had seven points and nine rebounds in a 98-89 loss to the Knicks on Thursday in Baltimore. “I mean, he hustles on every play, gives it his all every game, and you need that passion on a team like this. Because it can uplift you when your team may be experiencing some form of a drought. He’s light on his feet, but he’s still very strong and agile, which I think complements this team very well.”
Booker’s aggressive style, however, often has come at the expense of his durability. Since the Wizards moved up to draft him 23rd overall in 2010, Booker has played only 163 of a possible 230 games because of injuries.
Foot ailments prematurely ended his first two seasons. Then Booker dealt mostly with a sprained right knee last season, when he played a career-low 48 games. The constant bouts with injuries in the NBA have been perplexing for Booker, who played all 134 games of his college career at Clemson.
Booker said last season was his most frustrating because he did not find a rhythm. He had a hamstring injury in training camp and rallied to become the opening-night starter but never felt right. Then he hurt his knee while landing awkwardly after a dunk and missed 25 games.
When he returned, Booker shuffled in and out of Coach Randy Wittman’s rotation, and his production dipped in every major statistical category.
Once the season ended, Booker had a platelet-rich plasma treatment on his right knee to expedite the healing process. After taking three weeks off, Booker began training in Charlotte with the primary purpose of being healthy and regaining his explosiveness for the upcoming season. He even took up yoga.
Booker had another PRP treatment and then had shockwave therapy treatment a few weeks before training camp, but he began playing pickup basketball too soon, which caused him to have “a little flare-up” and miss training camp at George Mason. He was especially anxious to play this season with Emeka Okafor out indefinitely with a herniated disk in his neck, creating more opportunity for playing time and a possible starting job. Wittman gave Booker the starting nod in the past two games, including in Baltimore.
“It felt pretty good, whether I was in the starting lineup or just coming off the bench. Just battling injuries, it’s been tough, but now I’m back on the court,” he said.
Wittman will limit Booker’s minutes until he has regained his conditioning but already feels the difference with the rugged, fourth-year player back in the rotation.
“Energy. He probably gives us that, as well as toughness,” Wittman said. “That’s a dimension that he brings that we don’t have in some guys.”
Booker said he is a “way smarter” player than when he entered the league in terms of his ability to read and react on defense and what it takes to keep his body from breaking down. Near the end of the Wizards’ 100-82 win over Miami on Tuesday, Booker rested on his belly and stretched his right leg forward as he watched the game. He still plans to play with tenacity and to be “all over the place.”
“I feel like, when I play with crazy energy, the team is a way different team,” Booker said. “I think my first couple of years, that might have gotten me in trouble a little bit. Just overdoing things, I’d play crazy while I was out there, then I’d be gassed by the second half. I think some of that led to injuries.”
Note: Bradley Beal led the Wizards with 21 points, while John Wall added 14 points and eight assists. New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony, who grew up Baltimore, led all scorers with 22 points.