Phil Booth’s reputation preceded him.
As the former Villanova standout and the rest of his Capital City Go-Go teammates practiced Wednesday afternoon inside Mount Saint Joseph’s The Smith Center — Booth’s alma mater — several students gathered outside the gymnasium, stealing peeks into the gym whenever the doors were opened.
Brandon Scott, a sophomore small forward on the junior varsity team and one of the students milling about, already knew some facts about Booth’s background.
“I knew he went here,” began Scott, who lives in Ellicott City. “He went to Villanova. Didn’t he win two [NCAA championships]?”
Booth — a two-time All-Metro first-team selection by The Baltimore Sun, including the All-Metro Player of the Year as a senior in 2013-14 when he averaged 19 points, six rebounds and three assists while leading the Gaels to the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference and Baltimore Catholic League championships — seemed flattered by the attention.
“That’s great stuff right there, to hear guys are following me,” said the rookie guard, who grew up in Baltimore. “When I was here, we had guys playing like [point guard] Eric Atkins at Notre Dame and [center] Henry Sims at Georgetown. We used to follow them and see what they did and every time they came up here, we’d be watching them on the courts. So it’s just cool how that kind of stuff stays along over the years.”
Mount Saint Joseph boys basketball coach Pat Clatchey said he wasn’t surprised to learn that news of Booth’s presence had spread quickly through the student body.
“He walked the same halls, sat at the same desks, ate the same French fries at lunch,” Clatchey said. “I think he’s a role model. Not just on the court, but he’s an honor-roll student, a high-character guy. I think he’s a great example and ambassador for the young men at Mount Saint Joseph.”
Booth and the Go-Go, a G League affiliate of the Washington Wizards, were at the Baltimore school before hopping onto a plane that would take them from BWI Marshall Airport to Las Vegas for the MGM Resorts NBA G League Winter Showcase, which began Thursday and ends Sunday at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center.
The Wizards organization had done something similar three years ago for former guard Trey Burke when the team practiced at Northland High School in Columbus, Ohio, before a preseason game against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Go-Go coach Ryan Richman would not guarantee similar visits to the high schools of every current player on the roster, but said he noticed a different energy from Booth as he practiced inside The Smith Center.
“I think it’s pretty powerful for him,” said Richman, a former assistant under Maryland basketball coaches Mark Turgeon and Brenda Frese. “He’s been such a storied player in Mount Saint Joseph history and then Villanova and now beginning his professional career with us. I think it’s really cool to see Phil’s journey, and I hope he feels that this is a part of his journey.”
Richman said coaches and teammates have been ribbing Booth about when he intends to open The Booth Training Center for the Gaels, and guard Ike Iroegbu said he wanted to talk to Clatchey to verify Booth’s comment that the gym was “the house he built.”
But Iroegbu, who is Booth’s roommate, said he was happy for Booth.
“Whenever you have your new team come back to where you made a name for yourself, it’s a big thing,” Iroegbu said. “So it’s just great to be here and see what it was like for him for a little quick moment and see how he was brought up in this gym.”
After becoming the ninth player in Villanova history to amass 1,500 points and 300 assists in a career and play in a school-record 148 games, the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Booth was not selected in the NBA draft in June and joined the Cleveland Cavaliers for summer league play. The next month, he signed a contract with the Wizards and was assigned to the Go-Go.
As much as he would have liked to have been retained by the Cavaliers, Booth appreciated the opportunity to get a taste of play in the NBA.
“It was good for experience at the main level,” he said. “Summer league was my first shot at playing at the main level. So it was good. Playing with those guys helped me out a lot.”
In 10 games with the Go-Go, Booth has averaged 5.4 points, 2.1 assists, 1.5 rebounds and 1.1 steals in 16.1 minutes per game. He declined to say whether the transition is easy or difficult.
“It’s just different,” he said. “There’s a lot more free time, but it’s a different game. There’s a different speed to the game. It’s more physical. Guys are better, more athletic. It’s just a different style.”
Richman said he doesn’t worry about Booth’s offensive skills or work ethic. Instead, the two have concentrated on his defense.
“I think guarding one-on-one is the hardest thing to do in the NBA for everyone,” he said. “Phil’s getting better at knowing angles, knowing personnel, knowing where his help is, and that’s kind of the stuff we’ve been talking about.”
Clatchey, the Mount Saint Joseph coach, said Booth — no matter his status — usually returns every summer to work out and interact with the students.
“Personality-wise, not much at all,” Clatchey said in response to whether Booth has changed. “He’s a very outgoing, personable guy, high character. He’s just got a lot more facial hair now.”
Despite Booth’s progress, he still has a few doubters. Scott, the forward on the Gaels junior-varsity squad, made a bold prediction.
“I think I’m better than him,” he said. “My defense may be a little weak, but I can take anyone to the rim.”
Informed of Scott’s challenge, Booth laughed heartily. “I get that a lot,” he said with a smile. “I’m not going to say that he’s not a good player, but we’ll see about that.”