“Power is of the individual mind, but the mind’s power is not enough. Power of the body decides everything in the end, and only Might is Right.”
–The Great Pike, King of the Fish from The Once and Future King by T.H. White
With six minutes left in the fourth quarter of Thursday’s summer league game against the Pacers, Alec Burks craftily slid behind the Pacers front line, caught the alley-oop entry pass, swung around 180 degrees in the air, and banked a lay-up off the glass. For anyone who spent this last Jazz season watching Alec Burks impose his sheer athletic power almost on command, this lay-up was certainly nothing to write a blog post about, and only debatably worth tweeting about. In fact, it was almost unremarkable. Of course Burks would do that. Of course he would dominate summer league games. Why wouldn’t he score smooth, cool, easy 20 points a game against the likes of Ben Hansbrough. As a rookie, he frequently looked like the most athletic player on the court against legitimate NBA players, much less the washed-out and diluted talent of the summer league, so why wouldn’t he light up the future rosters of the NBDL? He’s Alec Burks, after all.
The tried and true seduction of the summer league has and always will be whether to draw enduring conclusions about players based on their performance. After all, Kevin Durant’s relentless assault on NBA defenses began in the summer league. Shouldn’t greatness be recognizable against whatever the competition? Almost all of the current NBA greats looked the part during their summer league debuts. On the other hand, so did Michael Beasley. On Tuesday, the brash outrage and sharp disappointment that flooded Jazz twitter over Enes Kanter’s underwhelming first summer league game was based around the same sentiment: If Enes Kanter is supposed to be our center of the future (and he better be, because we used a #3 pick on him), how is he performing so poorly against inferior competition? Doesn’t this have to mean something? Who cares if the game is in the summer or in the winter, are we really overreacting if our prized prospect is getting tossed around in the post by Andre Drummond?
And so that same cautionary rationale that talked us all off the ledge on Tuesday afternoon–led by the always reasonable voice of David Locke–should guide us now, right? Sure Burks is playing out of his head right now. Sure he’s putting up 20 points a game on 51% shooting, and making NBA prospects look like bench-warmers on your middle school’s C team, but we know better. We’ve learned to temper our expectations, to modify our perspective, to back away from twitter, to turn off our laptops before we type 1500 words on the Once and Future King of the Jazz’s backcourt. We’ve learned not to overreact, right?
But we’re not overreacting, or at least I’m not. Alec Burks does what he does in summer league games because of the brass, the athleticism, the swagger, the subtle spacial intelligence, and the competitiveness. Sure you can obliterate the competition in the summer league just because the competition is so weak, but not the way Burks is doing it, not with the power of the mind, and certainly not with the great pike’s ‘power of the body.’ Burks entire game is built around confidence, athleticism, and the sense for when to apply those attributes. When Burks failed to perform in the regular season, it was a combination of being misused, underused, or cold shooting. But what we’ve seen in this summer league is Burks’ response to those obstacles. He gets to the line when he’s shooting cold. He manipulates the offense to make absolutely sure he won’t be misused or underused. He gets his shots, in his spots, and he makes most of them. Burks is the poster child for passive-aggressive basketball. Unlike Hayward, who asserts himself and succeeds or doesn’t and fails, Burks succeeds just by knowing when to be aggressive and when to let the game come to him, and in this summer league, with the offense resting solely on his shoulders, he has done just that.
Maybe I have been seduced by the summer league, but I think what’s more likely is that we’re seeing what Burks can do when give the free reign to do it. This is bad, because that means his success will come down to factors he has little control of, and if I want Burks’ success to be controlled by anyone, it’s by Burks. But it’s also good. It’s good because what I’ve learned about Alec Burks this summer has nothing to do with summer league, and everything to do with Alec Burks, and Alec Burks is Might.