What’s Wrong With Alec Burks?

November 17th, 2014 | by Ben Dowsett
Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

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.

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett is a life-long Jazz fan and current in-depth analyst based in Salt Lake City. He also writes for Basketball Insiders and BBallBreakdown, and can be heard on SCH Radio on ESPN 700 weekly. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.
Ben Dowsett
Ben Dowsett

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9 Comments

  1. Grassy says:

    I love Alec as a player. He’s exciting to watch and has so much potential. I think his struggles can be attributed to a couple of things. First, he’s being scouted differently this year. Teams know of his elite driving ability now. They’re clogging the lanes more. He’s getting the Gordon treatment of last season. Second, I think Alec is trying very hard to play within the system of the offense. He’s learning where to get his shots. Locke had a stat from last year that Alec was in top 5 of going away from the screen. I think this was one reason he got to the basket so much. But in Quin’s system that type of move seems out of the flow. The offense is producing more 3FGA for him. This is crucial for a wing player. His lower FTA and higher mid-range FGA can be correlated to his fewer drives. I think it will take some time. I think Quin’s believes in Alec. Like last year I think there will come a point where it just starts to click. He needs a couple of breakout games to build his confidence. When that happens I think we’ll see a different player and a return of the swag. Favors and Hayward have already made that leap. I think Alec is next.

    • Ben Dowsett says:

      Different scouting is something I tangentially alluded to in the piece, and I agree it’s a legitimate thing. But I’ve watched and re-watched all of his minutes, and this is more than just the driving lanes being clogged. He frequently has openings available and is passing them up. It’s great that his 3pt rate is increasing, but if this comes with the kind of midrange frequency increase that I noted, I’d rather he just kept things the same as last year.

    • Mewko says:

      Alec can be one of the better 2-way guards in the league, like Wesley Matthews.
      No, he won’t ever shoot the lights out at Matthews’ caliber, but he can continue to improve his OFF-BALL DEFENSE, and outside shooting.
      He’s got physical tools to bump, bang, and bruise with James Harden, DeMar DeRozan, Klay Thompson, and Dwayne Wade as he tries to stop them on defense.

      Just wait. Derrick Favors will foul out, Enes Kanter will disappear, Gordon Hayward will be resting or injured, and Alec will be called on by Snyder to slice through defenses, make them look silly. We’re all waiting for that breakout game.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lI_YhEjkc7s

  2. Jason says:

    People are so down on Alec and Trey. Yeah, they haven’t been incredible, but I don’t think we even need to worry. 11 games into the season with a new system and a tough schedule doesn’t mean much in the long run. Give it at least to mid-season to make these kind of judgments. I believe in these guys. GO JAZZ!

    • Ben Dowsett says:

      I’m as careful as anyone to avoid proclaiming anything set in stone too early, and made several references to sample size where necessary within the piece. That said, it’s not too early to examine process and certain sustainable elements, and several of the things I outlined fall under this category. Especially considering his preseason aggression, it’s not too early to begin wondering if something is up.

  3. Steven says:

    Its a big adjustment for Alec Burks to playing in the starting 5, I love watching Alec as a player but I always thought he made a great sixth man option. In the second unit he was undoubtedly the best player the Jazz had, not the same player as Ginobli at the Spurs, or Harden at OKC, but nonetheless up there with them in the impact he had on games and his importance within the second unit. Ultimately in the second unit he was the most dynamic point scoring option. On some nights he would be the only scorer amongst the group he was playing with.

    Put him in the first five though and he is playing with a group of players that all need their opportunities to score as each and every one them can put points on the scoreboard. If he played the same game with the starting five that he did as the sixth man role he would be taking opportunities away from the other starters he plays with. Yes he individually might get his points but he would likely do so by lowering the opportunites for the players on the floor with him. He can be more selfish as the sixth man because he is playing with guys that aren’t expected to score as efficiently as he might, but when he plays with the starters he is not going to be the sole focus of the offense in the same way because by doing so he would be making the Jazz a less efficient unit overall.

    It is going to take Alec time to find the efficiency as a starter that he had as a sixth man. It might even be an experiment from Quin to see if he is ready for that role in the early games of the season, or waiting to see who emerges from the second unit during a tough part of the schedule to step into that role to allow Alec to fall back to the sixth man role that is almost prefect for his game.

    Ultimately as the season goes on it might be better for the Jazz to have Alec play as the sixth man where he scores on average 14/15 a night and capable of blowing up for more than easy 20 on some other night than having less opportunites as a starter and scoring 11. To allow Burks to fall back to the sixth man role someone will have to emerge from the second unit that scores maybe less than Alec does and in a more limited way but they have to be dependable in what they do. If Hood was say to emerge and be a threat to score 3 3’s a game then Alec could be allowed to move back to the second unit where he is a much dynamic player. Right now in that unit there is not one player in the second unit that can do what Alec does in that role – and playing within the offense of the starters negates some of his game and effectiveness.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      I agree that he would most likely be at his most effective as a sixth man, for many of the reasons you give. Snyder is really struggling to find lineups that can keep the team afloat when the starters have all subbed out except for one (often Hayward). I think it could benefit both Alec and the team.

      One other observation about Burks: I think he and Kanter are the two players struggling the most with Snyder’s philosophy and system on the level of habits. The ball sticks when they touch it and they make poor judgments when they act quickly. They are being asked to play against their habits more often than other players. Can those habits be changed? I believe so. But I also believe that takes a great attitude and long, sustained effort both by the coaching staff and the player. Burks’ off-ball defensive improvement or lack of such this season should be a huge indicator as to whether he can adopt new habits or if he has reached the point where this is who he is and will continue to be as a player.

    • Ben Dowsett says:

      You make fair points, but chief among the several counterpoints I’d make is this: who starts/plays minutes with primary starter units over him? Rodney Hood? I don’t think so. Whether or not a player starts isn’t always a pure indicator that they’ll play fewer minutes as whoever starts ahead of them, as someone like Ginobili has proven over the years. But the difference between someone like Manu and the sort of situation you’re suggesting is that Manu still spends large periods of time with Spurs starting units, often and most importantly at the end of games. At a certain point, role becomes less important and simply making sure your best players are on the court for as long as possible gains relevance.

      I don’t think you’re suggesting that Alec get fewer minutes per game, but unless this is the case (which I think nearly anyone watching the team would take issue with, as he’s clearly one of the best players on the team despite a slow start), I’m not even entirely sure your suggestion is really possible. Sure, Alec could start the game on the bench and come in for slightly longer periods of time with bench-heavy units, but Quin already does a ton of mixing and matching here and it’s very tough to say what sort of tangible effect that’d have. And no matter what, if he’s still a 30+ min/game player, there’s simply no scenario where he doesn’t spend a reasonable portion of those minutes with starter-heavy groups.

      From this perspective, bringing him off the bench might in fact do far more harm than good. Yes, he gets slightly more time versus lesser players as well as more freedom to play his style of game, but on the flip side, someone like Hood or Exum gets tossed into starting versus elite level NBA competition, where they’re likely to be eaten alive.

      Clint’s point ties in here – I simply don’t believe the Jazz just inked Burks to the sort of deal they did simply to accept him for what he is and expect no developments to his game. He’s definitely had issues adjusting to the scheme, as I noted within the piece, but these are issues that are fully expected to change over time and with experience. And as far as skill set goes, this is a player who fits into the sort of scheme the starters are trying to run just fine, if not perhaps even more snugly once he’s adapted to his role more effectively.

      Put it all together, and I think the risk-reward arithmetic here is fairly clear. The benefits of running him off the bench (which, again, I think would yield far less time with full-on backup units than you might be thinking), to me, don’t come close to outweighing the potential downsides – Hood/Exum being thrown into far too hot a fire, the core unit losing out on valuable experience together, and even a potential decrease in overall minutes for Burks, who, struggles or not, needs to be on the floor. And with Quin already doing a lot of shuffling and overlapping of his bench and starters, I just don’t think it’d add all that much.

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