The Utah Jazz have been one of the league’s really fun stories over the second half of the season. The defense has been the league’s best, experiencing an absolutely stellar metamorphosis right before our very eyes. Gordon Hayward has continued his ascent as an elite player and Derrick Favors has been simply sensational. And, of course, Rudy Gobert has been Goberting. You know what that means, right? Goberting entails — but is not limited to — inhaling rebounds, punishing the rim with fierce dunks, swatting shots, intimidating others, throwing tremendous outlet passes and even leading some amazing fast breaks. Head coach Quin Snyder has been fantastic, to say the least. Throw in some solid performances from Trey Burke, Joe Ingles and Rodney Hood and the Jazz have been a true delight. There is a palpable excitement in the air for the Jazz faithful.
Now, all this has occurred in the midst of some challenges. Dante Exum has excelled defensively, but has struggled exerting himself on offense. Hood has had some bad luck in terms of injuries, his concussion being the latest. There was some drama centered around a former Jazz player. And they have been missing a big part of their future… one Alec Burks.
Yes, Alec Burks. The somewhat forgotten man this season, but a vital cog going forward. What does Alec Burks mean to the future of the Jazz? How will he fit in?
It is clear that Burks is someone Utah values greatly. The obvious indicator was his four-year, $42 million contact extension in October. The amount of the pact raised some eyebrows due to Burks’ nice, but not exceptional production in 2013-14. For the Jazz, it signified an investment based part on substance and part on potential. That is certainly a deal that you give to someone who is viewed as a foundational piece for the now and the future.
Burks has had an up-and-down four seasons since being drafted with the 12th pick in 2011. As a rookie, he showed promise as a slasher and scorer. Due to the dearth of point guard depth, Burks was asked to fill the role as the back-up playmaker for the Jazz. That was a role that helped hone his facilitating and ball handling skills, but one that also took quite a bit away from his knack of getting to the basket and/or the free throw line.
Last season, however, Burks started to put it together. He became a consistently good scorer whose decision-making took a big leap forward. The athletic guard began to understand when he should make the play or set his teammates up. There were times where he was electric, taking over portions of the game offensively. Burks was particularly good following the All-Star break, averaging 15.1 PPG1, 3.4 RPG and 2.9 APG. He made a nifty leap in terms of his advanced stats, climbing to a 15.8 PER (up from 11.5), .547 TS% (from .507) and 16.9 AST% (13.0 the year before).
Burks was on the up and up, both literally (thanks to his acrobatic forays to the hoop) and figuratively.
Now to this season, as abbreviated as it has been. It was assumed that he would thrive in Snyder’s system that encouraged pace, playing with the pass and more openness. Instead, Burks struggled a bit before having his season shut down after 27 games. That said, there are major parts of his game that Utah really misses.
He was playing much more, but the productivity dropped. Burks looked a bit confused on offense, as evidenced by his decreased shooting marks. Things just did not look smooth for him. His strengths of finishing at the basket plummeted. Burks finished at a stellar .644 mark in 2014 (and was .638 and .615 his first two seasons), but was a mere .506 this season. He also suffered noticeable drops when on shots mid-range and in2. This could be attributed the team’s growing pains as they adapted to a new look and style.
To his credit, Burks maintained his elite ability of getting to the free throw line. His .430 FTr trails only Gobert, and his 129 overall attempts still ranks fifth on the team despite missing two-thirds of the season. Add in his team-best 82.2 percent shooting and you have something the Jazz have lacked — the ability to not only get to the line, but to sink the shots when there. He also showed a much improved polish from the perimeter. Burks was attempting more treys and was connecting. His 38.2 percent on 3-pointers is a career-high, and he was also hitting 40.3 percent on long 2s (up from .358). This marksmanship is something this team — one that is inconsistent from downtown — could certainly use. Beyond that, Burks was passing well and still flashed that penchant to score in bunches.
While guys like Ingles, Elijah Millsap, Chris Johnson and company have given admirable effort, it is hard not to imagine how the Jazz would fare if Burks was playing the minutes they have assumed out of necessity. Like the rest of Utah’s squad, chances are he too would improve as the season progressed.
So, where does he fit next season and beyond? I think he is a big part of what the Jazz will do and be. First off, given the severity of his shoulder issues, the pain in which he was playing has to be a factor in his play. Burks has been quoted a few times saying that this will be the first time in years that he will be playing sans this issue. While he has been good, a healthy, spry Burks could be a very different player — one that is perhaps more dynamic and potent.
Burks seems to address a lot of the areas of deficiency for the Jazz. His talent for getting to the basket and creating offense could help offset period of stagnant play. Burks can wiggle inside, or he can create open looks via his drive-and-dish. His proclivity to easily earn trips to the charity stripe adds easy points to the mix. There have been times where Hayward and Favors have been the Jazz’s offense. Having Burks adds another scorer that defenses need to watch, thus alleviating their burdens and opening things up more. In a system that can never have too many passers, Burks will add another wrinkle.
This off-season will be a momentous one and believe it or not, we are a mere few weeks away from it. Undoubtedly, given the current momentum, Utah will be looking to add pieces that will help the team challenge for the Playoffs and eventually contend. The Jazz could add a low lottery pick to the equation. They can also bring on some difference makers through trades or free agency3. Flexibility is on their side.
Whatever transpires, the return of Burks should not be overlooked. In some ways, it’s like adding a high-impact free agent. Having Burks back could be a very major development.