Because Adjusted Plus-Minus (APM; full description here) is a metric designed to track the actual scoreboard impact of individual players, it has some tendencies that aren’t shared by other common player evaluation metrics. One of these, as one would expect, is that it tends to favor players on successful teams – which is something of a chicken-and-egg situation, since of course the highest-ranked players for a scoreboard-related metric will play for teams that tend to do well on said scoreboard. Indeed, of the recently-released 2014 rankings’ top-25 overall players, only seven play for sub-.500 teams – and three of those play for teams that are either in the playoffs (Brooklyn, Washington) or are just a single game under .500 in a much tougher conference (Minnesota).
There are outliers, because obviously APM isn’t based only on a team’s win-loss record. And often, these outliers are some of the more interesting players to discuss; by overcoming some of their team’s deficiencies, they can tell us a lot about themselves in the process.
Trey Burke, the 29th-ranked player overall and chart-topper in the most recent APM Rookie of the Year Rankings , is one of these standouts who is so despite playing for an out-of-contention team. In his first year out of Michigan, the young Burke has taken the reins at the point for the Jazz and looked up to the job, especially for his age. Let’s look at some of the qualities that have him valued so highly, both from the box score and beyond:
The vast majority of his value comes with the ball in his hands; he’s 12th overall for offensive APM. He’s just what the Jazz have needed for years, a skilled ball-handler who’s also capable of hurting defenses with his shot. But while he certainly has skill and athletic promise, the asset that likely helps him be valued so highly by APM is his IQ on the court. It’s cliché, no doubt, but Burke really is ahead of his years mentally.
He turns the ball over remarkably little for any first-year player, but especially for a first-year point guard. His 2.69 assist-to-turnover ratio is a top-10 figure for over 70 rotation guards league-wide with usage rates over 18%, per NBA.com – ahead of guys like Tony Parker, Goran Dragic, and Jeff Teague despite having a comparable usage rate to these names. The change has drastically affected Utah’s overall ball management since his insertion into the lineup after missing the first few weeks of the season due to injury. Before his return date of November 20th, Utah tied with the Warriors for the second-most turnovers a game in the league – since that date, they’re down over four turnovers a game, going all the way from second to 22nd league-wide in that span. Watch an example of how he does it here:
A relatively simple play, but instructive into what separates Burke from others his age. Rudy Gobert sets the side pick, and rolls open on his first pivot out of the screen. It’s very easy, and very common, for a young point guard to simply take the bait here – it’s a fine play to hit Gobert right away and count on him to use his space effectively with both defenders shading toward Burke. But noticing Kevin Love turning away from Jeremy Evans to help on Gobert’s roll to the basket, Burke gives a hesitation dribble, retaining the big Frenchman as a passing option while taking him a step closer to the baseline. When Love watches the ball instead of re-attaching to his man, Burke finds Evans for the easy hoop. Again, while this may seem simple, this sort of nuance in the pick-and-roll for a rookie ball-handler is very impressive. This is part of what keeps his turnovers so low; he hardly ever gives the ball away in various pick-and-roll sets, and most of his instances of sloppiness tend to come in transition or on entry passes to the post, curiously.
Of course it’s one thing to avoid giving the ball away, and another entirely to also do positive things offensively at the same time. Burke fits the bill, though he certainly has room for improvement like all young players. His shooting prowess might actually be slightly exaggerated, as he’s at just an even 39.0% for the year, well below-average. This is, in large part, due to his over-reliance on his mid-range game – despite just a 38.3% proficiency, Burke shoots more mid-range jumpers than any other kind of shot. Teams have started to come around to the reality here, leaving him more space coming around picks to try and prevent him slashing. But he’s still new enough to the league that he likely is aided by a little more respect than he might deserve from range at this point in his career – last year’s NCAA Tournament certainly didn’t hurt him here.
He uses this respect to make an offensive impact with his passing, one of a few little advantages he maximizes in his role as a distributor. Another is his extended wingspan – listed at only 6’1 in height, Burke has a 6’5 reach. This helps him shield the ball and also makes threading tough passes that much easier; indeed, the defenders who have played him most effectively have been the same kind of longer, rangier guards (Ricky Rubio gave him fits over a recent two-game set). His above-average intelligence is again a weapon as well, as Burke is one of very few players his age capable of the sort of variation offensively he has shown:
Again, it’s the subtlety of Burke’s action here that makes this impressive. The hesitation dribble in the lane, once again, is something not many young ball-handlers are capable of, and it’s the key to the play. The Lakers play bad defense on this action, but it’s Burke’s final head-fake hesitation as he nears the hoop that captivates Marvin Williams’ defender, Jodie Meeks (#20) into ball-watching an extra beat. Williams barely has enough time for the shot as it is given the cross-court pass and the time it affords the defense to get back in position; this nuance may seem small, but in this case it meant the difference between an open shot and a contested one.
Burke isn’t perfect, of course, and his excellent offensive APM outweighs what is actually a negative rating defensively. Once again, he isn’t helped by his surroundings – the Jazz are the worst defensive team in the league. But his teammates certainly aren’t hiding a defensive savant of any kind, and Burke still has work to do to reach league average for his position on that end. This was the expectation for the year defensively, though, and his offensive prowess has exceeded most projections.
Like so many of the more under-the-radar players who find themselves valued highly by APM, Trey Burke is a heady, intelligent player who uses every advantage, both physical and mental, to excel. That he does so on a subpar team is even more impressive, and his stock will undoubtedly continue to rise as he is surrounded with more talent in future years. Folks in Salt Lake City should be excited for the years to come – they’ve got a true floor general here, and the possibilities after a year or two more development with the rest of a young core are tantalizing.