DALLAS — For almost six weeks, Trey Burke could only be a well-dressed spectator as his teammates played.
They struggled on the court, losing their first eight games and 11 of 12 without him.
Burke observed and felt their pain.
Jazz point guards John Lucas III, signed-and-waived Jamaal Tinsley and D-League call-up Diante Garrett floundered and flailed at times.
Burke saw their every move, took mental notes, soaked in all of the knowledge one possibly can from the row behind the bench and waited patiently and worked diligently as his surgically repaired fractured right finger went through the healing process.
Other top playmakers, Tony Parker, Derrick Rose, Jeremy Lin and Deron Williams, took it to the Jazz.
Burke looked on and learned.
Some Jazz fans and NBA observers criticized the organization for the draft-day trade to acquire Burke instead of selecting No. 11 pick Michael Carter-Williams.
Yeah, he noticed that, too.
Now that his NBA debut has finally happened, Burke believes the watch-and-learn process was a good thing. Just like Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey and coach Tyrone Corbin, Hall of Famer John Stockton and Warriors bench boss Mark Jackson all agreed would be the case.
“I think having an opportunity to watch from the sideline helped me out a lot, helped my pace out a lot to where I’m not just going up and down and up and down, knowing how to pick and choose my spots,” Burke said. “I’ve said that a lot, but I think that’s really helped my game out a lot.”
The sample size is small — 12 minutes in the 105-98 loss to New Orleans, to be exact — but it appears Burke has done a lot more than just watching to improve his game since July. His showing in Orlando in summer league, was, well, not exactly worth writing home about, at least in terms of how he shot the ball, ran the Jazz offense and looked completely overwhelmed.
Though he hadn’t played since Oct. 12 when he broke his finger, the 6-foot-1 Burke looked smooth, quick, efficient, polished and confident while totaling 11 points, one assist, one rebound and zero turnovers against the Pelicans.
“I think the biggest thing is not forcing things, going out there and picking and choosing my spots,” Burke said. “It feels good knowing that teammates have my trust, coaches have my trust. They’re going to allow me to play within the pick-and-roll, get guys going. That’s my natural position, being a PG, getting guys going, looking for my shots. It’s always good to know that you have the confidence.”
Burke’s first NBA bucket was a burst down the drive for a left-handed finish moments after he entered. His first assist was a nicely executed dish on a well-run pick-and-roll, setting up a Derrick Favors basket.
The 21-year-old looked much more like the 2013 NCAA Player of the Year than the shell-shocked rookie who missed 18 of 19 3-pointers shortly after the Jazz gave Minnesota two first-round picks to acquire him.
Corbin hasn’t had much to smile about this season, but this was one personal display that brightened all of Jazzland.
“From the summer to just before we started camp and in camp and again in exhibition, he’s grown,” Corbin said.
That process of progression has continued in the five weeks following his surgery in which Burke had pins inserted into his shooting hand.
“The biggest thing is just playing with confidence,” he said. “In Orlando, I don’t think I played with the type of confidence that I’m used to playing with. I know I’m a good player. I know if I play with confidence that I can definitely help the team win.”
Watching teammates live and in film sessions, picking the brains of players and coaches, and just soaking in the scene from some of the best seats in the arena helped him in ways playing couldn’t.
That’s not to take away from on-the-job experience, of course. But the Jazz are encouraged that Burke made good use of his delayed career kickoff.
“I thought he did a great job last night transferring it into the game,” Corbin said.
A day later, the playmaker’s finger was a bit sore but mostly good. As long as it remains taped to his middle finger, Burke said he “can’t even really tell it’s there.”
Two problems from his debut?
First, the Jazz dropped their fourth straight game, making them 1-12 overall and 0-1 on Burke’s clock.
“I’m devastated every time we lose, believe it or not,” Burke said. “Even though (the season’s) 82 games, it takes a toll on guys when you continue to lose.”
Lucas, the veteran brought in this offseason to help mentor and back up Burke, was struck with how intent the Jazz rookie was about becoming the best point guard in the game when they first met.
The youngster, who led Michigan to the NCAA championship game last April, was also open about his goal to become rookie of the year a season after just about sweeping every collegiate award.
“Right now, being 1-12, I’m really not thinking about it (rookie of the year). I know those things take care of itself if we start winning, first and foremost (and) second of all, if I go out there and play confident,” Burke said. “Obviously, everybody has personal goals, but right now it’s all about the team with me.”
Burke was nothing but complimentary of Carter-Williams, who has an early lead for the rookie merit. The 6-foot-6 point guard from Syracuse is averaging 16.6 points, 7.4 assists and 5.4 rebounds for the Sixers.
“Guys always like to compare the rookies and compare specifically me and Carter-Williams because we play the same position,” said Burke, who was drafted two spots ahead of his fellow rookie. “He’s just a magnificent player.”
Jazz brass are confident Burke will also develop magnificently. That’s why they gave up their 14th and 21st picks in June and dubbed him as their point guard of the future alongside the team’s returning young talent.
In the present, Corbin is just excited to have Burke back in the mix. The rookie was limited to 5-6 minute stretches Wednesday, but the hope is he’ll be able to play longer tonight at Dallas. At some point, he’ll move back into the starting lineup where he was in the first three games of the preseason before the injury.
“He was going good (Wednesday). He wanted to stay in, but we were on a restriction, so we had to take him out,” Corbin said. “You want to be careful with him and give him time to get himself acclimated back to the game speed.”
Burke laughed when recalling his rehab process that helped him get back before his six-week post-operation medical check-up next Monday.
“Guys (were) clowning to me, ‘Man, you can just tape that up (and play),’ ” Burke said. “I’m like, ‘Nah, it was worse than what you think.’ I knew it was probably going to be 4-7 weeks.”
Somehow, Burke managed to stay positive during that rehab period, which began with him being banned from running and having to wear a hand brace for several weeks. Eventually, he increased his exercise from a stationary bike to running. He was gradually allowed to dribble and shoot before the medical staff cleared him to practice at full speed Tuesday.
Burke credited “pretty much everybody” for helping him keep his chin up during that delayed career start — from teammates to his dad/agent Benji Burke to friends and mentors back home in Columbus, Ohio. He was impressed how Hayward has remained upbeat in slumps and by Richard Jefferson’s positive “mentality.”
“Before coming in this league, guys said, ‘You’re going to have some up nights, you’re going to have some down nights,’” Burke said. The best players, they always stay here (even-keeled), regardless of what type of night you had. I think (Wednesday) night gave me some confidence. At the same time, I understand I have to continue to get better.”
As much as he values that experience behind the bench, Burke will happily try to improve on the court going forward.
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