SALT LAKE CITY — The Sacramento Kings were in town on Friday, and the cheers were both loud and heartfelt. This kid can play, the crowd seemed to be saying. He's going to be a star.
But enough about Alec Burks.
These days, the question isn't whether Jimmer Fredette will score 40, as he did in college. It's when he'll actually appear. While the media has largely focused on Fredette's dizzying learning curve, there is another side to the story, and it's this: the Jazz are looking smarter by the minute.
Sacramento got the most talked-about player in the 2011 NBA Draft, a guy you want to hug and tousle his hair. The Jazz got a dude with a seriously chippy attitude. Burks is confident, trending toward cocky. As the Jazz hoped, he came nearly ready-made.
As Fredette struggles to shape himself into an NBA point guard, Burks clearly has a future as the Jazz's shooting guard. Burks can't drain 'em from The Gateway, a la Fredette, but he can get to the rim. He has been earning big minutes as he goes. Fredette spends a lot of his time looking to his coach for directions.
That was the case in Friday's 104-103 Jazz loss to the Kings. While both Fredette and Burks appeared several times, it was Burks who stayed in down the stretch. Fredette? He might as well have been in the soda line.
As the legend of Jimmer gets dimmer, the tale of Burks works. Thus, Jazz G.M. Kevin O'Connor and coach Tyrone Corbin are looking like savants. They didn't panic and trade up, or down, to get Fredette last summer. They waited for Burks at No. 12 in the draft. Meanwhile, the Kings made a draft-day trade to get Fredette, the No. 10 pick, along with swingman John Salmons.
The Kings got a guy who will never let them down on effort or attitude, but might not start. The Jazz have a player who seems to be saying: "What's so hard about this?"
So the question lingers: Would the Jazz have taken Burks if Fredette been available at No. 12? Not likely. Jazz bosses will never tell, claiming they don't like to speculate on might-have-beens. But it's no secret they wanted Burks' competitiveness, size and immediacy. And they hated the idea of fans impaling Ty Corbin if Fredette wasn't the smoothest thing since whipped cream.
Visualizing all this is a lot easier in March than June. Last summer, the Jazz clearly needed 3-point shooting. They still do, ranking 29th in 3-point percentage. Yet Fredette may not have been the answer. He has grappled with the speed and size of the game, as some suspected, and is below the top 50 in both 3-point and overall shooting.
Fredette logged 16 minutes on Friday, largely due to an injury to Tyreke Evans. But he recorded no more than 10 minutes in six of the previous seven. He has made just 11 of his last 37 shots.
While Fredette is on a relatively selfish team — trying to involve teammates yet consistently score — it's also true that Burks is making faster strides. For whatever reasons behind Fredette's inactivity, it was Burks who was stuck behind starter Raja Bell and sometimes Josh Howard, C.J. Miles or Gordon Hayward when the season began. Yet Burks has forced Corbin to play him serious minutes (19 or more in the last 12 games, including 34 on Friday), while Sacramento needs night goggles to find Fredette.
On one hand, coaches have said Fredette needs to continue shooting and not pass up too many chances, yet keep teammates involved. At the same time, he can't hold the ball from start to finish on possessions, as he did in college.
So while Fredette's head spins, Burks uses his own as a battering ram.
Friday's Fredette-o-rama was similar to the one he got in January, though this time there were more boos. There was a considerable cheer when he scored to give the Kings the lead with 7:25 to go, but seconds later he missed a trey and was quickly removed. He didn't return after the 6:35 mark.
"I've talked to other players and yeah, it's different for every rookie, they go through different things," Fredette said. "Some aren't playing too much, some go down to D-League, some are playing tons of minutes, some are playing really well — different things. So it's good to hear all the stories from guys I went through draft with. ... I think they'll continue to grow and I'll continue to grow."
Fair enough. Sacramento coach Keith Smart insists Fredette will become a solid player. But over on the Jazz side, Burks is already playing like one.
Somewhere behind the blank face and poker eyes, O'Connor has to be smiling.
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