NEW ORLEANS — The moment Utah Jazz fans have anxiously awaited since management pulled off a surprising trade on Draft Night in June finally happened.
In a surprise, Trey Burke, the 2013 NCAA Player of the Year, made his NBA debut Wednesday night at New Orleans Arena.
Burke hadn’t seen action 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.
Moments after Wednesday morning's shootaround session, Burke exuded excitement as he spoke with reporters in advance of his first official professional showing.
“I’m ready to go,” he said.
The 6-1 point guard, who led Michigan to the 2013 NCAA championship game, had surgery three days after hitting Chris Paul while making a pass. He had pins inserted into his shooting hand to repair the fracture.
Burke has been rehabbing since, gradually being allowed to do more. He was able to go through a full-contact practice Tuesday for the first time before the Jazz left for their three-game road trip. After that full-speed workout, the team announced that Burke and forward Jeremy Evans would not play against New Orleans.
That changed Wednesday morning when Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin and the training staff deemed that both players had progressed to the point they could play. Burke was scheduled for a re-evaluation Monday.
“I’m extremely excited,” Corbin said.
The Jazz had major issues with the point guard position in Burke’s absence.
Veteran John Lucas III, who started Wednesday, 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 2½-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 unspecified time limitations as he works his way back. The better he feels and plays, the more time he'll see.
Burke smiled and called it “awkward” to make his NBA debut in the 13th game of the 2013-14 season.
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, learning 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 that those elite playmakers brought extra attitude to the court, too.
"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 he feels no discomfort in his index finger, taped against his middle finger, and his shots feel natural. He noted that the form on his shot has changed. He now has to shoot with his pinkie down where he was shooting with all of his fingers down on the release before the injury.
The playmaker wasn’t allowed to run until two weeks ago, but he kept his conditioning up as much as possible by riding a stationary bike. Last week, he was allowed to begin one-on-one workouts along with dribbling and shooting.
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."
The Jazz traded their 14th and 21st picks — Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng — to Minnesota in exchange for No. 9 selection Burke this offseason.
Evans was equally excited to make his season debut. He injured his rotator cuff while dunking against Portland in the preseason and his been sidelined ever since.
“Finally. Man, I’m been waiting for a minute (lots of minutes),” Evans said. “I’m just excited, very excited.”
Evans had troubles lifting his arm above his head until recently, but he feels confident enough to dunk and is trying to get his shooting rhythm back.
"If I couldn’t dunk, I was probably going to have to say I can’t go," he said. "As long as I can do that and get rebounds and play defense (I'll play)."
Corbin's happy to have his energy back on the court.
"We’re excited to have him back and I know he’s excited to be back because he was disappointed," Corbin said. "He was expecting big things for himself this year early, but we delayed it a little bit."
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