When Alec Burks slashes to the rim eluding long-armed defenders and gravity itself to finish, Jazz play-by-play announcer Craig Bolerjack often shouts in amazement, “Houdini!” After essentially just over a year out of the Jazz rotation due to injury, Burks is back. Breaking the chains that bound him to his sickbed is an escape stunt Jazz fans have long awaited. For his next trick, he may need to channel more of Harry Houdini than he might like. The renowned escape artist was once buried alive, breathlessly emerging from the dirt just in the nick of time.
Now that the Jazz are restored to full health, Burks could get buried deep on the bench behind Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, Joe Johnson and Joe Ingles. Burks isn’t panicking yet.
Mostly, AB is elated to be back on the court.
“I’m very excited,” he told the Deseret News. “I know my leg’s strong, I made sure I’m ready. I didn’t rush back. I’m stable now. I love to play this game and I miss it, so it’s going to be a very exciting time.”
Recent playing time suggests that the “exciting time” Burks refers to may be thrilling for different reasons than the scoring guard anticipated.
Head coach Quin Snyder has refused to call a healthy roster a problem. He prefers to call it a challenge, one he alludes may fall on the shoulders of guys like Burks more than others. He has been adamant that media and fans should expect a cautious AB return. Minute restrictions are understandable, but Burks has seen a total of just 16 minutes in the five games since his return. Burks was also briefly assigned to practice with the Salt Lake Stars, the Jazz D-league team, alongside Raul Neto and Dante Exum. The three practiced with the Stars Monday and then were recalled by the Jazz later that evening. The assignment was reportedly simply to get some reps and conditioning in, but that has to mess with a guy who started 27 of the 29 games he played for the Jazz in 2014-15. Burks, at least outwardly, seems to be keeping perspective:
Alec Burks after Stars practice: “It’s a good part of my rehab. It was great to get up and down, just trying to get my timing back.”
— Kurt Kragthorpe (@tribkurt) January 9, 2017
According to Tony Jones of the Salt Lake Tribune, Burks is expected to suit up for the Stars game Wednesday to work on his conditioning. Of course it will take time for him to get back to game speed, but others report he may have looked ready to go almost a month ago:
Jazz wing Alec Burks, recovering from ankle surgery, just finished his workout by dunking after putting the ball through his legs midair.
— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) December 18, 2016
We know Burks can create offensively, something the Jazz have struggled with recently. Dwyane Wade made it clear last year that Burks has certainly made an impression.
@DwyaneWade who, in your opinion, do you feel is the most underrated played in the NBA?
— Jack (@jackhadidaaa) January 8, 2016
Alec Burks for Utah..he’s out right now but he can play https://t.co/Pa2GHXuiF3
— DWade (@DwyaneWade) January 8, 2016
The Jazz have evolved since the last time Burks saw big minutes. How does he fit in now and what will it take to pick up minutes on Quin’s defensive-minded squad?
Let’s look at how Burks compares to his teammates who are currently playing over him:
Both Hood and Burks are versatile offensive threats who can score in a variety of ways. Burks is quicker and more athletic than Hood. Hood is generally considered to be a better spot-up shooter than Burks, though lately his three point percentage has dipped down to a career low 33.7%. They both can create off the dribble. Burks is more likely to blow by his defender and into the lane for a finish or a kick to the perimeter, while Hood most often keeps his defender on his hip and lets the play develop. Hood spreads the floor, while Burks draws the defense in. Both have improved on defense, but could stand to improve more.
Why Hood Wins the Minutes:
Hood is a more high-volume three point shooter who has the green light. He has shown the ability to keep defenders on his back and create for himself and others down the lane. When Hood and Burks were battling for the starting spot in 2014-15, Hood’s rookie year, Burks was much more experienced. Hood, now in his third year, only trails the injury-plagued Burks by 100 total games played, despite the latter being a six-year veteran. Even though Hood’s shots haven’t been falling, Snyder trusts him, and when he doesn’t, he has seven-time All-Star, Joe Johnson to fill in.
Did I mention Johnson is a seven-time All-Star? At this stage of his career, Johnson is not nearly as athletic as Burks and he hasn’t played flawlessly for the Jazz. That said, it’s his ability to score in isolation and calmly post-up smaller players in crunch time that make him too valuable to replace in the rotation.
Why Johnson Wins the Minutes:
You can’t teach experience and Johnson has it.
Andy Bailey recently had a great piece for NBA Math that examines all that Jingles does for the Jazz. It’s not just that he looks like an unassuming suburban dad that has opposing teams scratching their heads. He is smart, takes high percentage shots (led the NBA in 3P% recently), finds his teammates for wide open looks and takes pride in his defense. Burks is surely faster than Ingles and punishes the defense differently than Ingles, but Slow-Mo Joe has come on so strong this season it’s hard for Snyder to keep him off the floor.
Why Ingles Wins the Minutes:
His leadership, smarts and FG% make him a valuable asset with any lineup.
A legitimate All-Star candidate, Hayward has shown the ability to consistently defend, rebound, create and score. He is posting a career-high scoring average of 22 points per game.
Why Hayward Wins the Minutes:
Come on. He’s the Jazz’s best player. He can’t stay out of the game.
How does Alec Burks get on the court then? There’s been buzz about the triple wing lineup option the past few years. Snyder even tried it in 2014-15 season a few times. That was before the machine that is George “stat sheet fill” Hill joined the team. Burks won’t jump into the starting lineup as point guard, but given the way Exum, Neto and Shelvin Mack have played lately, backup point guard might just be his best chance to claw his way out from the bench. Here’s hoping Houdini finds a way.