NOTE: The Utah Jazz's game at the Washington Wizards on Saturday was postponed by the NBA because of Winter Storm Jonas. It has yet to be rescheduled.
NEW YORK — It would have been easy for Trey Burke to sulk. Dante Exum, the point guard who’d replaced him as the starter in the 2014-15 season, was sidelined indefinitely with knee surgery, and Burke was viewed as the logical starter in the young Australian’s absence.
But then something unexpected happened.
Brazilian point guard Raul Neto, who’d joined the Jazz under the agreement that he’d likely spend part of his rookie season with the Idaho Stampede in the D-League, impressed coaches to the point that Quin Snyder felt that the 22-year-old could handle the starting job.
While some viewed this as the Jazz showing a lack of confidence in Burke, that’s not how Snyder saw it.
The second-year coach, hoping to make the best out of a less-than-ideal situation, figured the Jazz could benefit from Neto’s passing and poise in the starting rotation, from Burke’s offensive firepower in the second unit and from using a nontraditional lineup with three wings and no point guard as a change-up pitch.
The decision wasn’t exactly easy for Burke to swallow at first.
He wanted to be the starter. And, of course, he wanted to be the starter. Everybody wants to be the starter.
“At first, yeah,” Burke said when asked if there was some disappointment with that decision to use him off the bench.
“Because,” he continued, “you always want to start, obviously.”
Before last season, starting was all Burke knew in his successful basketball career, which included him being named Ohio Mr. Basketball in 2011, Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2012, the Bob Cousy Award winner, consensus All-American and NCAA player of the year in 2013 and NBA All-Rookie first team in 2014.
Instead of sulking over what outsiders perceived as a demotion, Burke went to work — or continued to work would probably be more accurate. He was bound and determined to improve in his third NBA season after dealing with some shooting and defensive deficiencies in his first two professional campaigns.
“I think there’s maybe a pride thing for everybody,” teammate Rudy Gobert said regarding Burke being placed in a backup role again. “But I think he understands his role. He’s better. He’s good for us from the bench, and we need that.”
“I had worked so hard,” Burke said. “I accepted it as soon as he told me because I knew I still would play. I wanted to be a guy who came in and really had a spark to me, (but) it was an adjustment. It was something I had to get used to.”
The season actually started miserably for Burke. In the Jazz’s season-opener at Detroit — where Burke is revered from his Michigan playing days — the third-year point guard was scoreless and only saw 16 minutes of action. That happened even after he’d arguably been the Jazz’s best player in the preseason.
Burke’s mom voiced her frustration on Twitter after the rough start, but he pressed forward.
The next game in Philadelphia, Burke scored 10 points. He followed that with a 15-point outing in a big win at Indiana. Soon after, he put together a 24-point game, a 17-point night and a pair of 16-point performances all within the first couple of weeks in the season.
It wasn’t the role Burke would’ve picked for himself, but he made the best of it.
“Just (to have been) starting my entire life, really you have to get used to coming off the bench,” he said. “It was an adjustment for me, obviously. It was what was best for the team. Coach wanted me to be a spark coming off the bench. He wanted me to be aggressive when I got in the game, be a leader out there for that second group, some games finish out with the first group.”
Burke has developed into the most reliable player off of a Jazz bench, which has had some serious issues on the whole this season. That’s especially the case with Alec Burks being sidelined with a leg injury.
After two unfulfilling seasons, Burke is now the fourth-highest bench scorer in the NBA with an average of 12.7 points. He’s hit double figures in 34 of the Jazz’s 45 games while shooting a career-best 43.4 percent.
“It points to that role being a good one for him,” Snyder said. “He’s flourished in it.”
Snyder believes that Burke has made strides on the defensive end, too. That’s a work in progress, though.
“I told him (Friday), I thought he fell asleep in the backside at the end of the game (in New York). A few of us did,” Snyder said. “He’s been good about that type of coaching and criticism. That’s the mindset he’s on. Offense comes easy to him. I think he’s picking his spots really well. And that’s I think an important part to this. It’s one thing to be productive. It’s another thing to be efficient. And I think he’s been much more efficient.”
Snyder said it’s important for Burke’s credibility as a player and leader for him to be “focused defensively” to show “his commitment to the group.” The play-trumps-say approach, the coach added, is the foundation to his leadership.
“If you put the group in front of yourself,” Snyder added, “people in the team know it and it gives you credibility.”
Burke’s teammates like the energy and offensive juice he brings with him off the bench into the game.
“We need that. We need somebody that comes off the bench and scores,” Gobert said. “We don’t need all the best scorers in the starting lineup. People think it’s how basketball works. It’s not how it works. We need somebody that can come off the bench, especially a player like Trey. He needs the ball a little bit, so I think that’s great for him. It’s better. I think he prefers coming from the bench.”
Months after he got the unexpected role, Burke now admits that he actually does like it.
“I think it’s all just an adjustment of me getting better, me growing as a player and a person. All of those play a part into it,” he said. “(I’m) just trying to become more consistent. I think that’s something a lot of young players struggle with when they first come into the league. It’s something I’m still trying to grow into where every night I’m consistent, helping the team win.”
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