The cascading effects of Dante Exum’s heartbreaking ACL tear announced last week have already come under the microscope in an otherwise dull August. Rumors have flown about trade targets. Some of the bigger names in national media have weighed in, and perhaps talked a few incoherent Jazz fans down from a ledge. We at SCH have had immediate reactions and analysis, an Exum-centric radio broadcast, and a more detailed breakdown of the Jazz’s options for filling the 48 or more minutes a night they’ll need from the point guard position.
Perhaps most singularly affected by the news is the guy Exum’s performance threatened to marginalize in the first place. Trey Burke has, in an admittedly obtuse sense, been given a stay of execution of sorts. His time with the Jazz was far from over, but entering the year as the clear-cut backup, potentially forced to compete with one or two other guys even for that role, is a far cry from his circumstance now. Barring unexpected woes from Exum, it was becoming tough to ever imagine Burke in more than a secondary role with this team.
Maybe that hasn’t changed; Exum’s injury doesn’t suddenly eliminate Burke’s flaws. An assuredly larger burden might simply confirm much of the general sentiment around the league regarding Trey’s game more quickly, absent the quirks of context and circumstance that can surround lower-volume guys. But the variance at the other end of the spectrum would appear to be wider – one last chance for big minutes alongside the rest of the franchise’s core.
The question marks begin on the defensive end, presumably the largest drop-off point between Exum’s game and Burke’s. As others have posited, the gap here has maybe been somewhat exaggerated – Burke made real strides defensively last year along with several other Jazzmen, and it’s possible Exum’s own effect on the defense was slightly overstated, if still impressive given his age and expectations.
Trey’s work defending pick-and-roll sets offers a few good examples of his improvements. His development as last season wore on was less about skills and more about proper utilization; Burke will almost always be at a physical disadvantage unless his body undergoes some radical changes, but he grew more comfortable leveraging certain elements to his advantage.
One thing he dramatically improved on was his recognition and navigation of screens, which went from utterly disastrous to far closer to average by the end of last year. Per Synergy Sports, Trey ran directly into a pick1 on just over 35 percent of his defended P&R sets for the 2013-14 season – that number dropped to under 25 percent last year. He and the coaching staff clearly worked on his recognition and reaction to screens coming earlier, going to lengths to improve his footwork and positioning. They went so far as to often have him “ice”2 ball-handlers even on high-P&R actions where forcing to the sidelines wasn’t the primary goal, just to improve his timing and familiarity:
It’s a foregone conclusion Burke will struggle with faster guys in two-man action; effectively forcing them one way, even if they still have half the court to work with, minimizes the extent of the damage on those occasions where he’s blown by while allowing his big partner more opportunity to back him up. They’ll live with the sort of on-the-move mid-range jumpers from the clip above. It may feel like training wheels to a point, but this sort of handicap is often a necessity for guys with physical shortcomings around the league, and it clearly helped in one of Trey’s iffiest areas last year.
It’s far from a finished product. His effort is often still lacking, particularly his urgency recovering back to ball-handlers after dodging a seven-footer. He seems only mildly interested in re-connecting with Dion Waiters following a mostly innocent pick from Steven Adams, and while Waiters’ typical plodding allows Trey to get up a token contest, better guys are less forgiving.
Trey and other Jazz perimeter guys have a lot of cushion when playing alongside Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, but this can’t become too much of a crutch. Smart offensive groups can rip off these Band-Aids with the right tweaks regardless of personnel.
In an overall sense, though, Burke has made real strides on this end. His defensive efficiency figures post-All Star break last year showcase as much, particularly the way his lineups were just as stingy without Rudy Gobert on the floor (94.3 points per-100 allowed) as they were with the big Frenchman (94.4 per-100) during this time. Trey’s coming from such a deficit that much more will be necessary, especially as elite guards target him upon his expected return to the starting lineup, but he’s at least gotten the ball rolling slowly in the right direction.
Burke was probably more damaging on the other end of the floor last year. At least there are inherent limits to a player’s effect defensively, with just a singular opponent to guard and some level of control over who that opponent is; Utah’s offense may have been sabotaged on an even higher scale by Burke’s insistence upon shooting tons of shots he just couldn’t make regularly enough.
Simply put, shot selection seems likely to largely define Trey’s future in Utah and the NBA. He may never be a knockdown guy from any spot on the floor – even some of his more encouraging areas, such as catch-and-shoot scenarios, fall well short of league average – but he absolutely must eliminate some of the terrible shots from his repertoire to at least become a guy who isn’t actively damaging the offense. Teams are begging him to round the corner on pick-and-rolls, find a couple feet of space, and launch away:
This might as well be a written invitation. Look how far Kenneth Faried is sagged away, and how attached Wilson Chandler (closest help defender, bottom of the screen) remains to Gordon Hayward on the perimeter even as Burke is about to leave his feet for an open look:
Burke shot 194 pullup jumpers following a pick-and-roll action last season, per Synergy, 11th-most in the entire NBA despite backup status for half the year – of 53 guys who attempted at least 100 such shots, his effective field-goal percentage was 50th. This is a toxic combination.
The trickle-down reaches several other important elements of his game. He has no means of throwing big men off balance around screens; they’re fist-pumping every time he pulls up, and will happily sit on their heels and force him to play on their terms near the basket. It’s a big reason he’s been one of the league’s most inefficient guards finishing at the rim, and also one of the least capable at drawing fouls down low.
Worse yet, it severely limits Burke’s ability to create for others. Pick-and-roll play is again a useful barometer here: the degree to which Trey’s efficiency as a setup man for spot-up shooters trailed behind other Jazz ball-handlers was startling. Jazz jump-shooters had an eFG of 52.1% following P&R-induced passes from Rodney Hood; 49.3% from Gordon Hayward; 50.0% from Alec Burks; and 64.4% (!!!!!) from Exum3 – from Burke, it cratered to 46.9%. Why would teams leave better shooters to contest inefficient looks?
A few other numbers indicate that Trey’s move to the bench in mid-January did very little to change his role as a distributor. Per exclusive data provided to SCH by Nylon Calculus’ Darryl Blackport, Burke averaged 9.7 assist opportunities (via SportVU figures) per game as a starter, a number that dropped to 7.3 per game following his move to the bench. Meanwhile, Trey’s teammates converted 51.6 percent of his assist chances pre-switch and 47.8 percent post-switch. On one hand, this seems explainable: Burke had better average teammates as a starter, and it should be expected for them to convert a higher percentage and make more opportunities available for themselves. But while Burke’s per-36-minute assist chances actually only dropped by about 1.0, it’s fair to wonder why, against lesser competition and with his own shooting percentage actually dropping post-switch, Trey wasn’t capable of involving his teammates more often.
Put it all together, and without some real changes there’s a chance this just won’t work with Utah’s core unit. The Jazz will never reach the true contender status they covet with such an inefficient guy sapping so many possessions, particularly when doing so hampers his ability to make his teammates4 better.
Selection, selection, selection. So much of the above could be softened or even eliminated completely with a true commitment from Trey to changing his thought process. He still has useful NBA skills, ones that could make him valuable while on the floor rather than a detriment in short order if he could learn to fit in more effectively as a supplemental piece. Proving that he can co-exist with guys like Hayward, Burks and Hood won’t bump Exum out of his slot next year, but it’ll go a long way to keeping Trey in Utah.
Once again, it’s possible this accelerated grading curve has the opposite effect. Burke is climbing a huge hill, and it’s easy to fathom him making many of the changes outlined here and still being held too far back by his physical deficiencies. Reports of Utah’s interest in adding another piece to their point guard platoon appear to indicate they’re buying insurance on that possibility even this season, though such a move wouldn’t automatically be a condemnation. If Burke is unable to distinguish himself from a Garrett Temple-type addition, or even Raul Neto and Bryce Cotton, the writing could be on the wall as far as his career as an NBA starter.
This is it for Trey Burke. A teammate injury is never desirable, but the silver lining in this case is one last chance for him to prove us all wrong.