No season-ending surgery is ever optimal for an athlete, but the timing for Alec Burks last year was especially rotten. Missing 55 games in your age-23 season is one thing; hitting the sidelines permanently just weeks before a team-wide resurgence began in earnest, spurred in large part by the group’s collective realization of coach Quin Snyder’s layered scheme, is another altogether.
When Burks went under the knife in December, he may not have realized the extent to which his recovery would hinge on two very different, and yet interconnected, elements: his body’s return to strength, for one, but also his ability to keep up with a team learning and implementing a whole new playbook right in front of his eyes.
The former was the more tangible concern, and understandably so. Alec’s shoulder had been a nagging point of concern all the way back to his college days at Colorado. It limited him more than he ever let on last season, even while he played 27 games after aggravating it during a drill in the 2014 preseason. “I was playing with one arm,” he said, and unable to raise his left arm above the shoulder for months.
The results were visibly apparent in several areas, and suggest taking Burks’ already-limited 2014-15 sample with several rock-sized grains of salt. He may never have quite been the elite rim finisher a “Magic Man” nickname suggests1, but even routine layups seemed to become a dicey proposition last year without his full range of physical motion. Burks barely cracked 50 percent within three feet of the hoop last year, per basketball-reference.com, after a career average in the mid-60s in his first three seasons.
He shot the lowest percentage from the field of his career2, this while attempting his fewest per-minute shots. Contact was clearly on his mind – he began driving to the hoop with a lower frequency, per SportVU figures. He looked (and felt) more hesitant.
Surgery is no instant fix, though. The process of rehabbing from his first major injury at this level took Alec by surprise at certain points.
“Just the stages I had to take,” he said of the steps. “First stage is just getting out of the sling, and that took a long time. Then raising my arm and getting my motion back, that took a long time… It’s a process, it’s a longer process than I thought.”
Burks’ ability to absorb contact became a crux point during his rehab, as well. “I could work out, I just couldn’t take contact,” he said. “I could do drills, shoot, all that. I just couldn’t play live action.” It took until just a few weeks ago for that final clearance to come.
As time wore on and rehab became more routine, though, Burks began to realize that his work wasn’t limited to reaching 100 percent physically. His teammates were progressing around him within a scheme that was proving wildly effective when utilized correctly; Alec risked being left behind if he didn’t apply himself. He didn’t panic, or worse assume his pedigree would assure him of the same role when he returned. Instead, he embraced the challenge and found a new perspective: that of his coaches.
“Basically an assistant, just a grad assistant, you could say,” Alec said of his eventual role on the sidelines. “I was around the coaches a lot more – sitting and watching the game… just learning things from them.” Snyder noticed the effort, too.
“He was right behind the bench. Johnnie [Bryant] in particular, and Lamar Skeeter3, and those guys were constantly going, ‘See that Alec?’ He probably wouldn’t say he sounded like me or sounded like one of the coaches, but there was an awareness that he had.”
Now comes the hard part. Burks certainly isn’t the first injured player in NBA history to return amid proclamations of how hard he worked to come back better than ever, even if indications from around the organization are that this is more than just a company line. The results will speak louder than any voice into a microphone.
Burks was nowhere near a primary cause of Utah’s disastrous defense for much of the last couple seasons before his injury, but it’s nonetheless fair to wonder how well he’ll integrate with a group that took off on this end while he sat in street clothes. Most have read the book on him defensively by now: Alec is capable on the ball and shows flashes of elite potential with his length and quickness, but has struggled since well before his NBA days with the finer points, particularly defending away from the ball.
Turns out Burks has read the book, too. “Off the ball,” he quickly responded when I asked about his biggest areas of emphasis defensively. “[The coaches] know I’m a great on the ball player.”
Again, saying isn’t doing. Snyder and his staff surely aren’t the first to raise these issues. At the same time, though, can one really doubt their ability to integrate a single guy after what this team did last season?
In fact, it’s not out of the question that Burks is more noticeable (for good or bad) on the other end of the ball, even if he improves as an all-around defender. He’s always had the physical profile of a guy who can wreak havoc in transition, for instance, but his production here has never really lined up with the eye test. He showcased some of his potential here in Sunday’s preseason opener:
Bryce Cotton gave Jazz fans a glimpse last season of what the team could look like with a much heavier emphasis on pushing even moderate advantages on the break, and Snyder has indicated pace will once again be a larger point of prominence. Cotton appears to be at the bottom of the point guard totem pole and a legitimate risk to miss the roster, though, and Burks could be one of the chief proponents of such an adjustment if he makes it a priority.
His halfcourt game, while generally impressive on its own, could become even more productive with the right tweaks. Alec’s vision was starting to break through last season before he went down, evident even as he played through pain. This is another area where on-court reps with a group dialed in to Snyder’s system could do wonders for his game, and perhaps change the way his value is perceived; the coaching staff has worked with him on changing his approach slightly.
“Just slowing down,” Burks told Salt City Hoops. “I’m usually going at one pace – ‘fast to fast’, that’s what I’ve been used to. They just want me to go ‘slow to fast’.”
This could sound like rote, trickled-down coach-speak to some, but it’s something close observers have noted for years. Alec’s offensive game is mostly a series of line drives; defenders know if they can keep from being blown by, they’re rarely at risk of much change of pace.
This has always been a player who could scratch a fairly high ceiling with the right refinements to his game, and those will be just as key for Snyder as any lingering concerns with his return from injury. Burks is the prototypical two-guard for a successful motion system if he softens things around the edges, especially if last year’s 38 percent figure from deep can sustain for a longer period with a fully healthy shoulder. Harnessing his full physical potential could raise the team’s reasonable level of expectation as much as any other individual development this season.
True to form, that sort of endgame isn’t on anyone’s mind at this point. Burks has handled each step of the process impressively; the plaudits we’ve heard from both the coaching staff and team management have gone well beyond the token “he’s working hard” sentiments. Questions still abound regarding his on-court fit with this group, but there’s no such concern from a chemistry standpoint. Alec is all in, and nothing better exemplifies it than his response when asked about Rodney Hood and the interplay between the two at the shooting guard spot.
“I don’t ever see where the competition [is] at,” he said, sounding just the slightest bit perturbed at the question for the only time in our sit-down. “We’re both trying to make the team better. We’re just going to both get better. I don’t know who said it was a competition. We’re just both trying to get better, just like Elijah, Gordon, everybody else is trying to get better. We just want to be better for our teammates.”
The buy-in is there. The physical template never left. All that remains is to execute.