Coming out of Michigan after a triumphant final college season that saw him capture not only a national title but also the country’s most prestigious individual awards, Jazz point guard Trey Burke fell into something of a mix of categories among draft evaluators: not quite in the Jimmer1/Tyler Hansborough mold (ridiculous college players who swept national awards but many thought would have far less impact in the pros), but also certainly nowhere close to the sure-thing status of other Wooden Award winners like Anthony Davis or Kevin Durant.
Rather, there seemed to be a tad less decisiveness surrounding Burke, and opinions of him appeared to follow more of a bell curve than most potential lottery picks – highly likely to become a useful, slightly above-average NBA player, but also highly unlikely to vastly over-perform or under-perform on that general outlook given his skill set.
A big part of this assessment had to do with his potential ceiling as an NBA defender, an area folks had concerns about for several reasons we’ll get into shortly. And whether or not you agreed at the time, the first season of returns seems to indicate that these folks were certainly on to something: of 125 rotation guards in the league this season, Burke ranks dead last in Defensive Rating (points against per-100-possessions while a player is on the court) according to NBA.com.2 The Jazz have been nearly five points-per-100 better when he leaves the court, the largest drop-off for any regular rotation player on the team besides Enes Kanter.
The reasons for this are varied, with some tying back in to his pre-draft forecast. Burke isn’t particularly quick or explosive for his position, and in fact is likely well below-average for many athleticism-related areas at a position littered with names like Westbrook, Wall, Irving and many more. He’s also a tad short, though his slightly extended wingspan makes up for some of that.
This predictably hurts his abilities as an on-ball defender, though surprisingly not nearly as much as one might think, especially if one were to only look at his defensive numbers in a client like Synergy Sports3 – over a small sample size, Burke reads out as a very bad isolation defender on finished plays. But an examination of the individual plays involved showcases much of this data as somewhat spurious, a series of difficult makes and questionable foul calls against Burke (and, to be fair, a percentage of plays where Trey simply got beat) that’s completely unsustainable over a long time period. He plays above-average on-ball defense on this play, but all that gets recorded is a made basket against him after his mark converts a tough look:
Instead, the area that’s been hurt most by Burke’s physical limitations is his play off the ball. He’s going through many of the predictable struggles young guards face, but he’s without the recovery speed many of his peers can look to when they make an error. So when he has trouble navigating a pick, as he and many rookies are prone to, it’s hurting his team’s defense more than average. Rotate incorrectly? It’s going to cost him more than many. There’s even an excellent example of the differences here showcased by another Jazz player (one with a very similar name) – I’ve documented Alec Burks’ tendency, in contrast to most young defenders, to over-help rather than under-help off the ball, and Burke often displays the same habit:
Just like with Burks, there are both good and bad elements at play here; that Trey is focused and eager to try and execute the defensive system is great for his age and experience, but the fact that it combines with his as-of-yet incomplete knowledge of NBA offense to create frequent mistakes like the one above is obviously a big negative. And unlike Burks, who has the acceleration and foot speed to recover more quickly, Burke finds himself often unable to even get up challenges in situations like these.
This can explain some of why Burke, and his teammates while he’s on the floor, give up far too many good looks from deep. Opponents are shooting 38.3% from distance with Burke as their primary defender, per Synergy, an unacceptable number, and are attempting more of them with Burke on the floor than any other Jazz regular. Utah allows the third-highest percentage from three in the league partially as a result of their porousness in this area with Burke and the starting lineup.
Unfortunately, the issues for Burke thus far haven’t been limited to his physical abilities. He’s also having difficulty grasping the nuances of NBA defense, though he’s got much more company among his peers here. He’s had a very hard time jumping passing lanes or generating steals, something of a surprise for such a heady player offensively. Of those same 125 qualified guards I mentioned earlier, he’s just 101st in steals generated per game despite being in the top 40 for minutes per night. The Jazz also generate a lower number of turnovers per-possession with him on the floor than any other roster member besides Malcolm Thomas.4
Screen navigation has been a problem, albeit an expected one, and the same goes for certain bits of positioning, both on and off the ball. Watch him here leaning in anticipation of a coming screen (again, this awareness is good in a vacuum but can become negative in situations where it’s acted on the wrong way), but instead giving up an open look:
Given that Burke still got a hand up to pseudo-challenge the shot, it seems like a pretty small nitpick – and it is. But it’s meant to illustrate the subtle differences between good defense and porous defense, because the extra half-beat Burke gives up by switching to his “ice” stance5 makes all the difference here.
Perhaps the largest knock on his defensive acumen in his first season, though, has been another issue we can examine within that last clip: his recognition of opposing personnel. In the play above, Burke’s mark is Brandon Jennings – not a sharpshooter from distance necessarily, but capable and not someone you want to leave unguarded. But far more importantly, Burke overlooks one major element: Jennings is left-handed. Against a typical righty, Burke’s jump to his “ice” stance might have left him enough space to challenge, but against a lefty going to his left in rhythm? He has no chance.
This is again a nitpicky example, but far larger ones abound. And while many of these sorts of mental errors are quite understandable for developing players without much NBA experience, a little more worrying has been Burke’s seeming lack of improvement in this area as the year has gone on. This clip is from this past weekend against the Warriors:
There aren’t many unbreakable rules within NBA defense, but one of them absolutely is, “Never go under a screen against Steph Curry unless he’s at least 40 feet from the basket.” This lack of recognition from Burke, particularly since he could see the screen coming for several beats before it arrived and therefore had plenty of time to prepare, simply won’t fly beyond this season6. Coaches can’t teach every little thing, and this is one of those areas where players are expected to develop on their own or risk being left behind.
Overall though, while there are certainly several areas that will need major improvement for Burke to be an acceptable defender in this league, he’s not in the dire shape his overall numbers might indicate. Utah’s defense as a whole has been miserable, and this contributes in no small way to his bad rating – it’s highly unlikely he’s really the worst rotation guard in the league on defense. He’s done well with his on-ball positioning and has improved at staying in front of his man as the year has gone on, and he should be capable of cracking average or even nicely above-average if he can continue to improve.
This is mostly conjecture, but to my eye he’s looked timid at many points this year, like he doesn’t want to screw up or go out-of-system7 – if this is the case, it’s an easy fix for a coaching staff going forward. Burke is smart and has great character, and this should foster a resolution to many of his issues once he gains more experience and confidence (and hopefully is able to play in a slightly better defensive culture) going forward. This season may be nearly over, but a long and productive career is only getting started for the young Jazz point guard. It’ll be exciting to see where he’s able to go.