Alec Burks – Taking the Next Step

Photo: Issac Baldizon/NBAEPhoto: Issac Baldizon/NBAE

We’re more than two years removed from the 2011 draft and we now have a good idea of who players from that draft are in terms of basketball talent. The Jazz selected Alec Burks with the twelfth pick of the draft, three spots ahead of Kawhi Leonard.  Leonard gets praised often for his play and is seen as a soon-to-be star.

Leonard played for an NBA title last June, and was an integral key in what might have been San Antonio’s last foray into the Finals with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. Looking back on that draft, it may seem as if taking Burks over Leonard was a mistake – but was it?

Leonard played his college ball at San Diego State, and matched up against former BYU guard Jimmer Fredette twice in heated Mountain West Conference games. Of the two players, Fredette looked poised to storm the NBA, but it’s been Leonard who’s turned into the better NBA players. Leonard even made enough of an impression on notoriously hard-nosed coach Gregg Popovich for Pop to trust him with serious minute as a rookie.

Leonard has been impressive. He came into the league a more NBA-ready player than Burks. At 6’7” and 230lbs., Leonard was built to play the small forward spot in this league. He’s averaging 11.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game, nearly four points and one rebound better than his rookie year, but Leonard lacks one thing that Burks has.

Burks exploded for a career-high 34 points (along with 5 assists) against the Denver Nuggets a few weeks ago – and he did it shooting 13-19 from the field and sinking all eight of his free throw attempts.

Leonard has a career high of 26 points on 11-18 shooting, recorded almost a year ago during a Spurs road win over the Bulls, but through his two and a half years in the league, Leonard hasn’t shown a propensity for being a pure scoring option. San Antonio uses him as the strong defensive asset that he is, and the offense Leonard gives the Spurs really is just a bonus. In college, Leonard could bully smaller and slower players, but in the NBA, he’s had to refine his game and accept the role that Popovich has given him.

The beauty of that situation is that it works perfectly for Leonard – his talents are being utilized in the best possible fashion, and he’s being a productive player. Would he be a better fit in Utah than Burks?

Burks has certainly had a learning curve in the NBA – a steep one. His first two seasons saw pretty inconsistent play, and a jump shot that needed some work. Burks has shown what separates him from other players – instead of giving up and not giving his best to improve his play, Burks got to work this off-season. He realized that aspects of his game needed some fine-tuning, and he put in the effort during the off-season to improve nearly every aspect of his game.

So far, it’s paying off.

Burks is averaging 5.9 points, 1.4 assists, and .8 rebounds better than his averages last year. In a primarily sixth-man role, Burks has contributed 12.9 points, 2.8 assists, and 3.1 rebounds for Utah every night. His field goal percentage is up, from 42% to 44%. His jump shot is going in and he just looks better. Last season, his shot was more flat, with very little arc. This year, Burks is getting some extra airspace under the ball, and that’s a big reason why he’s putting up almost 13 points on 10.5 field goal attempts per game.

One part of Burks’ game that wasn’t ever in doubt was his ability to get to the rim. In college, he was able to beat a lot of his defenders with his fast first step off the dribble, and that skill has translated to the NBA in quite a dramatic fashion.

The Jazz are currently a team without a huge offensive threat. Gordon Hayward is capable of having his big moments, as are Enes Kanter, Trey Burke, and Derrick Favors, but those huge offensive nights are few and far between. Hayward is currently Utah’s leading scorer, at 17.1 per game, but the Jazz still lack that player who can consistently put up 20-25 points every night.

On the flip side of that argument, is the fact that six different players average 10.4 points or more every night – so while Utah lacks a superstar scorer, they still present a balanced and level attack.A

All good teams have a guy on their team who’s always a threat to score to big.  Could Burks turn into that type of player for the Jazz? He certainly has the intangibles to morph himself into a player of that caliber, and he’s only in his third year in the league. If Burks turned into an elite scorer, imagine what that would do for the rest of Utah’s offense.

It’s no secret that Burke and Burks love playing with each other, and they feed off on another. When Burks is shooting well it forces the defense to commit to him, and that leaves Burke wide open. This also creates great spacing in the paint for Favors and Kanter. When a team has a great outside shooting threat, defenses have to respect that player. Burks draws the defense further out on the perimeter, which gives Favors more time to work in the post, and prevents a lot of double-teams. Last season, Al Jefferson was double-teamed nearly every time the ball entered the post because Mo Williams and Randy Foye didn’t present a lethal enough outside presence to merit the defense respecting them.

This season defenses have to give Burks respect, and that means Favors has that much more room to do his job down low. If Burks can continue to elevate his play even further, that will only serve to help the Jazz as a whole.

With the developmental arc we’ve seen from Burks this season, predicting he could turn into a player who consistently scores in the 20 point range isn’t far-fetched at all.

Also, take into account that if Utah wants to get serious about becoming a contender, they absolutely have to have a player who’s just better than most players in the league – a player who can take over a game when he needs to. It’s all hypothetical that Burks turns into this player, but of the guys currently on the Jazz’s roster, he seems to be the one with the skill set to make the jump.

Spencer is an avid sports fan and fisherman. He’s a lover of classic rock and Sundays filled with football. You can find him on Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant
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