Utah Jazz point guard Trey Burke looking to become more of a leader following solid rookie season
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Trey Burke enjoyed what some people might consider a solid if not stellar rookie season in the NBA.
After all, the Utah Jazz point guard averaged 12.8 points, 5.7 assists and 3.0 rebounds a game — good enough numbers to earn him a prominent seat at the table where the Rookie of the Year award was being discussed. He was named Western Conference Rookie of the Month three times this past season and wound up third in the Rookie of the Year voting announced Monday.
But his shooting percentages from the field and 3-point line were pretty darned disappointing, and Jazz management is expecting much more out of the 6-foot-1 former University of Michigan star, who was acquired in a draft day deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves last June, in the years to come.
And Burke is expecting much more out of himself, too — especially in the way of leadership — as the point guard for the promising young "Future Five" of this proud franchise that sputtered through a difficult 25-57 season in 2013-14.
"I was very pleased with his natural decision-making, intelligence, instincts if you will," Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey said in sizing up Burke's performance this season. "And the ball gets to the right spot.
"It's very unusual to have a point guard that can score but still be very significant in the assists column. I think us managing that, managing his expectations along with that, but I think we have a good one that could be a real good starter in the league for a number of years.
"We talked a little bit about personal discipline," Lindsey said of his exit interview during the team's annual locker cleanout day in April. "Trey really wants to lead, not that he's undisciplined, but he's got to take it to a new level. And it would be hard for any 21-year-old point guard to come in and lead, even a very young group with little experience. I think Trey's ambition, his work ethic, his intelligence are all good characteristics that will provide a platform for him to move to greater heights. "
Burke, the 2013 college player of the year and consensus first-team All-American, agreed that there are parts of his game that are still a work in progress. But he seems determined to work hard and make improvements wherever they're needed.
"Getting stronger, staying focused more than anything," he said of his goals going forward from locker cleanout day. "What I took from it more than anything, they asked me how committed I am and if I want to be the best player I can be. There's certain things I need to do, which is working hard, staying focused, staying out of trouble, and basically turning my weaknesses into strengths.
"Finishing at the rim, getting to the bucket more, becoming a much more consistent shooter, I think I've grown a lot at being a pure point guard. I still don't think I'm a pure point guard yet, but that's the biggest difference right now is getting to the rim and finishing at the rim, being a more consistent shooter.
"And I think on the defensive end, Coach Ty (Corbin) said he knows I can defend," Burke said. "He's seen me defend before, he said it's a mindset to be willing to defend all the time. A good example of that is Chris Paul. It's more focus, defense is more of a mindset — if a guy scores on you once or twice, then that's when I really get mad and try to stop him."
And then there's the bigger challenge of becoming more of a leader for this team.
"We talked about that a lot in the exit interview a lot, too — being a leader, going out, reaching out to the team," Burke said. "We've already got a natural chemistry, everybody on the team has a natural chemistry, and we have fun with each other off the court. So I think I could take it up another notch just trying to be a leader. I'm no longer a rookie anymore, so I think the guys have my respect and I look forward to helping this team win more next year.
"I think my leadership went to another level after my first year, but I think my game did as well. I know how important this offseason is and what I need to work on. And I think No. 1 is being that leader ... being a floor general out there, getting the respect out of teammates and then things will start moving in the way I want 'em to move being a point guard.
"Early in the season, being a rookie, it's tough trying to be that leader just right then and there," he said. "Obviously I was the point guard, and it's like the quarterback position out there, so I had to lead. But I think once I was able to learn my team and my teammates, and they got to know me and earned my respect, I started putting more deposits in that (leadership) area."
Unlike his highly touted Jazz point guard predecessors of the past, John Stockton and Deron Williams, Burke was essentially handed the keys to the car in his first NBA season — never an easy task for any player, no matter how talented they might be. And perhaps much more so at the point guard position.
As great as Stockton turned out to be, it didn't happen for him right away. He averaged just 5.6 points per game in his rookie season, along with 5.1 assists, 1.3 rebounds and 1.33 steals per game while playing an average of 18.2 minutes per night as the backup to Rickey Green.
In fact, Stockton averaged just 7.7 and 7.9 points per game over his next two seasons before finally breaking into the starting lineup on a permanent basis in his fourth NBA season.
Williams started only 47 of 80 games in his rookie season, 2005-06, and averaged 10.8 points and 4.5 assists per game. That may have been the beginning of his power struggle with legendary Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, which finally boiled over in February 2011 and resulted in Sloan's abrupt resignation followed by Williams' trade to the New Jersey Nets a couple of weeks later.
Burke is neither Stockton nor Williams. Physically, he is much closer to Stockton's size and stature, but his playing style — that of more of a scoring point guard than a playmaking one — might be more similar to that of Williams.
Indeed, in his inaugural NBA campaign, Burke had his moments when he was arguably the best player on the court. But at other times, he would disappear and play more like, well, a wide-eyed rookie who was having trouble with the intense nature of the NBA game.
Teammate John Lucas III, whose playing time diminished dramatically due to Burke's presence and improvement throughout the season, feels like the young point guard became the league's best rookie performer this season once he got accustomed to the athleticism and explosive speed and pace of the NBA.
"Later on through the year, you saw how Trey just went from the beginning where everything was a push, push, push, rushing, and how he slowed down and he let the game come to him," Lucas said. "I think he should be Rookie of the Year — definitely. I feel like he's had that type of year this year.
"I always tell Trey, 'You know, look, man, like, as long as you've got this (heart) pumping and you don't listen to nobody else, you set your own destiny, you set your own path. You can will your way into whatever you want to do. And just don't listen to outside things, just listen to your inner spirit because that's what's gonna keep pushing you. That's your alter ego.' "
Burke greatly appreciated the way Lucas handled what could've been a very challenging situation — a young, inexperienced guy coming in and basically beating him out for the job that he had his eyes and heart set on earning for himself.
"You always hear people say, 'Look out for those guys that are behind you and play the same position' as far as in a negative way," Burke said. "But he's been like a big brother to me to be honest with you. I could talk to him about anything.
"We competed against each other every day, and I'm sure he was frustrated obviously not playing as much as he did in the beginning of the season. But you can't say enough about a guy like John. He sacrifices for his team and he makes sure I'm doing the right thing.
"He thinks I have a better understanding of what they mean by having to work every single day," Burke said, grateful for the mentoring he received from Lucas. "It's really a job. I didn't know that coming into the league. I knew it was going to be tough and a lot of hard work, but it's really like a job. You've got to wake up every single day with that mindset that I need to get better today because you won't be the player that you can be, or you won't pull the potential out, unless you do that every single day.
"It's tough, man. You definitely wake up some days not feeling like going to practice and not feeling like doing something, but that's when you've got to push through. So I think I've got a better understanding of that now."
And don't forget that Burke missed the first 12 games of the regular season after suffering a broken index finger on his right hand during an exhibition game last October.
Once he came back, his head coach, Corbin — whose contract was not renewed by Jazz management — was impressed with the rookie point guard's performance.
"I think he's had a great year," Corbin said. "From the summer league and getting drafted and getting hurt at the beginning of the season and then learning, from being a scoring point guard to trying to change and trying to get used to the speed of this game, what we're trying to get him to do to initiate the offense and make plays on the ball at times, and make plays off the ball. And defensively, dealing with the different point guards he has to deal with on a nightly basis in this league.
"The attention to detail that he paid to everything from day one gave him a chance and will give him a chance going forward to be the player that he wants to be. He wants to be one of the best point guards in this league. And I think if he continues to work and stay focused like he did this year and continues to grow, he'll have a chance to reach his goal."
Teammates like forward Richard Jefferson, a 13-year NBA veteran, were also impressed by what they saw out of Burke's baptism by fire.
"I really think he did a good job," Jefferson said. "I think he had good role models around him, and he had good people that worked hard with him.
"He's 21 years old, he's a rookie, and I think the future is bright. Just continuing to work — that's really what the five main young guys need to do — and positive things will happen.
"He doesn't waver mentally; when he's on that court, he's locked in," Jefferson said. "And the more comfortable you get, the better you'll get. But he's 100 percent focused on the game and I think that shows in some of the big shots that he shoots and hits."
Ah, yes, those big shots that Burke hit in games.
There was that night against Orlando, when Burke buried a 3-pointer with 1.6 seconds left to lift the Jazz to victory over the Magic. Or the time he hit the clinching shot with 24 seconds left in Utah's victory over two-time defending NBA champion Miami. And the night his driving layup with 19.1 seconds left helped lift the Jazz past Charlotte.
And the season finale, when he scored an NBA career-high 32 points with seven rebounds and nine assists in Utah's double-overtime victory over Minnesota.
"Hitting some big shots in the fourth quarter, it kinda reminded me of being back in college and how comfortable I was out there down the stretch," Burke recalled. "A lot of times, I was comfortable back at Michigan, and sometimes I wasn't my first year here.
"I think I'm a lot more comfortable than I was at the beginning of the year and adjusted. ... Playing on the big stage in college, playing in front of big crowds, I remember being nervous before the game but come the fourth quarter, by that time, I'm just playing."
Of course, there were other nights this season, too, when Burke was a complete non-factor — a 1-for-8 shooting night at Atlanta, where he scored just two points; a 1-for-7 night and just two points at Oklahoma City; another 1-for-8 shooting night at Miami, where he managed 3 points; forgettable four-point nights against Cleveland (2 for 9), Golden State (2 for 10), New York (2 for 12) and Dallas (2 for 8); a 2-for-13 shooting night against the L.A. Clippers, and a 3-for-15 night against the Lakers, when he was 0 for 8 from 3-point range.
On the flip side of that, though, Burke was almost always great at taking care of the ball, committing more than four turnovers in a game just three times all season.
And there were nights when he did a pretty good Stockton or Williams impersonation: 30 points, eight assists and seven rebounds in a win at Orlando; 20 points and 12 assists against Detroit; 18 points and eight assists against Denver; 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds against Portland; 24 points and 15 assists in a loss at Golden State; 20 points, six assists and zero turnovers in 35 1/2 minutes against Dallas; and 23 points on 9-of-15 shooting with five 3-pointers against Atlanta.
Yes, there were a lot of good nights — and some not so good — and quite often, a strong performance was followed in the very next game by a weak one. Thus, consistency was definitely an issue in his first NBA season.
But Jazz officials certainly liked what they saw for the most part and feel like, with time, Burke could develop into a critical component of the team's future.
"I don't think anybody thought that John Stockton was going to be an all-time great after his rookie year, as stories go," Lindsey said. "And watching Trey's growth and maturation, we've had those same conversations and posed those same challenges to our young guys. ... Trey needs to do this, Gordon (Hayward) needs to do this
"I think specifically, technically with Trey's game, he needs to finish better. I think if he finishes better — and he and (assistant coach) Johnnie (Bryant) worked really hard on that — and we actually saw some progress the last few weeks. If he works on that, that will allow his pull-up game, which is very significant, to become more of a weapon and will allow his catch-and-shoot game to be better as well.
"So I think his array of finishing, specifically finishing off one foot versus the two-foot gathers, is something that we worked on and will continue to work on this offseason," the Jazz GM said.
As for Burke, it was a season that started with the frustration of breaking his finger in the preseason — an injury that still bothers him — and ended with a flourish at Minnesota, with a lot of highs and lows, and ups and downs, in between.
"I really didn't know what to expect," he said. "It was my first year in the NBA, and everybody tells you what it's like — guys in the NBA, coaches, things like that — but you don't really know until you experience it. Then obviously getting hurt in the preseason set me back and I had to see the games from a different perspective. It was hard because I faced a lot of adversity mentally and on the court, but I think I've grown a lot since the beginning of the season.
"It hurt, because I wasn't on the court and I wanted to play, but I think it helped me out a lot, too, because it was kinda like watching film because I wasn't out there with the guys. I was able to see the games and obviously we were struggling at the time so I was just trying to find ways I could come back and contribute.
"We all look forward to getting better and coming back strong," he said, looking toward the future as he and his teammates prepared to depart for their different offseason destinations. "We talked about the struggle of this first year, getting adjusted to the NBA, similar things that we've all faced. ... You start getting adjusted, you start figuring out the NBA game, and I don't think I really figured it out 'til this last month or so, to be honest with you, figure it all the way out. And I still don't have everything figured out, but I have a better feel for the game and my reads are better and I'm understanding more — I think that's the word I'm looking for. I think that's when I started realizing I'm not really a rookie in my mind."
Burke admits that this season was a tremendous learning experience for him, one that will serve him well as he moves forward in his NBA career.
"I know that I have a long way to go to being the type of player that I want to be," he said, "but this offseason is very critical. It's my first offfseason and I'm gonna try to get some rest, but at the same time, I know what I need to work on. There's definitely a perspective, man; the goals are still the same, but more importantly, I think, the No. 1 thing is being more of a leader, being more of a vocal guy, and then everything else will take care of itself.
"I still have a chip on my shoulder. Just having a starting job isn't enough, man, you still have to earn everybody around the league's respect every time you go up against them, so I feel like there's always going to be a chip on my shoulder. First and foremost, me being a small point guard, a lot of people still doubt. But I know that's just other people talking; I don't listen to that, I just try to get better.
"I don't want to really just put any expectations out right now," he said, looking ahead to next season. "I definitely plan on winning more a lot, want to reach the playoffs, I think that's one goal that I really have in mind. That should be fun, but it's a lot of work, man. We've got a long way to go, but the offseason's here now and it's big for all of us. Playoffs next year, hopefully, that's the goal, definitely. We've got a young team, but we can't keep saying that. There will be a point where that young team has to start producing. I think we're (going) in the right direction.
"Other teams aren't going to come in here and say, 'Oh, they're a young team so we're not going to play hard.' That's the reality of the situation, we are young. A lot of fans ask why aren't we winning more, things like that, but I think the future's bright, man, and I'm looking forward to it and what this team can do next year."
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