It’s been a mostly positive start for the young Jazz, who sit at a respectable 4-7 after a difficult slate of games to open the year. Quin Snyder’s motion system has breathed some life into the group offensively1, Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors both look poised to prove they’re worth the figures they’re now being paid, and Utah has hung in several games with playoff-caliber opponents despite limited results. Youngsters Dante Exum and Rudy Gobert both have impressed thus far also, and there are a number of areas with which to be pleased.
But despite the general sentiment surrounding the team surely being at a far better place than this time last year, it’s no surprise there are still issues, some more surprising than others. The defense has predictably continued to struggle with all the youth littering the roster, currently mere decimals ahead of the putrid Lakers for the worst unit in the league2. Trey Burke, quickly becoming a divisive topic in Jazzland, has alternated uneven performances with game-winners recently as he tries to claw his way back from an awful start to the year.
Perhaps most alarming, though, has been the play of recently-extended Alec Burks. For all the good Snyder’s system has done for the team as a whole, Burks seems to be having the largest struggles of anyone on the roster adapting to the motion-oriented scheme. His basic per-minute counting stats are down across the board, and his field-goal percentage (41.5) would be the lowest of his career thus far.
Some of this can be explained away by his insertion into the starting lineup and subsequent play versus tougher average competition, but a deeper dive reveals some negative trends that go beyond this sort of context. Burks’ calling card is his ability to get to the rim and create issues for defenses, as detailed here by Ian Levy3 – simply put, he’s just not doing it as well as last season, or even close.
Per SportVU, Burks scored 7.9 points per-48-minutes on drives last year, a top-15 figure among rotation players and in the neighborhood of such elite drivers as LeBron James, Damian Lillard and Kevin Durant. This year? He’s down to 5.3 points per-48, 59th of rotation guys. He’s not shooting too different a percentage on his drives, but simply hasn’t appeared able or willing to get to the hoop as often. He drove the ball4 9.4 times per-48 last year, a figure that’s down to 6.1 so far, and the Jazz as a team are scoring barely half as many points per game as a direct result of Burks drives despite his per-game minutes increasing significantly.
He’s been far too willing to settle for low-efficiency jumpers instead of pushing the envelope. Where Burks in previous years was often rounding corners and flying into the teeth of the defense to cause rotations and help collapses, he’s more frequently than ever stopping short and jacking impatient shots:
Whatever the reason, be it hesitance within the system or something less fixable like complacency after his payday or even a minor injury5, it’s a real issue even through a small sample of games. The numbers bear out a significant worsening of his shot selection, both compared to his peers and to his own previous seasons. Burks is attempting over 30 percent of his total shots as two-pointers from 16 feet or further, a figure that would be far and away a career high. Not only that, but his conversion rate here has been nearly 46 percent, over 10 percent better than he’s ever shot from this range over a full season for his career – it’s good he’s improved his accuracy so far, but there’s almost no way he can sustain such numbers, and his dwindling efficiency overall could suffer even more when he inevitably regresses.
There are other trickle-down effects, too. Burks has also distributed some of his new shot volume to beyond the three-point line, which is a positive sign along with another slight uptick in his accuracy from deep, now up to 37 percent. But it hardly outweighs a sharp drop in his free-throw rate6, from .449 last year to .350 so far, a big surprise given the aggression he showcased all throughout the preseason.
Furthermore, his increase from the 16+ range has come at the expense of his looks at the rim, where Burks is attempting just 26.8 percent of his looks (compared with 34.2 percent last year), easily his lowest since entering the league. His actual performance near the basket has suffered badly, as well – per NBASavant, he’s shooting an ugly 45.9 percent in the Restricted Area, 121st of 128 guys who have attempted at least 25 shots there so far7.
It remains early, and it’s not out of the question that the vast majority of Burks’ struggles can be traced back to both a new offensive scheme and his insertion into the starting lineup. But to the experienced eye, he just hasn’t seemed the same; he’s far too willing to settle, and seems genuinely uninterested in getting to the hoop for long periods of time, even when clear opportunities to do so and create an advantageous circumstance appear to be there. Couple this puzzling reluctance to attack with continued meandering defense away from the ball, an area I had hoped he was ready to clamp down on this year, and my man Alec hasn’t had the most encouraging start to the year. It’s a long season, though, and Quin and his staff have undoubtedly seen many of the same trends and will work to correct them. Look for a bounce back game or two from the young 2-guard in the near future…or if not, don’t expect the worrying to subside.