Utah Jazz: Utah's Alec Burks embraced rare starting role with career-best night vs. Nuggets
SAN ANTONIO — Alec Burks has thrived this season in his reserve role for the Utah Jazz as a guy who comes in off the bench and provides a vital spark of frenetic energy and, at times, instant offense.
The third-year shooting guard, who started just three times in Utah's first 37 games, was averaging around a dozen points a contest and was playing virtually the same number of minutes each night as customary starters Richard Jefferson and Marvin Williams.
Then came Monday night, when, with leading scorer Gordon Hayward sidelined with a strained hip, Burks burst into the spotlight with a career-best 34 points in a 118-103 victory over the Denver Nuggets.
Burks hit 13 of 19 shots from the field, many of them dazzling drives to the basket with finishes that defied the laws of physics, and he was 8 of 8 from the foul line. He also had five assists in his 37 minutes on the EnergySolutions Arena floor.
"He's just understanding who he is, what makes him good in this league," Utah coach Tyrone Corbin said of Burks, who hadn't started a game since Nov. 18 before taking the injured Hayward's spot in the starting lineup for the last two games. "He's a young guy that's still learning how to play in this league, and he's understanding what makes him good night in and night out — how he can attack on the strong side with the ball in his hands, how he can be effective on the weak side.
"One of the areas we're pushing him to get better at right now is defensively. I think he can be a lock-down defender in this league if he focuses on it a little bit more and continues to work.
"He did a tremendous job (Monday) night of stepping up, especially with Gordon being out and us being short-handed," Corbin said. "And we're looking forward to when we'll have times to go to him. We talked about it and talked about it in the exhibition season; he's one of the guys we want to be able to go to in different circumstances, and (Monday) night was a great indication of what he can do when he's (got it) going."
Utah rookie point guard Trey Burke, who gives announcers a tricky Burke-and-Burks backcourt combo when they're out there together, wasn't surprised to see some of the crowd-pleasing acrobatic plays that Burks came up with in Monday night's win.
"He's really good at getting to the rim. With his body type, he knows how to use angles; he knows how to get to the basket and get to the free-throw line," Burke said of Burks. "More importantly, he's one of the best finishers I've played with. I think he knows his game and he uses that to his advantage.
"... Most of 'em I always see in practice," Burke said of the 6-foot-6 Burks' circus shots in the lane. "He knows how to get that spin on the ball. He knows how to use the glass really good, so sometimes I'm not even surprised."
Somewhat surprisingly, though, is that Burks scored his 34 points without the benefit of making a 3-point shot — he was 0 for 1 from beyond the arc.
But Corbin said that's a credit to Burks' ability to do what he does best.
"He's being who he is. He's able to attack the basket," the Jazz coach said. "Guys get enamored with 3-point shots, but if you can get a shot closer to the basket, it's always better. In the modern-day game, everybody's just so ... the 3-pointer's the sexy thing, but I'd rather you get a shot closer to the basket than a 3-point shot any day."
Burks, who is Utah's fourth-leading scorer at 12.8 points per game, boasts a field goal shooting proficiency of 44 percent, which is better than any of the team's other guards or small forwards who are playing major minutes.
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