The detached perch from which fans and media generally view pro sports makes it laughably easy to minimize the importance of surroundings and comfort for the athletes involved. These are professionals, we think; the barrier between us and the everyday lives of those we cover or root for seems to subconsciously suggest that larger-than-life personalities are somehow immune to normal human emotion. All that matters is the game in front of them. We don’t see any other part of their life, and often almost reflexively assume it’s the same way on their end during the times they’re on our radar.
In truth, NBA life is often a much less glamorous reality. Players are compensated quite handsomely, yes, but their fame and status tend to increase the stress on them rather than the other way around.
More importantly, the basketball-related demands can be an incredible burden when one stops to think about it — how many of us would perform 100 percent optimally every day at our jobs if we knew a single bad day or week could drastically impact our value to the company, and therefore our future earning power? How would we perform if we could be traded to a city halfway across the country on a whim? The biggest question in all but a few cases1: How would we do being thrown straight out of college into what’s often a completely different role than we’d been accustomed to for nearly our entire lives, with all new surroundings and a whirlwind of expectations?
Trey Burke’s pre-NBA days, like so many guys in the league, were marked mostly by dominance. When he was five, his youth league literally had to change the rules because of him, as Trey told a reporter back in 2011 — he’d steal the ball every single time the opponent inbounded it, forcing a rule that prohibited him from crossing halfcourt when the opposition had possession. He won an AAU under-16 national title in 2009 with his father, Benji, coaching. He finished his varsity career at Northland High School in Columbus with a 97-5 record, Ohio’s Associated Press “Mr. Basketball”2 in his senior year.
Not a lot changed as he went to Michigan, where he’d eventually sweep the major college awards in a sophomore year that included a near-unanimous number one overall ranking for a stretch as well as a run to the national title game. All that earned him a top-10 selection in the NBA draft, and soon Trey was starting 68 of 70 games as an NBA rookie in a very similar role. He was second only to Gordon Hayward in per-game minutes and shot attempts, running the offense as he’d always done for a team that was bad but had good reasons to be.
The 2014 draft brought the first new wrinkle: Utah drafted another point guard. By midseason, Trey was coming off the bench for virtually the first time in his entire basketball life, this while a 19-year-old who’d never even played at college level got reps with the starters3. He was asked to change his role, and there were struggles at times. Suddenly, much of the discourse surrounding Burke was abjectly negative, focused on his inefficient shooting and the defensive limitations presented by his stature. The articles piled up, including in this space.
Heading into his third summer since being drafted into the league, Burke knew the same approach wouldn’t be enough. He changed his habits off the court, including slimming down by about 10 pounds over the summer4. He made some big alterations on the hardcourt as well, varying up his offseason regimen — the goal was to “work not only harder, but work smarter,” to use Trey’s words. In one particularly vital area, it was more about changing the mindset of his work than any physical element.
“Obviously the first two years [in the NBA], I had some games where I’d shoot the lights out, and I had some down games where I’m not shooting well at all,” Burke said. Shooting drills needed to become more than just a number to check off a list. “My approach [this summer] was to try to be consistent while I was shooting rather than just getting a bunch of reps up, or just making a bunch of shots. But making shots in bunches, and consistency, was big for me.”
It’s shown through immediately this year, and the samples are quickly approaching the size where one can assume real change has been affected. Trey hasn’t cut his per-minute shot volume at all, but his efficiency from virtually everywhere has improved — particularly at the rim and from beyond the arc, the two most important areas for a frequent shooter in the modern game. His form, always excellent to begin with, has finally begun to yield the sort of accuracy many expected as his focus has matched it.
And as the most important part of his game has stabilized, the trickle down to other areas is beginning to show through.
“The way that we’re playing right now is a little different than the way that Trey played when he was at Michigan, or even [my] first year here when the ball was in his hands pretty much all the time,” said coach Quin Snyder. “He’s more integrated into the group right now.”
Burke’s passing has been grounded in so much more comfort, even if most metrics are struggling to capture it with an altered team makeup5 and his own change in role. He’s made huge strides as a pick-and-roll operator, where his overall derived efficiency (including passes to teammates for shots) has jumped from the 38th percentile league-wide to the 80th, per Synergy Sports6. Burke just didn’t have these sorts of passes in his bag out of the two-man game last year:
That’s a low-percentage floater nine times out of 10 in Trey’s first two years. He’s a level deeper now.
“It’s really about playing off how the defense is playing [in pick-and-roll],” Burke said. “If teams are going under, coach is always telling me to be aggressive, make them pay for it… When teams are going over, trying to get in the paint, probe it, and just seeing how that weak side defender is playing. Pick-and-roll is all about reads for me. Watching film over the summer, watching film during the season — it’s all slowing down for me.”
Burke leads the Jazz in potential assists7, per SportVU, generating over nine of them for every 36 minutes he’s on the floor — and remember that a sizable portion of these minutes come alongside at least a couple members of what’s been a disappointing Jazz bench. He’s still taking his share of early and midrange shots (often both at once), but these have been both more accurate and less at the expense of open teammates.
Trey has also shown flashes of some real strides defensively, though judging this is tougher this early, be it numerically or visually. He’ll still have moments guarding pick-and-roll where his effort or concentration wanes, something he knows, and more consistency here will be his next step — he’s shown he can do it when he’s locked in. Communication has often been a key here, and it’s coming along. His work against other actions and especially the occasional isolation has been much improved even to the naked eye.
It’s common to hear about the third year being a turning point of sorts for many young NBA players, point guards in particular. Is that what’s happening here?
“I don’t think I’ve made that turn all the way yet, but I think I’m so much more adjusted to the NBA game,” Burke said. “Preparation has helped me out a lot. I think I’m almost to the point where I’ve made that turn to where, okay, I know I can get a shot here or I know I can attack here, find a way to get into the paint, get easier opportunities for my teammates and for myself.”
Finally, Trey is back to his comfort zone after leaving it for the first time in so long. He’s bought in completely to his new role, and more than that has embraced it: “Coming off the bench has been different, because I’ve got to see the game from a different perspective,” he said. He knows this could be the niche he occupies moving forward with this team as Dante Exum returns to the fold, and is well past looking at it as a demotion of any kind.
“We’re all for the team,” he said. “We’re all about winning, and that’s what I’m about as well. Everything else will fall in place.”