We know that he can score the basketball. He can get to the basket. But I saw him trying to really defend a little better here this summer, really trying to get after people better. —Sidney Lowe, Utah Jazz assistant coach
ORLANDO, Fla. — Earlier this week, Utah Jazz shooting guard Alec Burks had something to say to assistant coach Sidney Lowe after a game at the Orlando Pro Summer League.
"Coach, did you see that defense?"
Lowe had seen it.
"That's exciting for us," Lowe said.
It wasn't just exciting to see that the third-year pro played defense.
It was also exciting for the Jazz coaching staff that Burks listened to its advice and then returned with a positive self-report.
That's progress in action.
"We know that he can score the basketball. He can get to the basket," Lowe said. "But I saw him trying to really defend a little better here this summer, really trying to get after people better."
Burks has shown an improvement in the angles he takes on opposing shooting guards, Lowe said. He's pressuring the ball better. He's being more aggressive.
"He's certainly got to get better," Lowe said, "but he's working at it."
Burks didn't play in the Jazz's 79-73 loss to Indiana on Thursday — it was known coming in he'd get some time off — but fine-tuning his defensive game was a summer goal for the 6-foot-6 athletic guard.
In a sense, doing that brings him another step closer to earning his way into the Jazz's regular rotation.
That's one of the reasons Burks was glad to participate in the summer league even while a majority of players involved are rookies or NBA roster hopefuls.
It's also why he was excited to remind his coach that he'd followed orders.
"Anytime I do something good," he said, "I'm going to let you know about it."
Burks has done more good, more consistently, than any other Jazz player at summer league. He had a rough shooting outing against Houston (5 for 15), but he's averaged 14 points while playing an average of just 19 minutes a game.
While younger players have struggled finding their comfort zone — including highly touted point guard Trey Burke — Burks has simply looked like an NBA player among wannabes.
"I feel like I'm a vet," said Burks, who has two seasons of NBA experience. "It should show different. I should play different than everybody else. That’s why I feel like I have."
Another thing Burks is feeling?
That he should take Denver-bound Randy Foye's old job.
"That's what I come into the NBA every year to do — start," Burks said. "So I'm not going to set my goals any lower. I want to start."
Burks will certainly get that opportunity. For now, the only other candidates are newcomer Brandon Rush, who's rehabbing from ACL surgery, and perhaps Gordon Hayward if Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin decides to go with a different veteran small forward like Richard Jefferson or Marvin Williams (after his return from Achilles tendon surgery).
Two years after leaving Colorado following his sophomore season, Burks believes now is the time for his pro career to really blossom. He's eager for the challenge and opportunity of a steady role in the rotation.
Three months after his exit meeting with Jazz brass following the end of the 2012-13 season, Burks continues to take to heart the message given to him: "Just come back a better player and a better man at the same time."
Since then, Burks has bounced around from his hometown of Kansas City, Mo., Utah and the P3 training facility in Santa Barbara, Calif., trying to work toward that offseason goal.
Burks, the 12th pick of the 2011 draft, believes he's taken strides since his second NBA season ended.
"I felt like I grew up. I'm about to turn 22 (on July 20). As a man, I feel I'm growing up," he said. "As a basketball player my game's getting complete. My jumper's getting better. I'm getting stronger. I'm just learning the game better."
Lowe smiled when told about Burks talking about his maturity.
"I told him, 'Your generation, you guys are really cool,'" Lowe recalled from a previous conversation. "I said, 'It's not cool to be cool.' I said, 'You're a professional.'"
More and more, Burks is acting that part.
Offensively, Burks credits his improved jumper to time spent with former Jazz assistant coach Jeff Hornacek — now the Phoenix Suns' bench boss — and player development coach Johnnie Bryant. They corrected his mechanics and got him to put more arch on his shot.
"Both of those together have helped me out a lot," Burks said. "I feel like from my first year I've made a lot of improvement."
Burke noticed something right away about Burks, which could be needed in what might be a roller-coaster season for the Jazz in 2013-14.
"He's a very positive type of person. I like that a lot," Burke said. "That was the first thing I noticed about him."
Burke also loves his new backcourt mate's offensive game.
"He's a pure shooter. He's a guy that can knock down shots, knock down contested shots," Burke said of Burks. "One of his strengths, he gets to the rim better than a lot of people that I've (seen). It's always good having another guard in the backcourt like Alec, who can make plays."
Especially when he does it on both ends, as Burks might remind you.
Corbin likes that Burks got some experience last year at point guard, which will come in handy when the Jazz try to match up against bigger playmakers.
The Jazz coach doesn't disagree with Burks' view that he's ready to get a shot at starting. Corbin said he expects "an expanded role" for both Burks and fourth-year forward Jeremy Evans.
"That opportunity's there," Corbin added of Burks. "It's still early in the process. He had a good year for us last year."
Of course, there were 18 games in which Burks didn't even get his name called for a minute. And he only averaged 17.8 minutes in the other 64 games.
Burks, who's scored 7.1 points per game on 42.4 percent shooting in two seasons, wants more than that.
That's why he's also excited about the roster changes that have cleared the way for the next generation of Jazz players, including Hayward, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter.
"That's what we all work for. We all dream of it to get the time to show our talent," Burks said. "The sky's the limit. We're all talented. It's going to be fun to watch."
Knowing him, Burks will let you know how he does.
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