Coming into the season, the Utah Jazz coaching staff, players and fans were excited to welcome back Alec Burks. Fresh off a mid-season shoulder surgery that took him out after 27 games, many were excited to see how the athletic guard would fare with a full bill of health. So far the results are mostly positive with, of course, some areas of improvement. In fact, there is much to be excited about for Burks going forward. Let’s take a closer look at his early performance.
After the Jazz’s torrid post-All-Star break run to finish last season, some wondered how Burks would fit back into the scheme of things this year, especially after his initial, less-than-stellar stint with new head coach Quin Snyder. While there were some growing pains and instances of learning on the job for Burks last season, it can be surmised that a bulk of the issues that may have somewhat stalled his progress were due to his injury1. Fully healthy for the first time in quite some time, Burks re-inserted himself seamlessly into the lineup this season, bringing with him the standard highlight reel moves Jazz faithful have been accustomed to.
Burks has embraced his role off the bench, scoring 15.5 PPG in just 28.6 MPG. His 19.5 PPG per-36-minutes paces the Jazz. His 25.6 usage percentage is the team’s highest. He knows he is the featured scorer in the second unit and he is thriving in it. When he comes in, he has the green light to drive to the basket or shoot the ball2. And the Jazz desperately need him to do so. Burks takes full advantage of inferior defenders in opposing teams’ back courts. Given Utah’s overall bench struggles, which have been glaring, his scoring off the pine has been huge.
He has his games where he simply takes over and scores almost effortlessly. Having a scorer that is a 20-point threat anytime he steps on the court is a nice luxury to have. Burks has reached double-figures in 15 of the team’s 19 games, besting 15 points in 11 of them. He has five 20+ point nights under his belt, too. It is interesting that he has only bested the 30 minutes played plateau eight times.
Burks has a more varied offense this season. He has cut down the long twos substantially3, though he is shooting many more mid-range jumpers (while connecting at a higher clip). He has become more adept with his floater, making a big leap from 33.3 percent to 45.9 on shots 3 to 10 feet out.
After shooting 38.2 percent from 3-point range in his abbreviated 2015 season, Burks has upped that to 39.7 percent this year4. That has helped the Jazz surprisingly become the league’s sixth-best from downtown in terms of percentage5. One key development is his increase of corner attempts — 36.2 percent of his 3-point shots are coming from the corner, up from 25 percent last season. He is hitting those at a 42.9 percent clip. The corner three really helps spread the court for Utah. While his attempts are up ever so slightly, it actually would benefit the Jazz if he shot more beyond the arc.
Burks’ forays to the basket are not as frequent as they were in the 2013-14, the year where his slashing game was most effective. Additionally, while he has improved over last year’s mark, he is not finishing as strongly (54.5 percent) as he did his first three seasons (61.5 percent or higher each campaign). Even so, it is an improvement from last season where he was a bit more reticent on this front. His ability to break down his opponent and create offense — especially when things are stagnant — is a boon for Utah. Only 23.7 percent of his baskets are assisted, showing his reliance on one-on-one plays.
While Burks’ free throw rate has dropped a touch — 38.6 compared to his 41.0 career mark — he is still third on the team behind Rudy Gobert and Gordon Hayward. Scorers like Burks know that it behooves them to earn trips to the free throw line. He is hitting 80.2 percent, to boot.
With Dante Exum’s injury and head coach Quin Snyder’s triple-wing rotations, Burks is shouldering more of a ball-handling responsibility. He looks comfortable doing so. With the need for him to put points on the board, this has not translated into increased facilitation by Burks. His 14.0 assist percentage is his lowest mark in three seasons. He is a willing passer, but plays a lot of minutes in lineups that struggle offensively. He has cut down his turnover percentage for the fourth consecutive season.
He is doing some solid work rebounding the ball, particularly on the defensive glass. This will be vital in Gobert’s absence.
There are still many things Burks must work on. While his decision-making has come a long way, there are still moments where shot selection can be an issue. While his acrobatic layups and offensive explosions can help the Jazz in a pinch, there are times where some ill-advised shots have snuffed a good run by the Jazz. He also is capable of shooting better than 41.9 percent.
Burks has displayed some improvement defensively. The effort is there for the most part. He still has the occasional lapse or missed assignment, such as going behind a screen on a shooter. Like most of his Jazz teammates, Gobert’s injury affects Burks greatly.
All in all, Burks has been one of the NBA’s best sixth men, a role that might be the perfect fit for him — akin to Jamal Crawford. He is on an upward trajectory as a scorer in the NBA.