Easily the most divisive, hot-button member of Utah’s roster this season has been second year point guard Trey Burke. He had an unusual rookie campaign that saw him buck certain negative first-year historical trends1, but struggle in other unexpected areas like shooting amid concerns that his “marksman” reputation from his time at Michigan was perhaps exaggerated. If that wasn’t enough to stir the pot, the Jazz added fuel the fire by selecting another elite prospect at his position in Dante Exum in the 2015 Draft.
And with a rough, often inconsistent start to his sophomore season, the noise surrounding Trey isn’t subsiding. Exum has been his own version of a rookie surprise, excelling in areas like on-ball defense and distance shooting where he was expected to be awful, but struggling to penetrate and create his own offense in the manner many had projected him to be capable of from the jump. But Exum’s ahead of schedule overall and appears to make the Jazz better when he’s on the court (he plays more versus opponent bench units, an important factor to consider here), and this combined with Burke’s uneven play has even led some to suggest the 19-year-old should be starting even when both are healthy2.
Such overzealous proclamations aside, questions about Trey’s performance are justifiable given what’s now a sizable sample of play. Utah’s motion offense under Quin Snyder is designed with the express goal of getting the ball in the hands of whichever player becomes open in one of their preferred spots organically within the scheme, and simply put, Burke hasn’t made enough of his share of shots. Defenses have long noticed his struggles from the floor, and his field-goal attempt total that’s a close second to Gordon Hayward team-wide3 is at least partially due to opponents sitting on Utah’s preferred “find the open man” tactic and choosing to funnel many such opportunities purposely in Burke’s direction. Quin’s offensive concept is only as strong as the weakest link in any given lineup, and that’s too often been a player Utah was counting on to bring both solid shooting, and the playmaking that can result from it, when they drafted him.
At this point, though he maintains encouragingly even-keeled and professional despite a roller coaster last few games4, it’s fair to wonder whether, privately, his shooting issues are in his head to some degree. Trey has taken 175 shots from at least 10 feet this season that NBA.com’s SportVU trackers would designate as “Open” or “Wide Open” – that is, no defender within four feet – second-most on the team, again behind Hayward. But he’s making barely 31 percent of these shots, a worrying enough figure before one considers that he’s actually a far better shooter when his outside shots have been more contested this year; when a defender is within three feet or closer, Burke is shooting over 42 percent outside 10 feet, per NBASavant. The sample in the latter case is a tad small (61 attempts), but over a far larger group of shots last season, his splits for these two sets of circumstances were nearly dead even.
His numbers on more highly contested shots suggest he’s certainly a capable distance shooter in a vacuum, making his uncontested figures tough to explain in any sort of scientific manner and leaving rationalizations like “he’s thinking too much” as perhaps the only somewhat reasonable ones. It’s a symptom the entire roster has shown at times as guys are trying too hard to be unselfish within the system, but even when Trey goes up in rhythm and with no defender in his line of vision, he’s having trouble finding the mark:
Now, this isn’t a career death sentence. Shooting fluctuates greatly, and is commonly accepted in the analytics world as one of the box score measures most prone to large changes over time. Plenty of guys have entered the league as poor shooters only to develop into strong ones (Jason Kidd is an easy and frequently-used example), often at unpredictable points in their careers, and many of them don’t boast the sort of college shooting pedigree Burke comes with. It’s perhaps the least coachable or controllable element to a guard’s game.
Trey knows it, too, and has been equal parts professional and realistic in assessing his struggles. “In this league, you can’t get too high or too low after a good game or after a bad game,” he told Salt City Hoops following his disastrous Atlanta showing. He’s keeping things well in perspective, a hugely positive sign, and has the team’s goals strongly in mind as well. “I feel I got some good shots, I don’t think I was forcing anything,” he said a few seconds later. “I felt like most of the shots I took were open shots, and my guys did a great job finding me.”
His maturity has also extended well beyond relations with the media and into his on-court game. He’s clearly put in work in other areas even as he struggles to find his touch – he’s fouling less, getting to the line more, and has cut down an already-low turnover figure even further. Utah’s net per-100-possessions efficiency while he’s on the court improved nearly four full points in December over November’s figure, and he’s on his way to another such jump if his first two 2015 games are any indication.
What his coach cares most about, though, is the way he defends. Quin’s go-to response to questions regarding Burke’s shooting, or really any element of his offense, has frequently been to flip the script and note that his first priority with Trey is his play on the other end of the court. “My biggest thing with all our guys, and probably with Trey as much as anybody because he spearheads it on the ball, is just to battle,” he said following the Atlanta game. His focus is improving Burke’s play here, an area he sees as far more malleable than something like a jump shot. They’ve tried mixing up his screen coverage in pick-and-rolls, with Trey confirming to SCH’s Andy Larsen last week that he’s been going under more picks lately.
This is an interesting nugget, but one the Jazz will want to be careful with. Data from Synergy Sports tells us that Trey has been far more effective both this year and last year against pick-and-roll ball-handlers when going over screens, which he’s done well over half the time. This data is incomplete and tracks only finished plays, but is strong enough to suggest that continuing to mix things up and keep opponents guessing, rather than conforming to a single strategy, is likely the best course of action. Guards are shooting a robust 42.9 percent in Trey’s career when he goes under (44 percent this year), likely because he isn’t quite speedy enough to recover in time to contest what become wide open pullup jumpers.
But variation is definitely a good thing, and either over or under picks is far better than door number three – running directly into the screen, something Burke still does on over a quarter of such sets, though he’s cut it down markedly from last year5. Both Trey and Quin hedged somewhat when talking to Salt City Hoops at practice last week, with Snyder choosing to tie the question of screen coverage back to his theme of Trey “spearheading” the defensive attack while making the option of going beneath opposing picks more practical. “I think what’s happened is he’s picking the ball up sooner, and that’s been our emphasis for him. We want him to extend and be out there and be a factor earlier in the possession so that when the screen takes place, it’s further out on the floor and you’re able to go under it,” Quin told us at the Zions Bank Basketball Center.
This is a process, both for Trey and for his new coach. His physical tools may limit him defensively his entire career, and Snyder is looking to find workable options when difficult matchups are hurting the team. He smartly switched Hayward onto Jeff Teague in crunch time in Friday’s game, moving Burke to DeMarre Carroll with the knowledge that Atlanta was unlikely to have game-planned a strategy to exploit the potential size mismatch. Utah’s guard and wing depth is paper thin currently with a rash of unfortunate injuries, but down the road guys like Hayward, a healthy Alec Burks and even the longer and quicker Exum could offer periods of respite.
In the end, it remains too early in his career to write Burke off in any fashion. Shooting is an incredibly variable element, and there’s plenty of evidence that Trey is more than capable from distance even if his consistency needs a lot of work. Likewise, his limitations defensively don’t necessarily mean Utah will always being a bad defensive team with him in the fold. Just look at someone like Steph Curry, who was considered early on to be such a defensive liability that his entire career as an NBA starter was once in jeopardy, but now plays heavy minutes for the league’s top defense after a combination of his own hard work and his organization’s commitment to surrounding him with optimal teammates.
There’s work to be done, without question. But Burke has repeatedly shown a maturity and willingness to put in the time. Let’s give him a chance to do so – he may just surprise us all with the result.