I frequently use much of this space discussing player development and the types of learning curves typically exhibited by young NBA talent. This is partially out of necessity, at least this season – the Jazz are very young, with a keen eye on the future of a developing core – but also because, well, I’m a nerd and scouting really intrigues me. So many variables go into predicting a player’s career trajectory, from physical talent to mental acuity and a whole bevy of intangibles. These, combined with a large dose of unpredictability in many cases, make evaluating developing players, at least in my opinion, one of the most fascinating elements of covering NBA basketball.
In certain cases, players will develop at different rates or in different ways than is frequently seen. There are guys like Lance Stephenson, a strange mix of talent and athleticism who struggled to find an identity for three seasons before making a huge leap this year in a system that maximizes his various abilities. On the other side of the coin are guys like Michael Beasley or Darko Milicic, players once seen as elite potential talents who, for various reasons, just never approached that level. The point, without getting too far off topic too soon: while there are “typical” developmental curves for young players, there are plenty of exceptions, loopholes, and corollaries to go along with them.
Alec Burks is a good example of both worlds. Many parts of his growth through two and a half seasons are going exactly how most would have expected, but certain other areas have proceeded quite contrary to typical developmental curves, and in a couple of cases have yielded some pleasant surprises. In both cases, to be clear: I have Burks well ahead of his overall expected progress to this point, and his progress this season, especially recently, has shown glimpses of a potentially game-changing player.
Some of the more expected areas of his maturation have been on the offensive side of the ball, where Burks is having something of a breakout year. His career-high numbers basically across the board are mostly normal for a third-year player, although the fact that he’s lowered his turnover rate from last year1 despite significantly increased usage is a major positive most young players usually don’t achieve so quickly. He came out of college as a slasher already quite capable of getting to the basket, and has showcased this at the NBA level also. Of 88 players attempting at least three drives to the basket per game, Burks is generating 7.5 points-per-48 minutes on his drives2, a top-15 figure in the league and close by the likes of Tony Parker, Kevin Durant, and even above LeBron James (19th in the league at 7.1 per-48 on drives). Good things just happen when the Jazz get Burks the ball with momentum toward the hoop – his per-possession numbers off cuts and screens are both top-20 marks league-wide for qualified players, per MySynergySports.
It’s not all just scoring, either – Burks has upped his assist percentage3 to 17.3% from 13% last year and just 9.5% his rookie year. He’s become more adept at reading multiple rotations a defense makes as he penetrates to the basket, and taking advantage of these tendencies to find open shooters. He’s still a below-average jump-shooter for a shooting guard, though again, he’s improving gradually – he’s shooting 45.9% on two-point shots compared with 43.9% last year, and if you exclude end-of-quarter long bomb heaves, he’s shooting a respectable 36.7% from three, including nearly 39% from the corners. With his speed and finishing talent at the rim, if he can lessen/improve his shooting (particularly from mid-range, where he’s taken 153 attempts despite shooting 33.3%, a lower rate than from beyond the arc) he could be a powerful offensive wing for years to come.
But where things get interesting, from a developmental standpoint, is on the defensive side of the ball. Considered something of an interesting study on this end coming into the league, scouts were divided on Burks early on – he certainly had the athleticism to potentially be a strong defensive player, but would his IQ and grasping of difficult NBA systems be able to keep pace?
The answer has been yes and no, but the ways in which we reach both poles of conclusion are interesting. Burks has, indeed, had trouble thus far with certain elements of team defense, particularly his navigation of screens and his off-ball help. As far as the latter goes, though, Burks’ struggles are the exact opposite of most young players, who typically are too focused on staying attached to their own man and don’t help enough – Burks helps too much, to the point of detriment to the team defense. Watch him here:
Let’s break this one down with some stills. As LeBron rounds the Birdman pick, Burks is in the far corner marking Ray Allen. Birdman’s screen is good, and LeBron is getting past Hayward into the second level of defense. Note, however, that Derrick Favors is perfectly positioned to guard against the drive, while Chris Bosh has failed to get far enough away from the hoop, leaving Jeremy Evans also close to the hoop and in position to help:
But Burks doesn’t recognize that Evans is still in the play as a potential help defender on a Birdman roll, and crashes down on the headband-wearing ink cartridge, leaving the greatest three-point shooter of all time wide open in the process:
Allen misses the open look here, but the point remains. Burks is far too prone to these sorts of mishaps, but as I noted above, this is contrary to the typical process for young players, particularly young guards. Most coaches pull their hair out trying to get their developing guys to help more frequently, usually a result of a lack of understanding of basic principles. Burks, though, understands that on a general level, team defense requires a lot of this sort of thing – he just hasn’t yet figured out when to apply this and when it will hurt the scheme. This is almost surely an easier fix than the typical help issues; some good film sessions on the correct responses to various scenarios can correct a lot of this for a player who is already more than willing to make the effort.
And when you look past correctable scheme issues like that one, what you see is an elite NBA wing defender in the making. Woefully unnoticed by fans and media alike this year, Burks has become a lockdown isolation defender capable of guarding 1-3 effectively. Of qualified players, he’s the league’s number one isolation defender this season, allowing only .34 PPP (points-per-possession) on finished isolation sets, per Synergy. This is a remarkably low number, and a massive improvement from his .86 PPP mark last season and an ugly 1.02 PPP figure his rookie season.
He’s done it by making several huge strides in his positioning and balance on the ball, something he clearly put serious work into over the offseason. He’s always been nimble, but Burks in the previous two seasons was, like his help defense, likely too energetic – he’d run himself out of position too often and bite easily on simple fakes. These are common problems for guys his age, but of more concern was the way he set his feet and prepared for an isolation move from a defender – watch him here in a March, 2013 game against the Knicks:
Notice how, as JR Smith begins his drive, Burks’ feet are not set – he’s still backpedaling, and his hands are not up in a guarding position:
Burks was able to use his speed to somewhat catch back up, but getting a step behind after this initial setback doomed him and allowed Smith to get far too much penetration for a layup. But now, watch his setup on a couple of isolation sets from this season:
His feet are set well in advance, knees are bent, and his hands are partially up and ready to move. It’s a subtle change, but one that can and does drastically affect his positioning later on in possessions. Ditto for his much improved balance – he still bites on the occasional fake, but this is less frequent and his recovery speed is much quicker than last year. And while he still has some issues navigating around screens, especially multiple screens in one offensive set, he’s made major upgrades this year on his routes. He could and should improve his peripheral awareness and not run smack-dab into a 7-footer’s chest as often as he gets older, but his resulting recovery back to the ball has been worlds better than the previous two years. This contributes to his marked upgrade in defending pick-and-roll ball-handlers, where he’s brought his PPP allowed down from 1.03 last season to .86 this season, per Synergy.
Put it all together, and I think it’s hard to argue against Burks being the best perimeter defender on Utah’s roster and well above-average league-wide. Coach Corbin still prefers to give Gordon Hayward the matchup against opponent’s primary wing talents when both share the floor4, much to my own personal annoyance – not only has Burks been defending much better than Hayward this year, allowing Hayward to guard less threatening wings some of the time could help his dwindling efficiency on offense that many believe is related to him tiring from too heavy a workload. Of their eight regular rotation players, the Jazz sport easily their best defensive rating with Burks on the court (105.9 points-per-100 possessions against), and are hurt the most when he leaves it (110.4 per-100). Some of this could be due to lots of his minutes coming against bench-heavy units, but not nearly enough to defeat the point.5
Burks’ name has surfaced in some trade whispers as the deadline approaches; it’s the opinion of this writer that the Jazz should squash that notion immediately. Alec Burks is exactly the type of player every successful team employs in some form – an athletic, two-way player who knows his strong points and plays to them. If he continues to show the kind of heady development he’s flashed this season, he could be a dark horse candidate to become a top-five player league-wide at the relatively weak shooting guard position. This is one asset the Jazz absolutely want to keep in their pocket, and as always, they’d be well advised to #PlayAlecBurksMore.6