In the midst of rampant Jazz optimism and excitement, Trey Burke occupies a strange place. He’s recently been spared some of the harsher critiques often levied on him during tougher days for the team as a whole, but the tides have swung again in the last couple weeks, and whether he’s truly deserving of such a respite based on his level of play alone is debatable. Gleaning a true answer here depends in large part upon how one separates Trey’s play from that of many of his teammates, and even then the water remains muddy to a point.
Utah made the switch to Burke as a sixth man of sorts on January 22nd, or 28 games ago.1 While some may have blown it a tad out of proportion, there’s no doubting the significance of such a move even as he’s continued to receive ample playing time, often even the lion’s share over Dante Exum. When these minutes come is quite important as well, and the switch meant a larger portion would be against (and with) weaker players.
So how has the move impacted him individually? Some simple, raw data first. Here are Burke’s per-36-minute figures before the switch, and then those from after:
Through January 21st: 13.9 points, 5.6 assists, 2.8 rebounds, 1.0 steals, 2.0 turnovers, 14.2 FGA (37.0 percent), 5.3 3PA (31.3 percent), 2.1 FTA
Since January 22nd: 17.0 points, 4.7 assists, 3.3 rebounds, 0.8 steals, 1.9 turnovers, 17.7 FGA (36.5 percent), 7.5 3PA (33.8 percent), 2.5 FTA
One thing is certain right away: Trey has embraced his role as the “captain” of the second unit, of sorts. A guy who already wasn’t shy about firing away has upped his attempts from the field significantly, and seems to have done so while subtracting a bit of the playmaking he was slowly developing. His usage has gone well up, at over a quarter of all Jazz possessions while on the floor since the mid-January move. And on the surface, this makes sense – more minutes with Utah’s bench guys, not exactly the cream of the NBA crop offensively, means a heavier burden on Burke himself.
But while it’s good that he’s upped his efficiency from 3, it’s hard to be encouraged as he remains a woefully subpar shooter overall – that ugly figure only looks worse against lesser average competition, and it’s barely the tip of the iceberg. Trey was shooting just 49.2 percent within five feet of the basket before the changeover, one of the 15 worst figures in the league among rotation guards…but he’s spiraled down to an unfathomable 38.7 percent since. This is, again, on a 28-game sample, easily enough to make some conclusions; were this figure to be extrapolated out over a full season, it would blow away the league-low mark among qualified2 guards over the last half-decade.
The Jazz as a team have struggled, particularly recently, with getting good looks during the meat of the shot clock, and Trey is something of a microcosm here as well. Rather than help his ability to generate acceptable shots before the timer starts to run down, his move to the bench has had the opposite effect: Burke was taking just under 30 percent of his attempts in the final seven seconds of the shot clock pre-switch, but that’s ballooned to nearly 40 percent since Exum replaced him in the starting lineup, per NBASavant. On the year, only three players (LeBron James, LaMarcus Aldridge and James Harden) have attempted more late-clock shots, but Trey’s percentage (33.9) places him 94th among 117 guys attempting at least 100.3
Simply put, it’s looking more and more like this just isn’t a good shooter at the NBA level, in any context. Burke hasn’t found his time against second units beneficial as far as space goes. It’s had slightly the opposite effect, in fact – his jumpers from beyond ten feet have actually seen their average defender distance decrease a hair since the switch.
Moreover, even when he does get open looks, he’s still struggling badly to make them compared with the rest of the league. I mentioned Trey’s uncontested shooting when I gauged his progress back in January just a couple weeks before the switch, and though he’s actually improved several points since that time4, he remains among the worst volume open shooters in the entire league. On the year, 102 players at all positions have attempted 250 or more of these uncontested jumpers (10 feet or more from the hoop, no defender within four feet) – Trey ranks 101st, or second-to-last, at just 33.2 percent. And to make matters worse, only 20 guys in this same group have attempted more such shots than Burke.
At this point, there’s basically no question opponents are basing much of their scouting report around funneling Trey into jump-shooting areas and hoping he’ll fire away. Burke’s mixture of volume and inefficiency is approaching somewhat historic levels, and for the wrong reasons. Should his current pace hold, he’d become just the 16th player in league history to play over 2,000 minutes, attempt at least 13 shots per game, and shoot 37 percent or worse from the field.5 Note the years on that list – Trey’s run of inefficiency hasn’t been duplicated on such a large scale since the mid-sixties.
All of this is shooting alone, but Burke continues to struggle in other relevant areas just as before, which only compounds the issues. He can’t defend the pick-and-roll against any competent pair running it, and teams will frequently go right at him until Quin Snyder is forced to either yank him, hide him elsewhere, or just watch the carnage unfold. He’s awful in transition, worst among all Jazz players for per-possession efficiency and in the league’s bottom 10 here among 109 guys who have used at least 100 possessions on the break, per Synergy.6 The list goes on.
And yet, in a cumulative team sense, one could argue the switch has been beneficial for all parties. Lineups with Burke were being outscored at a 5.5 points per-100-possessions clip before the move, but have begun outpacing opponents by a solid 3.3 per-100 since the change. These units have been able to defend at top-five full-season levels over a reasonable minutes sample, a large accomplishment with Trey in the lineup even if it’s mostly due to the play of others (and is still worse than nearly all other Jazz rotation players).
Unfortunately, a bit of further exploration reveals much of this to be a mirage. It’s certainly encouraging that Utah has managed to outscore opponents with Trey on the floor in this time, particularly while maintaining the strong defensive culture that’s coming to define the team. But viewed through the lens of Utah’s success as a whole, the numbers become far less impressive. Burke’s pre-switch on-court net efficiency wasn’t great, but it was only about 1.5 points worse than the team’s overall rating – since the change, it’s actually about 2.5 points worse, a sign that the team as a whole is progressing more quickly than Burke himself.
In particular, it appears much of the success of these lineups while Trey is on the floor is due to the aggregate being skewed by the time he spends with Utah’s stars, which is still plentiful (particularly in games where Exum struggles). When Burke plays with Gordon Hayward or Derrick Favors (or often both) in the time since his move to the bench, the Jazz are thoroughly outperforming the opposition.
But Trey’s distribution here has flattened out over this time; he was playing nearly 80 percent of his minutes with Hayward and roughly 75 percent with Favors pre-switch, but is down to about 50-50 with both since the move. And when Burke is on the floor without either Jazz star, per nbawowy.com, the seemingly positive figures disintegrate. The Jazz are dominated on both ends of the floor with Trey as their de facto offensive captain, forced to watch him attempt a stunning 18.5 shots from the field per-36-minutes while shooting just 34 percent. These figures are actually slightly worse than his solo minutes before moving to the bench – a growing sample appears to suggest that Burke is less than capable as a leading man against both starters and bench units, and that even as a supporting piece to Utah’s stars, he’s thriving less than nearly any other Jazzman in their recent run of success.
As always, all hope is not lost. As I mentioned in his January evaluation, point guards are historically more likely than any other position (if still mostly unlikely in general) to bloom in late fashion, and this is far from out of the question for Burke. His defensive issues haven’t come due to a lack of effort – Trey has clearly put in time in his weaker areas and has improved elements like his footwork and pick recognition, though his physical limitations are still holding him back here a great deal.
Importantly, he remains an absolute professional, a truly impressive young man as far as the way he’s handled a bevy of issues often directed squarely at him. Trey is likely the most thoughtful and self-aware interview in the Jazz locker room, and is consistently candid in assessing his own struggles. Some might confuse his on-court troubles with a selfish attitude or an unwillingness to learn, but to this eye, this couldn’t be further from the case. His physical tools may not ever lend themselves to a fashionably late upswing, but if such a window ever does open up, this is a guy who’s shown the work ethic to get there.
But the clock continues to tick. Next season will be the second-last where Trey is under his cost-controlled rookie contract, and his current level of play is only subtracting dollar figures from his next deal. If Exum can channel the missing mental side of his game and take some of the steps offensively the Jazz are surely hoping for by next season, Burke could find the minutes distribution tilting even more heavily away from him. He has a long way to go to convince Utah he’s worth retaining beyond his rookie deal as a long-term piece in any capacity.