I came into Tuesday’s game with a preconceived notion of who I thought Jazz rookie Alec Burks was.
I was wrong.
He was arguably the best player at Colorado since Chauncey Billups and the 2009 Gatorade High School player of the year when prepping in Missouri. I had heard this story before, when you cover athletes for a living it’s basically a broken record: Everything in a guy’s athletic career has come easy to him. He’s always been a starter, always led his team in scoring, always been “the guy.” It’s almost a disease that some never overcome. For our purposes, we’ll call it Me-First-neosis.
When I heard Burks interviewed shortly after being drafted, I thought he had a classic case of Me-First. After all, one of the classic symptoms is an apathetic attitude toward the media…Giving short-sided responses just to get out of the interview. Trust me, it usually goes hand in hand with Me-First. I had diagnosed Burks on draft day.
Then the season started. I read stories like this one where Burks spat his “I’m not upset about playing time, I just have to make the most of my minutes” game as most rookies do. But for all I knew, he could have been saying the right things while the recorder was on, while whispering to that same beat writer or team executive about how he should be playing more. We heard whispers of it happening with Morris Almond when he averaged a whopping 4.3 minutes as a rookie before being shipped off. Deron WIlliams was full of Me-First and grew frustrated at his lack of time on the floor as a rookie and No. 3 overall pick.
I wasn’t going to trust Burks’ media-speak. I know all too well that 90 percent of what’s said to us on the record means nothing. This is the NBA, these guys have agents telling them what to say. No, I had to observe Burks in person. After he scored 17 points in 20 minutes including seven in a row midway through the fourth quarter Sunday in the 103-99 win over the Lakers because Raja Bell was unavailable my interest was piqued.
He made less of an impression Tuesday, still getting 20 plus minutes but only scoring two points to go with three turnovers. He also got a rude awakening to OKC’s length when Kevin Durant chased him down from behind and packed Burks as retribution for not going up strong on the break. It was likely the Jazz’s biggest win of the season but I was watching Burks the whole time. Body language on the court can tell you a lot, talking with a player face to face tells you 100 times more, it’s part of the reason I love this profession. I would prove my assumption right or wrong in the locker room.
Burks is about to leave the locker room when I make my way in, running a comb through his hair he straps on his team-mandated pink backpack, standard issue for rookies in pro franchises. It’s not a new concept but as stupid as it sounds, the way a rookie carries or wears the backpack also says a lot about him. I’ve been in locker rooms where the rookie carries the thing like toxic waste, not Burks. He proudly slips his arms into both straps before looking around for any other interview requests. I catch him just in time, he gladly sticks around…Again, not normal for pro athletes.
Now I’m beginning to believe what I read about his attitude toward his lack of playing time. Naturally, I have to find out for myself.
“If I get in, if I don’t get in, I’m still going to be the aggressive player that I am no matter what the situation is that night,” Burks tells me.
He’s no wordsmith but I’m actually buying what he’s saying. It’s easy for him to put on a happy face now, what’s he like when he’s on the bench four straight nights? By all accounts, the same person.
“I’m like that every day,” he said. “I can’t change that attitude. That’s your only option.”
Burk’s genuine attitude is a testament to him, his teammates, his coaches and the way the Jazz run the organization. That Ty Corbin and the veterans are keeping the rookie happy bodes well for the future. Both sides seem to have a good understanding of what one means to the other, an invaluable attribute in the development of a rookie.
How important? Just ask C.J. Miles who may not have been in the same boat in his early years with the team. He was quick to remind me that Burks at least gets a uniform. “I was sitting behind the bench in a suit,” he said.
“He understands the way it goes and the only way you can get more minutes is to play good when you get out there,” Miles added.
Maybe the most remarkable thing about Burks’ maturity as a rookie is what he does with his minutes when they come. Although he’s only averaging 6.6 points in 13.9 minutes this season, I don’t think I’m alone when I say that at 20 years old, Burks doesn’t always look like the youngest player on the floor.
He’ll knock down open shots, do a decent defensive job and dive for every loose ball. He and his teammates talk often about his aggressive style of play, an identity he’s developed in his early career. Jazz sophomore Gordon Hayward admits that’s something he lacked last season as a rook.
“The hardest thing is playing your game and not overthinking it too much,” Hayward said. “I don’t think Alec really has a problem with that. Every time he goes out there, he’s always in tune and just playing his game. For me, that was one of the most difficult things but he’s done a great job of just going out there and being real aggressive.”
With Bell’s status uncertain and Josh Howard’s knee injury, we could see more of Burks in meaningful situations. You can bet he’ll make the most of them.
“I hope I’ll get to play more because I love playing in games,” Burks said. “We’ll see.”
I hope he does so he can keep proving me wrong.
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