Overcoming the Rookie Wall

Photo: Nathaniel S. ButlerPhoto: Nathaniel S. Butler

The Great Wall of China was built more than 2000 years ago and largely remains intact today. One of the only man-made objects visible from space, it’s an impressive structure to say the least.

A little less impressive is what has become known as the “Rookie Wall.” It’s the point in a season when an NBA rookie, generally a starter but always someone with a lot of game time minutes, starts to slow down; shooting percentages fall off, turnovers increase and the player can look altogether lost on the basketball court.

Two months ago Utah Jazz point guard Trey Burke ran smack dab into his rookie wall. The ninth overall pick saw his performance dip drastically while he tried to fight his way over or through the wall that had hindered so many before him.

During the nearly two-month stretch from January 18 through March 8th, it seemed everything left him. He started 22 games during the run and only managed to shoot better than 50 percent from the field two times, landing right on the 50 percent mark another two. His assists dropped off slightly but he remained pretty good at keeping the ball without too much of a jump in turnovers.

During the stretch it was the hot-button topic for reporters to ask about. LeBron James came to town and he said that everyone goes through it, even himself. It’s something rookies just have to work through.

All the while Burke was asked what was happening and how he would overcome it. He handled it with maturity always answering that he’s doing what he can for his body, trying to find extra rest when possible and spending the rest of his spare time getting up more shots at the gym.

The college season is 30 game seasons or so. The NBA season is 82 games, plus a preseason. Not to mention, a lot of players only play one year in college so they’re coming virtually from high school which has an even shorter season.

While the rookie wall might not be quite as durable as the Great Wall of China, it’s pretty hard to overcome and has derailed many seasons.

Trey finally broke through it on March 10 with a big performance against the Atlanta Hawks.

Burke knocked down 9-15 from the field and dropped in five treys. His 23 point effort was the best since mid-December. Burke played a whopping 38 minutes and came away with a positive point differential in a close loss.

A couple of his threes came down the stretch during critical moments in the game. Even after weeks of struggling, Burke stepped up in the big moment and his head coach Tyrone Corbin noticed.

“He’s not afraid of the moment,” Corbin said. “He’s been used to being the guy that makes big plays down the stretch.”

Since that game, Burke has turned back into the guy who will make the right play at any point during the game. In his last five outings Burke is 38-67 (57 percent) from the field and shooting 50 percent from three with 12 makes. He’s also been able to keep his teammates involved dishing almost five dimes for every turnover he gives away.

After the second game that his play started to turn up, Burke made it sound like the solution was simple.

“I’m just trying to stay confident, make better shot selection.” the rookie said. “Take my shots when they’re there, make plays for my team when they’re not.”

Staying confident in the NBA might be harder than it sounds. Players like Burke have been used to winning since the first day the laced up their sneakers.

“I think when I just play ball, not worried about the next play or the last play, that’s when I play at my best so I’m just going to try to make plays for my team,” Burke said.

While the numbers show that he’s been better, it’s clear just by watching him play. Burke has been getting in the lane more. He’s done a tremendous job forcing the action and learning the best way to use the pick-and-roll. While everyone admits it’s a process, Burke is clearly coming along nicely.

Now that he has hurdled the infamous rookie wall, we’ll see where he can land with just 14 games to go. There’s a chance he could land with some new hardware as Rookie of the Year. It’s still just a three horse race and given his recent play, Burke isn’t ready to throw in the towel.

Posted in Featured Writers