Over the last 30 years Jazz fans have gotten used to consistent basketball. Everyone knew that John Stockton and Karl Malone were going to run the pick-and-roll to score. Even last year was consistent with Al Jefferson catching the ball on the block and going to work. While the Jazz have spent more time searching for an offensive identity than mastering one this season, a bright spot has emerged.
Alec Burks is doing something Utah isn’t used to seeing; he’s catching the ball on the outside and driving all the way to the rim. He’ll get bumped and nudged along the way but it doesn’t deter him as he crosses his dribble back and forth dipping through traffic. Once near the rim Burks gets airborne and if there’s still a defender or two in the way, he’ll simply contort his body around theirs creating a clean path from his hand to the rim.
If you’ve watched the Jazz this year and thought Burks looked pretty good at this whole “drive and finish” thing, you’re not alone. Head coach Tyrone Corbin said he’s the best on the Jazz at getting to the rim and putting pressure on the defense. On Monday I asked league veteran Marvin Williams where Alec ranks in the league as a whole at getting to the hoop and finishing.
“Top 10, easy. I bet if you ask him he’d probably say top 5,” Williams said with a grin. “I was really shocked, I’d say probably the first six weeks of the season watching him finish but at this point in the season, every time he makes a spectacular finish, I’m not surprised by it. He’s really fun to watch play.”
This year the NBA has started tracking player’s movement on the court which gives the league the ability to add stats to the old, and sometimes unreliable, eye test when it comes to players driving to the hoop. For these numbers a drive is any touch that starts at least 20 feet from the hoop and is dribbled within 10 feet of the hoop excluding fast breaks.
Burks is 36th in the league in field goal percentage on drives among players with 200 or more attempts – 47.1 percent of the time that he finishes his drive with a shot attempt it goes in. Since he only plays 27.6 minutes an outing, it’s fairer to look at his scoring on drives per 48 minutes on the court rather than his per game average. In that category, again with players that have at least 200 drives on their resume, Burks is the eleventh best in the NBA scoring 8.2 points per 48 minutes.
That ability to get to the rim, especially as part of the Jazz second unit, has been a tremendous boost for Utah this season. Burks missed a stretch of four games recently with a sprained ankle. During that run Utah’s bench averaged an abysmal 17.25 points per outing. That’s nearly half of the season average of 32.6 which has been built primarily with Burks being the first guy off the bench.
Recently, the radio voice of the Utah Jazz, David Locke, sat down with Burks and quizzed him about what he sees before driving and how much forethought he puts into his finishes before taking off.
“People are too athletic in this league to pick what you’re going to do (before getting) in the air, I just have to react because you never know what could happen,” Burks said. “In college I really had to learn how to finish around people and with contact… It’s just a god-given ability; I can’t say nothing else about it.”
The contact part is key to his ability as well. Burks draws four fouls a game – a fourth of his points come from the charity stripe. That’s the pressure Corbin said he puts on a defense that nobody else on the Jazz can. While it wasn’t until college that he really learned of his ability to drive, it was just this season that he had significant improvement in the NBA as an all-around player.
“I think if you look at him play, last year he really was hesitant to shoot the basketball but now he doesn’t even think about it,” Williams said of the 22 year-old. “So, I think he’s really taking the next step and once he continues to shoot with confidence he’s very difficult to stop. He’ll stay at the rim, he puts a lot of pressure on the defense and if you play off him, he can shoot the ball so he really can score.”
While shooting, especially from long-range, really will be the next step in evolving offensively for Burks, he’s already well aware of that. He said his plan for the summer is to shoot threes and get stronger. If he comes back for the 2014-15 season with those skills added to his game, there’s no saying where the ceiling is for Alec Burks.