The first few years of a young NBA player’s career are all about layering of skills. Whether a can’t miss blue-chipper or an undrafted upstart trying to stick with a roster somewhere, everyone begins with a baseline and attempts to build their game from there, with varying degrees of success.
Somewhere between those two ends of the spectrum is Alec Burks, a 12th overall pick entering his final year before that all-important second NBA contract1. Varying portions of a given prospect’s canvass are complete at the time they enter the league; in Burks’ case, there was a fair degree of certainty he’d be an excellent penetrator, with a great deal of variability mostly everywhere else.
He’s nowhere near a finished product yet, though he’s lived up to his potential as a slasher to be sure. It’s common for guys to use their one or two elite early skills as a foundation on which to build the rest of their game, and Burks has done exactly that with his prowess getting to the hoop. He’s no passing savant, by any means, but has steadily improved his play as a distributor as he’s become more comfortable with the ways his speed to the hoop can bend defenses. He’s increased his per-minute assist totals each year in the league, along with his assist-to-turnover rate.
He’s ironed out some simple kinks that have likely led to his steady improvement. In his rookie year, Burks was too impatient, likely accustomed to being able to dictate play from his time in college. Even with ample time left on the shot clock, he’d try to force some silly passes after finding his lanes to the basket closed off:
He was also prone to finessing things a little too much when safer, more efficient plays were available. Watch him here trying to squeeze a lob to Enes Kanter, both from a tricky angle and with a long-armed big within range and prepping for a contest:
Take a look at a still of that same play, and you’ll see the real crime in Burks’ play here:
Alec likely took the third-best option on this play. CJ Miles stands wide open beyond the arc as Burks’ penetration draws a crowd, and Kanter was similarly unmarked right at the hoop if Burks had been a little more patient and found a safer way to get him the ball.
Fast forward to last year, and his decision-making has improved significantly. He’s learned to anticipate the way bodies will come at him once he gets his initial penetration, and is making the simple reads for easy buckets when the opportunity presents itself:
His awareness of his perimeter shooters has developed as well, and he’s not missing wide open guys as often. Burks’ speed catches defenses off guard often enough that help comes from the wrong places, and he’s making them pay for it more frequently:
Some of his additions have been more subtle, though these can often be vital links in the chain for a developing young player as he nails down new elements of his game. I wrote last season about some tweaks the Jazz implemented for him on pick-and-roll sets, particularly a tendency to mix up the direction of their picks with Burks as the ball-handler, often at the last second. He picked up the changes quickly, throwing defenders who were often already backpedaling into even more difficult situations and exploiting them for his bread and butter slashes to the hoop. He was among the league’s top 15 for points per-48-minutes on drives, per SportVU data on NBA.com.
His ability to get to the hoop has even further benefits, as well. After an odd drop-off here from his rookie to sophomore seasons, Burks saw a huge jump in his free-throw rate2 last year as he fully realized his ability to draw unintended collisions. He’s developed his midair control quite well, and has learned the right ways to initiate his own bits of contact in the right situations:
There are still a number of layers available to him, and his development is nowhere near complete, nor should it be at just 23. The above assist numbers and SportVU driving data are certainly positives, but there’s more room for improvement in both areas. Burks scored 4.6 points per game on drives last year, and the Jazz as a whole scored 6.8 per game – this 2.2 point gap is one of the smallest among elite penetrating scorers, indicating that Alec could be doing more for his teammates with the space and opportunity he’s creating with his speed.
He’s also stagnated or even regressed in some other areas, such as a rebounding percentage that’s decreased each year in the league thus far (despite him maturing physically) and some recurring issues with his shooting form and consistency from the free-throw line.3 And while he’s good at the rim, occasionally giving us some Houdini magic with an acrobatic finish, he could still improve a great deal here – he was 38th in percentage at the rim last year of 99 guards with at least 100 attempts there, above average but nowhere close to elite.
But make no mistake: Burks has every chance to flourish in this new era of Jazz basketball. He sliced defenses up with his driving game in the preseason, and I expect him to lean on his prowess near the hoop and his the resulting parade to the line that ensues. Whatever tethers may have been present in the past are now fully removed, and Alec has free reign from Quin Snyder to induce pandemonium.
Just don’t sleep on some of his most important advances coming in the form of subtle, fundamental layering of skills on top of the foundation he’s already set. He grew immensely as an on-ball defender last season, and this should be the year he starts excelling away from the ball as well. A few ticks added to his free-throw and three-point percentages would do wonders for his spacing, and he has a chance to be one of the league’s deadliest transition threats if he continues to refine his passing game and his finishing around the hoop.
Alec Burks has a skill set that only becomes more coveted every year, and however his contract situation turns out in the next few days, he’ll be a huge asset to the Jazz if he continues his developmental pace. I’ve been driving this bandwagon for the better part of two years, and there’s still plenty of room – jump aboard before everyone’s doing it.