NEW ORLEANS — The moment Utah Jazz fans have anxiously awaited since management pulled off a surprising trade on Draft Night in June will finally happen.
Trey Burke, the 2013 NCAA player of the year, will make his NBA debut tonight when the Jazz take on the Pelicans at New Orleans Arena.
“I’m ready to go,” Burke said.
Burke hasn’t played a game since Oct. 12 when he broke his right index finger in what he called “a freak accident” in Utah’s third preseason game against the Los Angeles Clippers.
The 6-1 point guard, who led Michigan to the 2013 NCAA championship game, had surgery three days later to have pins inserted and repair the fracture. He’s been rehabbing since and was able to go through a full-contact practice before Tuesday before the Jazz left for this three-game road trip.
The Jazz announced Tuesday that Burke and forward Jeremy Evans would not play tonight against New Orleans (4-6), the only team Utah (1-11) has beaten this season. But Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin and the training staff deemed that both players had progressed to the point they could play for the first time this season.
“I’m extremely excited,” Corbin said. “Jeremy will be back also. I’m happy to get him back on the floor.”
The Jazz have had major issues with the point guard position in Burke’s absence.
Veteran John Lucas III, who will start again tonight, hasn’t clicked consistently with the offense or found a good shooting rhythm this season.
Utah signed veteran Jamaal Tinsley two weeks after Burke’s injury to bolster the position. But the 35-year-old struggled to be effective in his second stint with the Jazz and was waived last Tuesday after a 2-1/2 week stint.
The Jazz also signed 25-year-old Diante Garrett from the D-League, and he’s had a mixture of moments when he’s looked smooth and erratic.
Corbin said he’ll “ease” Burke back into the rotation, and the 21-year-old will have some unspecified time limitations as he works his way back.
Burke said he is thrilled to make his NBA debut, even if he called it “awkward” because this is the 13th game of the 2013-14 season.
“It’s my debut. It’s my first official NBA game, and I’m excited,” Burke said. “I just plan on going out there, making plays for the team and helping them win.”
Burke said he learned two primary things while sitting out for nearly six weeks: pace and confidence. He said that was lacking when he struggled during summer league.
"I think that’s the biggest thing for me, learning the pace, leanring when to attack, learning when to set the offense up," Burke said. "Just watching guys like Tony Parker and Deron Williams, Jrue Holiday, some of the top guards and just seeing that pace and having that opportunity of seeing the game from the coach’s perspective. I think that’s definitely helped me out a lot."
Burke noticed another thing about those players. They have some pep in their step and mentality on the court.
"Just seeing the confidence in other guys, seeing some of the confidence in some of the other best players. Seeing how they go out there and they’re not worried about nothing, they’re just focused and they know the scouting report," he said. "I think that’s the biggest thing from not being able to play. There’s always lessons you can learn. There's always areas you can grow in and I think that I've grown."
Burke said feels no discomfort in his index finger, taped against his middle finger, and his shots feel natural.
“Yesterday was my first full practice and I felt good out there as well as today at shootaround,” Burke said. “The tape is making it feel much more secure and I’m ready to go.”
Burke wasn’t allowed to run until two weeks ago, but he kept his conditioning up as much as possible by riding a stationary bike. He was allowed to begin one-on-one workouts along with dribbling and shooting practice to test how his finger responded to pushing the ball away from his hand.
So far, so good.
“He’s looking good,” Corbin said. “He’s looking better and better every day as we've been working him out and he feels good about getting back on the floor. So we’ll give him a few minutes.”
Evans injured his right rotator cuff against Portland in the preseason. He had troubles lifting his arm above his head, but said he feels confident enough to dunk and is trying to get his shooting rhythm back.
“Finally. Man, I’m been waiting for it,” Evans said. “I’m just excited, very excited.”
Burke, who the Jazz traded their 14th and 21st picks to acquire from Minnesota this offseason, admitted he's having mixed emotions, ranging from an exciting feeling to some nerves.
"I had butterflies every game in college, so I know I’ll have butterflies tonight," Burke said. "But I think that’s the excitement coming along. It’s not about being nervous, it's about going out there and trusting your teammates."
And, of course, finally being able to play.
NOTES: Corbin said Andris Biedrins (sprained ankle) and Brandon Rush (knee rehab) are both getting closer to returning to action as well. Biedrins hasn't played since injuring himself two days before the season started, while Rush appeared for 10 minutes against Brooklyn but has been trying to get himself physically and mentally ready since then. ... Jazz forward Marvin Williams was fit for a specialized mask to wear Tuesday in Utah, and he'll undergo surgery to reset his broken nose Thursday. Williams is expected to rejoin the Jazz in time for Friday's game in Dallas. ... Utah picked up its only win of the season last Wednesday by beating the Pelcians 111-105 at EnergySolutions Arena. ... Corbin mentioned that he has officially named Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors as team captains.
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