The Perfect Role for Burks

Photo: Issac Baldizon/NBAEPhoto: Issac Baldizon/NBAE

It seems every good team in the NBA has a stud coming off the bench.  A guy that’s not only a spark but can handle the load and lead the second unit. The Jazz have found their sixth man.

This NBA season has been coined “the season of discovery” in Utah as the Jazz have one of the youngest teams in the NBA. For the past few seasons, the fan base has been waiting to find out if the core of Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks is good enough to eventually contend for championships. This year the franchise added Trey Burke and since joining the lineup Utah looks like an entirely new ball club.

The future of the Jazz will depend a great deal on the players listed above, and while picking which one will be most important for the team’s success is hard, it’s fair to say Burks has potential to make a tremendous impact for a long time if he continues to improve as he has done this season.

Traditionally a slow starter, Burks was no different this year. Through the end of November his effective field goal percentage, which gives a player more credit for making a three pointer than a two, was less than 40 percent. This season the NBA average is 50.7 percent.  Since the calendar rolled over to December, he’s bumped that all the way up to 54.5 percent. If that’s a pace he can maintain, he’ll be one of the most efficient wing players in the NBA this year. For example, Kevin Durant’s season clip is 53.3 percent so far.

It shouldn’t be underestimated how good Burks has been this month.  In 10 games so far in December, Burks is averaging 16.4 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists and shooting 50% from the field.

In comparison, reigning sixth man J.R. Smith is averaging 10.2 points this month, Manu Ginobili is scoring in 14.0 in December and the consummate sixth man, Jamaal Crawford is scoring 16.6.

Is Burks effectiveness chalked up to the fact that his shots are finally falling?

I believe there’s more to it than that. Utah played the first chunk of the season without a realistic threat at point guard. Jamaal Tinsley, for example, was cut so the Jazz could pick up a D-leaguer named Diante Garrett. During this early stretch without Burke on the court, Burks’ role was redefined.

He had played point guard before but it’s never been his true position. Tony Parker even mentioned as much after a game in November when Burks started opposite of him. Burks was forced to handle the ball more and try to create shots for others which isn’t his game. In the three games he started this year, the Jazz lost all of them. In fact, this year Burks averages more minutes when he comes off the bench than when he starts.

Now that he’s been relieved of being the primary point guard and has the freedom to come off the bench and play against other teams’ second units, he’s a new player. Most recently he’s been able to do it against the Miami Heat and Orlando Magic. On the current Eastern Conference road trip Burks has looked phenomenal the first two games. He’s hit on 16/26 field goals and is shooting 50 percent from three. Throw in nine boards and nine assists between the two games and Burks looks like the perfect man to lead the second unit. The success begs the question, should the Jazz ask more of him?

With the recent boost in productivity, should Burks return to the starting lineup in place of Richard Jefferson? Although Jefferson technically starts at forward and Hayward at 2-guard, there’s no reason to speculate about Hayward coming out of the starting lineup so in this scenario he would shift over to the three while Burks plays the two.

Head coach Tyrone Corbin has used the lineup of Burks in place of Jefferson in eight different games this season although he’s never started that way. As a unit Burks, Burke, Williams, Favors and Hayward have a positive point differential and shoot 52.2 percent from the field. It’s a lineup that can work, but Burks is fantastic coming off the bench and that’s a place he can develop without the added pressure of starting.

The numbers right now might look as though starting Burks would make Utah better, but I disagree. Remember the three year stretch for the Oklahoma City Thunder that culminated with a trip to the finals in 2012? They did all of that with James Harden, an NBA superstar today, coming off the bench. Similar to the role Ginobili has played in San Antonio for their tenure of greatness.  The method is/was fantastic for both teams, and for now that’s who the Jazz need Burks to be. Maybe not to the same extent as Harden or Ginobili, but When Marvin Williams and Hayward aren’t on the court, Burks carries the load for Utah. He uses about 23 percent of Utah’s possessions while on the court and can create his own shot perhaps better than anybody wearing green and navy.

As Burks heats up, the next big test will be to see if he can keep it going. The better somebody plays in the NBA, the more other teams notice that player and look to slow them down. Burks has been around for awhile but a couple more 30 point eruptions from the bench and coaches will search for his weaknesses in film study. As the scouting report grows, Burks will have to do the same if he wants to continue leading Utah’s second unit.

What do you think? Should Burks start? Are the last several games a flash in the pan or will he keep it up?

Skyler Hardman, a Utah native and life long Jazz fan, dreamed of covering the team at an age when most of his peers were still hoping to play in the NBA.  Before the Jazz, he spent time covering Snow College and BYU for various outlets. You can find him on Twitter @Skydiz
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