Going into the 2015-16 season, the Utah Jazz front office and coaching staff were centering all their plans on internal improvement. This was evidenced by their rather quiet off-season. No major free agency splashes. No trades. 11 of this year’s players were on last seasons roster. All this was in the name of internal improvement. This was to be a season of growth and development from within. As the Jazz approach the halfway point of the season, the prognosis is positive. So far, so good. The Jazz find themselves in the Western Conference’s playoff picture, largely on the shoulders of their young team.
When one thinks of improvement and the Jazz, many think of Derrick Favors — and deservedly so. The big man has made huge strides, becoming an elite player in so many ways for Utah. This makes his back injury all the more unfortunate. But Favors is not the only one who have stepped up. Rodney Hood and Alec Burks have shown the Jazz some very positive things. Newcomer Jeff Withey has been an extremely bright spot for the Jazz. Chris Johnson has gone from being a bubble guy to a solid NBA pro. And rookies Trey Lyles and Raul Neto have shown increased capacity and confidence over the past month.
But what about Trey Burke? It could be argued that Burke is the team’s second most improved player.
Much has been said about Burke’s first two seasons. His rookie campaign started off with an injury, but when he came back, he provided the team with some solid playmaking, clutch shooting and some much-needed leadership. While his 38 percent shooting was subpar, most chalked that up as a by-product of being a rookie point guard in the NBA.
Then came his sophomore season, which could be fairly described as disappointing. While he maintained his 12.8 PPG scoring average, his already shaky shooting actually decreased, down to an abysmal 36.8 percent. His 3-point percentage dropped while his attempts went up. Not a good equation there. Even his excellent free throw shooting plummeted from 90.3 percent to 75.2 percent. There were some evenings where, as the legendary Hot Rod Hundley might say, Burke could not throw a ball in a lake. His shooting dropped from every range of the court outside his 10-16-foot attempts. Beyond his shooting woes, his decision making was not as sharp, ranging from his shot selection to his fast breaks. All in all, it was some rough going.
Much of these struggles could be attributed to some major changes in his role. Midway through the season, then rookie Dante Exum was placed in the starting lineup. This put Burke in an unfamiliar role off the bench. Not enough credit was given to Burke for his absolute professionalism regarding this move. Being the fierce competitor he is, it had to bristle him a bit. But he never let on. He came in and began to get more acclimated to a sixth man status. Head coach Quin Snyder asked him to be more offensive-minded. With Alec Burks out for the season, Utah needed his scoring aggressiveness off the pine. It resulted in some high volume shooting nights and defenses began to hone in on Burke as games progressed.
During the summer, much of the team’s focus and hopes were placed on Exum. After all, the rangy point guard oozes with untapped potential. Burke was going to be his back-up again. Instead of getting down, Burke spent the off-season productively. According to several coaches, the diminutive guard was among the most dedicated and hard-working. He put in work, with hopes of elevating his play. Snyder also made plans to play more to Burke’s strengths, with intentions of having Burke play more off the ball.
Again, the early results have been encouraging. Burke’s has improved greatly. Yes, his scoring has gone down a bit, but he has never been more efficient on the NBA level. His raw percentages pop out: up from 36.8 percent to 43 percent on field goals; 35.3 percent from downtown, up from 31.8 percent; and now 78.6 percent from the charity stripe. But a closer looks tells a better story.
Here is a breakdown of his shooting by distance1:
|Year||2-pt FG%||0-3 feet||3-10 feet||10-16 feet||16 feet < 3||3 FG%|
That is an impressive improvement across the board. He has never finished better and is driving the ball a bit more to the hoop than he has before. Burke’s mid-range game has been stellar, clearly evidenced by his dramatic jumps. He is attempting more shots therein and has been deadly. Again, as the focal point of the second unit’s offense — especially with Burks out — this has been such a boon. His 25.0 usage percentage is understandable and he is using his possessions much more wisely. Instead of forcing up ill-advised shots, Burke is getting his shots within the context of the offense. He is making things happen. Burke has reached double-digit scoring in 28 of his 37 appearances, including 11 15-point games and four 20-point outbursts.
With Gordon Hayward, Hood and Burks doing more facilitating, Burke’s assists have dropped. Given his role change, this is understandable. That said, his decision making seems more confident. He continues to take good care of the ball, rarely turning the ball over. Above all, his 15.8 PER is a far cry from his 12.6 career average coming into the season. Sure, Burke has had some small shooting slumps, but he has been consistently solid throughout the past two months.
Even so, we must paint an honest picture: Burke’s long-term status with the Jazz is still an unknown. It is clear Utah is putting a lot of faith in Exum and his ability to reach his high ceiling. He is the point guard of the future. It also likes Neto a lot and his heady play gets better and better. All three show they are viable NBA players, capable of contributing to winning basketball. It remains to seen if all three can function together long-term. It might simply be too difficult, as one guy will most likely be left out of the rotation. While Exum’s injury will most likely keeps both Burke and Neto here the duration of the season, chances are, one guy will not be back. That is a difficult reality. That is a story for another post.
In the now, credit should be deservedly given to Trey Burke. His hard work is paying off on the court. He has never played better and the Jazz are benefiting from his improvement.