Well, things haven’t exactly gotten off to the best of starts in Jazzland. Despite several periods of entertaining and competitive basketball, the Jazz have found themselves overmatched late in games (or sometimes just the whole game, as was the case in Brooklyn) and unable to close out a win in their first five contests. They’ve been a mess offensively and only marginally improved on defense, coach Corbin looks ready to pull his hair out every night (wait…), and the season is already rapidly approaching “full rebuild” status.
But want to know what’s great about NBA basketball? Despite all this, there are still positives! Anyone informed knew going in that this team was built for the future, not for this season, and there are several areas where those with such a mindset should be encouraged by what they’ve seen so far.
And a few games in, swing guard Alec Burks is at the top of the list. Coming off a sophomore season where he showed flashes but was hampered by inconsistency and bad defensive play, Burks this year appears set on proving his worth to a franchise willing to give him an opportunity. And in certain areas, he’s doing just that.
He’s been one of the few bright spots on an offense that has looked stagnant and devoid of spacing for long stretches. Utah has throughout the years always been one of the most system-reliant teams in the league offensively (as opposed to talent-reliant like, say, the Thunder), and their staggering lack of jump-shooting beyond Gordon Hayward just magnifies this issue – when he’s cold or on the bench, the Jazz are completely at the mercy of their system. That is to say, if the designed play breaks down, it’s all over; this obviously places paramount importance on executing and maximizing efficiency within the designed sets.
And perhaps outside of Hayward, no one has succeeded in this area more than Burks. He’s still coming off the bench for now, but Corbin has obviously given him much more creative license. In particular, he’s been a menace when the Jazz run him off simple down screens on a curl to the hoop, like in this clip:
For all the talk around the league of hot seats and Corbin’s weaknesses, he deserves some real credit here. Burks was an elite slasher coming out of college, and Corbin is maximizing his abilities by allowing him to catch the ball with speed and space toward the basket and create. It’s early yet, so this could change, but Burks appears to have improved his rim finishing in a big way and should be up from his roughly league-average rate at the rim last year once enough games have been played to make the numbers relevant.
Furthermore, he’s one of the few Jazz players so far who have even attempted some creativity outside the system, on more than one occasion seeing an opening and pouncing, like this play against Phoenix:
Burks is alert and catches Eric Bledsoe ball-watching, forcing Bledsoe to make a fairly spectacular play just to force Burks into free-throws. The fact that he didn’t score on this particular play is irrelevant (plus he would have scored if he didn’t foolishly try for a hammer dunk, allowing Bledsoe to swipe at the ball as he cocked it back) – his recognition of the situation and aggression are both strong positives for a developing player.
His jump-shot is still very much a work in progress, although he’s making small strides. He’s certainly more comfortable shooting coming off picks, and he’s had some success in a very small sample size so far. That said, I’ve watched every jumper he’s attempted this season (huge shout-out to mySynergySports.com for making things like this possible), and there are still some pretty large flaws in his form that need major work, something I may address in more detail if it persists as the year goes on. He may not finish as one of the league’s worst jump-shooting guards like he did last season, but I’d be surprised to see him crack average for his position this year.
Things are still a bit of a mess defensively, but again, there are positive strides being made. As SCH editor Andy Larsen correctly noted in a preseason piece, Burks has had major trouble against the pick-and-roll, and unfortunately this doesn’t seem to have changed much:
Here’s another example:
He’s getting badly lost against any well-set screen, and they’ll only get better as he finds more minutes against starting lineups. Part of it could, of course, be attributed to bad team communication – he does seem to struggle far less when he sees the screen coming, but so does everyone – but a lot of it falls on Burks’ inability to quickly read the situation. This is still by far his largest area of concern, one where he will have to make major strides if he ever hopes to be an above-average NBA player.
Luckily, as boss man Andy also pointed out more recently, his on-ball defense appears to be making real improvements. He still struggles somewhat against longer wings (an aging Joe Johnson showed him a thing or two in Brooklyn Tuesday night), but his performance against James Harden and other smaller guards thus far shows the promise many had hoped to see. This clip has to make any Jazz fan feel nice and warm inside:
In the big picture, Burks appears to be developing at about the rate one would hope given his draft position. Expecting a mid-first round pick to get better in every area in his third year is generally foolish, and a marked improvement in just a couple places is acceptable provided there aren’t any serious regressions elsewhere. He’s an exciting and athletic player, and if he can continue to work hard he should have a firm place in the Jazz’s future.