I’m hopeful about the future of Trey Burke – for a somewhat unusual reason.
Burke shot free throws extremely well last year. In his rookie season with the Jazz, the heralded Michigan alum made 102 of 113 free throws – over 90 percent.
As high a mark as that is – it ranked him fourth of 203 NBA players who shot at least 100 – what really jumps out at me is Burke’s improvement over the past three years.
As a freshman at Michigan, Burke shot a downright disappointing 74 percent from the line. As a sophomore, in his Wooden Award-winning season, he improved to a respectable but not superlative 80 percent.
And then he came into the NBA as a lottery pick and not much went his way. He broke his finger during the preseason and when he rejoined the Jazz, he played fairly poorly for what turned out to be one of the league’s worst teams.
And, yet, despite that, Burke became one of the league’s best marksmen from the line.
That says something. Hopefully, not about a statistical quirk, but about his work ethic, his focus under trying circumstances and his desire to improve. When paired with Burke’s impressive preseason, Jazz fans can reasonably anticipate significant improvement in the young man’s sophomore season.
Through six preseason games, Burke has shot 53 percent from 3 and over 48 percent overall, for a superlative TS% of .589. Yes, it’s a small sample size against defenses not giving it their all, but the trends are at least pointing in the right direction.
Let’s go back to Burke’s rookie year and start with the bad news. You don’t play starter’s minutes (32 per game) on a 25-win team unless you too struggle. And Burke struggled.
His shooting numbers overall were poor, with a TS% of just .473, ranking him 60th of 70 NBA point guards, according to ESPN stats.
Burke shot OK from 3 (.330) but quite poorly on 2-pointers, especially mid-range jumpers. He also attempted very few free throws, and very few shots close to the rim, which dragged down his overall shooting numbers.
The rookie had average rebounding and assist numbers. On the positive side, he turned the ball over very rarely, a pleasant surprise for a rookie point guard who played so many minutes.
Perhaps the biggest concern about Burke’s rookie season was his defense. Our own Ben Dowsett covered this topic nicely near the end of last season, but one grisly fact remains: By one metric, Burke ranked dead last in defense among all NBA guards.
Now, as Ben indicated, lots of factors made last year so tough for Burke on D: the fact that Jazz overall struggled; the oft-cited lack of consistent coaching and schemes on that end. It may be fair, as Ben concluded, to credit Burke’s struggles in large part to inexperience. One can reasonably hope that with maturity and better coaching, he can become at least average on defense.
Let’s have a brief interruption from serious analysis for a fun fact: Trey Burke’s real name, according to his Basketball Reference page? Alfonso Clark Burke III. Whaaaaaat? That sounds like the name of an heir to a 19th Century railway fortune, not an NBA point guard.
OK, back to why we really wanted to look at Basketball Reference: To find some comps for Burke, based on his rookie numbers. Let’s look for rookies roughly his height (at 6’ 0’’, a shortish point guard), who played starter’s minutes, who had decent assist numbers but didn’t shoot that well – but who like Burke attempted a quite a few 30-pointers. What kind of careers have they had?
We get seven names:
Nick Van Exel
Interesting, eh? No busts on that list (even Duhon lasted nine years in the league), but none of them has ever made an All Star team either.
Walker has long been an obvious comparison to Burke. Both were terrific college players unafraid of the big stage who like the ball in their hands. Neither was considered an elite point guard prospect, ala Kyrie Irving or John Wall, due to limits to their athleticism. Walker certainly hasn’t taken the NBA by storm, but, at the least, he’s now a starter for a playoff team in his third year.
The Jazz would be delighted if their outcome with Burke is similar.
Let’s play one last game on Basketball Reference. Let’s go back to that superlative FT percentage we started with and look for other rookies who shot so well. I searched for rookies who shot at least 88 percent from the free throw line who also took a decent number of 3-point shots.
That query returned precisely two names: Burke. And Steph Curry.
What does that mean? Likely not that much. But, what the heck, it’s preseason, optimism season. And I think Alfonso Clark Burke III is going to have a nice sophomore year.