MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Trey Burke had no problem identifying Michael Jordan in the Time Warner Cable Arena tunnel hallway after Saturday night’s game.
“I knew it was him from behind,” Burke said. “Six-six, bald-headed.”
The underwear spokesman, no doubt, is the most easily recognizable owner in the NBA.
Turns out, the Hall of Fame basketball player also recognized Burke. Six-one, full head of hair.
Moments after the rookie point guard had his latest big-time performance during the Jazz’s 88-85 win at Charlotte, Burke acted like a kid who’d met his hero while recounting a quick conversation he’d just had with Jordan.
Burke was headed from the visitors locker room to the arena for a TV interview when he saw the tall man with the famous clean-shaven head.
“He was in front of me, so I called his name. I said, ‘MJ!’” Burke recalled. “He came up to me. He called me ‘TB’ and I was kind of like, you know.”
Kind of like giddy, star-struck, honored.
“That’s a guy, like (Allen) Iverson,” Burke continued. “Those are those two guys I grew up just trying to pattern my game after.”
Although Burke obviously has a ways to go before reaching MJ's legendary level or AI's star status, the rookie continues to have impressive moments during his first NBA season.
While his poise is uncanny for a young player and he has an explosive offensive game that's boosted the Jazz lineup since returning from his broken finger, consistency has evaded Burke.
The playmaker had a particularly interesting roller-coaster trip leading up to Monday night's pre-Christmas road swing finale in Memphis.
Burke played out of his mind in Jazz wins at Charlotte (20 points, four assists, three rebounds) and Orlando (30 points, eight assists, seven rebounds). But he was almost a no-show against the two-time defending champs in Miami and against Atlanta on Friday, scoring a combined five points on 2-of-16 shooting.
Even while he’s had some misses along with the hits, NBA coaches are being forced to game plan according to Burke’s strengths.
"Since he’s been healthy, he’s changed that team," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said last week. "Once he got healthy and he got into the mix, it’s not a coincidence that everything starts to look a little bit more organized. That’s what happens with very good guard play.
"He has a very promising future, but that future is already happening right now."
While his five games with 20 or more points have been impressive and his assists are piling up, another aspect of Burke’s game has been the most impressive.
It’s what he’s not doing that is almost mind-boggling, especially for a rookie.
Burke simply doesn’t turn the ball over.
The Jazz starter didn’t cough up the ball once in 26 minutes at Charlotte. That was the sixth time he hasn’t had a turnover in his 18 pro games. Even as he struggled in Atlanta and Miami, Burke only bobbled the ball away once each night.
His assists-to-turnovers ratio of 3.87-to-1 is fourth-best in the NBA. Clippers star Chris Paul leads the league with his 4.47 ratio.
Burke admitted he checks his statistics for assists and turnovers “all the time.”
“Obviously, everybody loves to score, but as a point guard those are the two stat lines that I definitely value, especially my assist-to-turnover ratio,” he said. “It goes to show how valuable the ball is to you. As the quarterback out there on the court, you’ve got to take care of it.”
Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin is about as excited about the command his youngster has of the basketball as Burke is about being called “TB” by a certain someone who occasionally gets away with pushing off during the NBA Finals.
Last week, Corbin jokingly said he didn’t want to talk about Burke’s low turnover rate. He didn’t want to jinx it. But the coach complimented his player Saturday for that excellent ball control and decision-making process after the Jazz’s second road win of this Southeastern journey.
“He continues to do a great job there. He’s been very successful in not turning the ball over and we need that,” Corbin said. “He’s learning every night out. He has a lot of pressure on him to be who he wants to be and everybody else thinks he should be in this league.”
Burke’s shooting percentage still needs to rise for him to be consistently effective, but his TO percentage is a testament of how well and quickly he’s adapting to the NBA game.
“Just trying not to rush," Burke explained. "Making sure that that pass that I’m about to pass is there — if not, going to the next option, trusting my teammates when I throw them the ball, trusting the bigs when they get a spot to throw it to them in the paint."
Being attentive to his teammates and to opponents was a trait that helped him lead his school to the national championship game last spring.
“At Michigan, that’s something that I really valued — not turning the ball over,” Burke said. “It led over into this level. I’m just going to continue to try to take care of the ball.”
He’ll continue to soak up his MJ moment, too.
Put yourself in his shoes for a minute, and imagine the excitement.
After 21-plus years, Burke suddenly found himself chatting face-to-face with one of his childhood idols, and the larger-than-life shoe salesman knew his name. All the better that it came after Burke's smooth play in the win.
Burke couldn’t stop smiling while talking about the experience.
“It was an exciting moment,” he said.
MJ didn’t just casually greet TB, either. The man considered by many to be the greatest basketball player to ever play also left Burke with some advice.
“(Jordan) said, ‘Keep working. You’re doing really good. Just stay healthy,’” Burke said, again cracking a grin. “Those words will stick with me, absolutely.”
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