Tom Smart, Deseret News
DENVER — It’s not a big secret that the Utah Jazz have played much better since rookie point guard Trey Burke made his NBA debut.
The guy with a similar last name might have benefited from Burke’s presence more than any other player on the team — if for no other reason than that Alec Burks can now focus on being a shooting guard instead of a fill-in point guard.
“Point guard, you’ve got the whole team to run. I’m not really used to it,” Burks said. “I’m just trying to help the team win. Shooting guard’s my natural position.”
Naturally, the results have been better, especially of late, now that Burks is in his most comfortable spot on the floor.
The 22-year-old Burks, now in his third NBA season, has taken his game to a new level of consistency in recent weeks. He’s currently on the longest double-digit scoring streak of his career: eight games.
During that span, Burks has averaged 16.6 points in his sixth-man role. Though he’s shooting just 42.7 percent for the season, Burks has made 48 of 92 field goals (52.2 percent), including a blistering 9 for 13 from 3-point range, during this strong stretch.
He’s even averaging 2.8 assists, up from his season average of 2.5 per outing.
“I just feel like I’m being aggressive,” Burks said. “The shots are falling and my teammates are looking for me. That’s what’s happening right now.”
It certainly helps that he's playing 27 minutes per outing after averaging 15.9 mpg and 17.8 mpg first two years.
Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said Burks is also beginning to evolve as a player, improving on how to pick his spots and not forcing quite as much as he’s so often done in the past. It's paying off. Burks' scoring average is up to 12.5 points per game after being right around 7.0 ppg his first two seasons.
“He is an aggressive (player), by nature. He’s an instinctive player,” Corbin said. “Play with your instincts. You don’t want to take that aggression away, but now tailor it.”
At times, that means the Jazz are fine with Burks taking gambles on his shots early on in games. But Corbin wants him to keep learning when to be less risky in crunch time.
“It could be the difference between winning and losing a ballgame,” Corbin said.
The Jazz are benefitting more often from Burks’ ability to slash to the basket and to make some off-balance, acrobatic shots at times. The athletic 6-foot-6 guard sometimes appears to have better control of his body in the air than he does while dribbling and driving aimlessly on the court at times.
But when Burks does connect, his high-flying, twisting layups can be spectacular, H-O-R-S-E-like shots.
“He’s a midair guy. He’s athletic. He has a good body on him. He can see things,” Corbin said. “He’s one of those guys that when they get in the crowd or they’re going into a crowd, he can see a little gap. He can make some tremendous shots off-balance with his left or right hand. He’s athletic enough to get in the air to get around guys."
There are times you see why Burks used to tease 2012 Dunk Champ Jeremy Evans that he was going to dethrone him.
There are also times you wonder why Burks is challenging 6-11 LaMarcus Aldridge and 7-footer Robin Lopez on consecutive possessions, resulting in wild misses, when his never-ending confidence overrides reality.
“It’s just reaction,” Burks said of his midair abilities. “Things happen. If somebody cuts you off, you’ve got to do something else.”
Though he’s glad to not have the point-guard duties anymore, Burks credited that opportunity in Burke’s absence for helping him better learn where all of his teammates are supposed to be during plays.
Now he can play like a shooting guard with a point-guard mentality.
“I know where everybody’s going to be at,” he said. “Know the spots to get to.”
Burks also isn’t about to complain about his playing situation. He’s made it known in the past that he wants to be a starter — like most NBA guys, really — but the former Colorado player is carving out a nice niche as that scoring spark off the bench for Utah.
Asked about not finishing a recent close home loss to Portland on the court despite leading the Jazz in scoring, he wasn’t about to criticize Corbin.
“I’ve been at the end of games,” he reminded the reporter. “I trust in Coach Ty and everybody else does.”
Before beginning this brutal stretch of seven of eight games being on the road — from Sacramento, to Friday night's Mile High matchup at Denver, to Miami, Memphis and more — Burks’ response oozed with the brief confidence media members have become accustomed to from this poised player with few words.
“Just play the same as we play at home, just play hard, fight and just keep competing the whole game,” Burks said while talking about how the Jazz can find success on this pre-Christmas schedule. “If we do that, we can win.”
It will certainly help if Burks keeps playing the way he has of late, including his 17-point outing in Wednesday’s 122-101 blowout win in Sacramento.
Now if everybody could just get his first name correct (it's not Alex) and not confuse him with Burke. As ESPN.com's Henry Abbott joked on Twitter on Thursday: "Serious Jazz issue: One mainstay of future has last name Burke. Another: Burks. Moms of Salt Lake City hoops fans don't stand a chance."
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