Going into this NBA season, a lot of questions marks surrounded former NCAA Player of the Year, Trey Burke. His poor shooting performance in the Orlando Summer League caused a few people to wonder if Burke has what it takes to be a difference maker in the NBA. His size, a short 6’1”, was also a factor in projections about his ability to run an NBA offense and keep up on defense.
But a 30-point, 8 assist and 7 rebound outing against the Orlando Magic last Wednesday turned into a statement game for Burke. He’s showing signs that he could turn into a very special player for the Utah Jazz down the road, provided he keeps following the developmental arc we’ve seen from him so far this season. How special can Burke be?
We assembled a great panel of writers with diverse experience and opinions to chime in on this question, as well as how they think Burke is doing, and where he could end up in the NBA. Before we begin answering questions, let’s take a look at the contributors to this post.
- Scott Howard-Cooper, of NBA.com, has covered the NBA since 1988. You can follow him on Twitter, @SHowardCooper.
- Nick Baumgardner covers Michigan football and men’s basketball for mlive.com in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and had the opportunity to watch Burke for his two years playing for the Wolverines. You can find him on Twitter, @nickbaumgardner.
- William Bohl is a contributor for awolfamongwolves.com, part of the ESPN Truehoop network. You can give him a follow at @breakthehuddle.
- Daniel Lewis is a Nuggets fan living in New Jersey working for DFM Thunderdome, a media distribution company. He’s a contributor at hickory-high.com and you can find him on Twitter, @danlewismedia.
- Spencer Durrant is a feature writer for the Utah Jazz, and occasionally riffs on the NFL and NCAA basketball for 247sportshub.com His Twitter handle is @Spencer_Durrant.
Trey Burke has been tearing it up for the Jazz offensively. He’s sporting a great assist to turnover ratio, at 3.7. What do you see in him as far as playmaking ability, and how can he improve going forward?
Scott Howard-Cooper (SHC)- The playmaking ability is what is setting him apart. The numbers would jump out no matter what. But to not only be a rookie, but a rookie coming off an injury that cost him a lot of time at an important stage of the learning curve, and still appear in command with the ball — wow. Going forward will be another big challenge, though. Teams are getting a chance to watch him now, and also watch how the Jazz play with Burke. That’s big. Opponents will make adjustments. They will tweak game plans. Scouts will earn their money. A move that may have worked in December won’t be there in March, just as defenses will take away angles and try to force him into new situations. So how can Burke improve going forward? By paying attention to the scouting reports he gets, by shooting better and mostly with the mindset that this is nothing more than a good start.
Nick Baumgardner (NB) – Well the crazy assist-turnover ratio was what made him so successful at Michigan, especially as a sophomore. And the reason in my mind that it was so solid back then — and I’m sure part of this is the same now — is that he’s generally very good at making the right pass, to the right person, all the time. He’s rarely out of control, and by doing that, it allows him to keep a presence of mind that helps him find people in their comfort zones. He’s not going to rush a pass to someone in an awkward spot on the floor because it “might” be open. He takes what’s given to him, he understands the strengths and weaknesses of his teammates, and the overall pace he plays with allows him to keep the turnovers low and the assists high. I thought he might struggle a bit coming out of the gate in the NBA, but figured he’d be much better once he got a feel for his teammates. Seems like that’s happening to a degree.
William Bohl (WB) – Burke’s been better than I anticipated. Not many young point guards look as polished as he does when he has the ball in his hands; he has a very good handle, employing hesitation dribbles to keep much larger defenders off balance. He’s shown the ability to facilitate, racking up nearly 7 dimes per game since December 7th. And while it’s a small sample size, his mid-range game and perimeter shooting have both been solid.
What he needs to improve on mostly is defense and finishing at the rim. It’s not uncommon for rookies to struggle on the defensive end, and given Burke’s slight frame, it’s going to take some work (and experience) for him to become an adequate defender. As for shooting a higher percentage on drives – it’s not impossible for players Burke’s size to have success getting to the rim and finishing effectively. J.J. Barea (to name one example) is living proof of that. But again, it takes time.
Daniel Lewis (DL)- Playmaking at the point guard position is difficult to pinpoint. Is he getting assists because his teammates are making shots, or is he getting the ball to them in situations where it is more likely for them to score? I believe he will develop a nice chemistry with Derrick Favors, who has shown good potential in the pick and roll with Burke. I don’t think he will be a double digit assist guy in the league. His strength seems to be getting to an open spot on the floor and scoring. The assists will be there, but he can and should score.
Spencer Durrant (SD) – The thing I’ve been impressed with most from Burke as far as playmaking ability is his court vision. When he’s executing a pick and roll, he doesn’t just keep his head down and try to find that pass to the big rolling towards the hoop; he keeps his head up, takes stock of the defense, and looks at every other option on the court before he either makes the pass or pulls up for a jump shot. He’s got a great knack for running an offense, and that skill is what’s really impressed me so far.
What enabled Trey Burke to excel at Michigan, and how can he take that to the NBA?
SHC- He was strong willed, a leader, mature and could handle pressure situations. That is obviously the mental, and that is one of the reasons he turned into a college star. But he could also match up physically. He doesn’t in the NBA, and that is the big concern. He is a small point guard without the blow-by speed that small point guards normally need to be a big success in the pros. And he wasn’t a great three-point shooter, another way he could set himself apart at the next level. We know the intangibles will carry into the NBA, as we are seeing from a rookie who steps right in and doesn’t carry himself like a rookie. But, as mentioned before, let’s see long term how he does with overcoming the physical concerns. That will be played out over many months, as opponents decide how to counter him.
NB - For one, he was pretty fearless. No moment or shot or stage ever seemed to bother him. He stepped in as the team’s starting point guard basically from day one of his freshman year, and within a few weeks, he was easily the team’s best player. I covered every game he played at Michigan, and there were only two, maybe three times I ever really remember him being rattled. And all of them were against Ohio State in Columbus — his hometown school that passed on him. He made things personal, and struggled — sort of — because of it. Outside of that, though, he was always very calm and collected on the floor. That calmness translated into his game, and in my opinion formed his biggest asset — which is the pace he plays with as a point guard. He never played out of control, and more often than not, the game was always played at whatever pace he wanted to play at. He controlled it. And I guess, probably, the one thing that allowed him to be successful in college that should translate to the NBA was his ability to adapt. He’s not big. He’s not that athletic. He’s not that fast. But he’s crafty. He knows and understands the game. Basketball is the end all, be all for Trey. Nothing else, outside of family and faith, really seems to matter to him. I can’t recall him ever talking about any off-court hobbies or interests. Just hoops. If there’s something he’s struggling with, he’ll adapt. He’s constantly working on the finer things, and when it all clicks, it’s pretty impressive.
WB - Last season, Michigan’s offense was pick and roll heavy, and today’s NBA is a pick and roll league. Burke’s collegiate experience in a pro-style offense has helped his transition to be a smooth one. He uses screens very well and can find roll men or spot up shooters with a variety of passes. But Burke’s real strength is scoring, particularly from the perimeter; he had unbelievable deep range for the college game, and he’s started his pro career by nailing a very respectable 36% of his three pointers.
DL – He was able to get shots off. I think “shot creator” is an undervalued skill in the NBA. Sometimes, against the best defenders and solid schemes, you need someone who can get an open look and put up a good attempt. Players like Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce always seem to be able to get just enough space away from their defender to get their shot off. I think Burke can do something similar in the NBA.
SD - Burke was successful at Michigan because he wanted to win. He had a lot of competition for Player of the Year, but he won it in the end because of his tenacity and grit. Burke can bring that ‘I mean business’ attitude to the NBA, and a lack of fear of his opponent and of playing on the big stage is going to serve him best in the best basketball league on the planet. Translating that to the NBA will take time, because Burke has to become accustomed to playing in front of large crowds under bright lights 82 nights a year.
Burke is a short guard, only listed at 6’1”, but he averages 3.5 rebounds per game, and had a season high of 10 rebounds against the Kings. In what ways does his ability to rebound improve his game and set him apart from other guards?
SHC- It is obviously a welcome added dimension. Not only is he making smart decisions as the playmaker, he is creating extra possessions for the Jazz with that work on the boards. Plus, it gives opposing point guards something else to worry about.
NB - The rebounding thing was always a head-scratcher for me when he was in college, because in reality, he was never a great one-on-one defender. And Michigan rarely asked him to hit the glass – almost never actually. But still, he’d find a way to grab three or four loose balls or long rebounds every game. I think that’s just having a nose for the ball, being aware when shots go up. John Beilein loved it when Burke would rebound at Michigan, because it was ani nstant fast break trigger. No outlet needed. Just catch and go.
WB - What the rebounding numbers signify to me – above any tangible, statistical point – is that he refuses to let his stature deter him from making the effort on the offensive and defensive glass.
DL - It won’t hurt at the end of games when not giving up an offensive board is imperative. A guard that can rebound is great, and it can help trigger the fast break by getting the ball into the point guard’s hands as quickly as possible. However, I’d rather see the forwards getting rebounds, and pushing the ball towards half court. That being said, outside of Jeremy Evans and Derrick Favors, the Jazz don’t have personnel who are known for their “above the rim” game. Is this turning into a non-answer?
SD - Utah had one of the most historically worst rebounding backcourts in basketball last season in Mo Williams and Randy Foye. The fact that Burke is able to help out and rebound in turn benefits Utah’s transition offense, which is a great way to score points with this young of a team.
Out of all the rookies this season, where would you rank Burke, and why? What does he need to do in order to win Rookie of the Year?
SHC - I haven’t gotten far into the awards races, Rookie of the Year or others, because the season is not even at the midpoint. But I would probably rank Burke and Victor Oladipo, in some order, close behind Michael Carter-Williams. Burke has a real chance, and the success of the Jazz will obviously matter. Voters won’t be looking for a playoff push, but if there is a straight line from how Utah played without him at the start of the season to a much better winning percentage with him, that would obviously go very high on the campaign brochures. His shooting percentage will matter (though neither of the other top contenders are exactly in the race for the league lead). And Carter-Williams’ health and play will matter. If MCW, with the head start, puts together more stretches like he had early, Burke’s road becomes tougher.
NB - In order to win the Rookie of the Year, I would think he’ll need to stay consistent and find an extra gear near the midway point of the season. Michigan played 39 games last season, not 82. He’s got the ball in his hands a lot, he’s going to be on the floor a lot. He’ll have to find a way to bust over that wall and be just as solid in February/March as he is right now.
WB - Thanks to his recent hot streak, I don’t see how you could have Trey Burke any lower than third in any rookie-of-the-year discussion. It will be interesting to see if Michael Carter-Williams’ blistering start (17-6-7 on 41/32/67 shooting splits with 3 steals per game) will continue now that his knee issues are (hopefully) behind him. Victor Oladipo’s been good at both ends of the floor for the Orlando Magic. Carter-Williams has the buzz, and Oladipo went higher in the draft, but if both slip (or deal with injuries), Burke could emerge and come away with the award.
DL - Is saying he’s better than Anthony Bennett a compliment or insult? While Burke may have a fine season, and will likely end up with the Rookie of the Year title – barring a consistent streak from Oladipo – his title will be marred by his peers. How many other rookies are playing more than 25 minutes a game? 20? 15 minutes? He will win if he doesn’t get hurt – which is a bummer way to win an award for someone that is so competitive.
SD - I was very high on Michael Carter-Williams before the draft, and when he dropped an incredible stat line on opening night against Miami, a part of me regretted the Jazz’s choice to draft Burke. However, after seeing Burke play, I’m more than pleased with him. I think Burke has to be number two in my book behind Carter-Williams, and ahead of Victor Oladipo because Burke makes more of an impact on the Jazz than Oladipo does on the Magic. If Burke wants to win Rookie of the Year, he’s going to need to bump up his assist numbers, and score a few more points a game. It’s definitely doable, and with all the steam Burke has picked up lately, I think it’s very likely.
Obviously it’s still early in the season and in Burke’s career, but where would you rank him as far as point guards in the Western Conference?
SHC - Near the bottom because it’s a very crowded house. Look at just the Northwest Division alone. You wouldn’t take Burke at this moment ahead of Lillard (Portland), Westbrook (OKC) or Lawson (Denver). There would be a conversation with Rubio (Minnesota), but Rubio still has a slight edge. And that doesn’t even get us to Tony Parker, Mike Conley, Chris Paul and Eric Bledsoe. Isaiah Thomas has been very good for the Kings, even if he may be more of a sixth man. Jrue Holiday has some nice credentials in New Orleans. As you said, it’s early. If Burke maintains this trajectory the rest of the season and into 2014-15, th rankings obviously change. He needs to stand the test of time.
NB - I’m not exactly sure. I know he’ll probably never be Russell Westbrook due to size limitations. And he’s not nearly as explosive an athlete as Damian Lillard. But he’s pretty crafty.
WB - This is a tough one. I think I can name 20 point guards I’d rather have right now – please don’t ask me to name them all – but Burke is trending upward.
DL - Let’s see: Chris Paul, Steph Curry, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, Ty Lawson, Mike Conley, Jrue Holiday, and Eric Bledsoe are all better than Burke at this point. That only leaves Isaiah Thomas, Ricky Rubio, Jeremy Lin/Patrick Beverley, Jose Calderon, and the Lakers point guard dung heap. Holy crap that’s a good group. I don’t think Burke is better than Lillard at any point during their careers. If it’s a consolation, he would rank much higher in the Eastern Conference. In a word, Burke is the tenth best in the West. That’s like being the most “meh” girl in a beauty pageant – still doing just fine.
SD - There are 15 starting point guards in the West, with Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul, Eric Bledsoe, Ty Lawson, Ricky Rubio, Tony Parker, and Mike Conley all playing at a better level than Burke. After all those guys are gone, though, I’d take Burke. In fact, I think Burke is a better point guard than Houston’s Jeremy Lin. I’d say Burke is probably the 13th best point guard in the West right now.
Where do you see Burke three years from now? Is there another point guard in the NBA you’d compare him to?
SHC - Tough one. This has been a very impressive start, but I am going to hold off on jumping on the bandwagon with both feet. He is going to have a long career I just have my doubts about the heights he will reach, because of the physical aspect. He does not match up very well with most point guards in the regard, either because the opponents are bigger and stronger or faster. Others have succeeded from a simila place, but it definitely will be something he needs to prove over time. But positive numbers do jump out as a reason to be very encouraged. I’ll stay away from the comparison part. I’m not much good at those. (And based on several I have read, neither are a lot of people.)
NB - I got asked this a lot around the time of the draft last summer, and the best answer I always came up with was Mike Conley/Kyle Lowry type guy. A very steady player who has some size issues, and maybe some athletic issues, but really does a nice job of just staying even, making the easy play, and understanding the game. I think the better Utah becomes in terms of talent, the better Burke will get. I don’t thin he’s a guy who can carry a franchise on his back, scoring 25 points per game or anything like that. But if they get some real ability around him, then I think he’ll shine even more.
WB - Another tough question. I’m always afraid to make comparisons, but he reminds me a little of Mike Conley. Both are 6’1, shoot well from outside, and are fond of utilizing runners and floaters to get buckets over bigger defenders. Conley has worked hard over his seven seasons to improve his off-hand dribbling and finishing; Burke could use him as a model to do the same. As for three years from now – provided he’s healthy, Burke could be a top-10 point guard, and should be in the top-15. Perhaps that’s not as lofty a projection as Jazz fans hope, but know this: you can win with a Mike Conley-type player running the point. It all hinges on Burke’s development, and the Jazz’s ability to continue rebuilding intelligently around him.
DL - I see him signing an offer from the Jazz front office to continue playing for the Jazz. I think he’ll enjoy playing with Utah, and the team will become competitive during his time with the Jazz. He is pretty unique in my mind, and there isn’t a great comparison to make. This will likely irk some Jazz fans, but I still see Jameer Nelson in Burke’s game. What’s not to say that a bigger, stronger, point guard isn’t drafted by the Lakers in the draft (like Marcus Smart). Could he be better than Trey? I think he will be. What about in two years? Five? Eight?
So far, I haven’t been blown away by Burke’s game. I remember just last season watching Lillard play and thinking, “This kid is going to be special.” I haven’t seen that from Burke, and I won’t count chickens before they hatch.
SD - Three years from now, Burke will be starting, most likely in Utah, and he’ll be putting up at least 15 points and 7 assists a game. He’s too good of a player right now to not ascend to that consistent of a level with three more years of NBA experience under his belt. As for point guard comparisons, Burke’s killer floater screams of Chris Paul, while his speed and ability to finish around the rim brings to mind Damian Lillard. Right now, he reminds me of Mike Conley in Memphis, and I could see Burke turning into a slightly better-shooting version of Conley down the road.
A huge thanks to the contributors of this post is due right now. Scott Howard-Cooper, Nick Baumgardner, William Bohl, and Daniel Lewis, thank you very much for your help.