In 2013, the Utah Jazz drafted the college player of the year, Trey Burke. He was coming off a great run in the NCAA Tournament that vaulted him up as high as No. 2 on some teams’ draft boards. After workouts, many believed he would be drafted between picks four to eight, but to much surprise he was still available at nine, and the Jazz combined their two first-round picks, 14 and 21, to trade them for Burke.
The Jazz were in need of a point guard in the worst way. After trading away All-Star Deron Williams, then trying out Devin Harris and Mo Williams, Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey decided to start rebuilding and not skip steps. So they let Williams and other veterans go during free agency and the rebuild was on. The Jazz already had two big men in Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, and on the wing they had Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks. With the top point guard in the draft sliding, the Jazz jumped up to add Burke to their young nucleus.
Since being drafted by the Jazz, Burke’s jump shot has only made a few appearances. After his rookie season, he averaged 41 percent from 2-point range and a very unimpressive 33 percent from behind the arc. He was given a pass on his poor shooting as a rookie who needed to adjust to the NBA game; plus head coach Ty Corbin wasn’t known for development then and was let go shortly after the season’s end.
Then came in new head coach Quin Snyder, a former point guard who is known for player development. Former Jazz man Demarre Carroll credits Snyder with helping him improve his game and his jumper. The Jazz also hired Patrick Beilein, son of John Beilein, who was Burke’s college coach. Beilein was brought in as the Jazz’s shot doctor. The 2014-15 season seemed like it would be a brighter year for Burke.
But his poor shooting only got worse. Burke’s 3-point shot dropped to 31 percent. His 2-point shot also fell to 40 percent. Why has Burke struggled so much with his jump shot that has been a hindrance to his career? In college, Burke’s shot was pretty good, averaging almost 37 percent from three and 50 percent from two. Every indication is that he’s a hard worker and puts in the time to improve.
An article in Grantland by Kirk Goldsberry named Burke one of the league's least-efficient shooters. One of the main reasons Burke’s percentage is so low is his inability to finish at the rim. Goldsberry wrote, “The Jazz have one of the least effective finishing guards in the league: When Burke attacks the rim, opposing interior defenders morph into [Rudy] Gobert.” Burke averaged only 42 percent at the rim last season. But Goldsberry does give some hope for Burke, citing “[Steph] Curry, who was really bad near the rim earlier in his career, only to turn into a very good close-range finisher.” Curry has become arguably the best shooter in the league.
It shouldn’t be expected that Burke will turn into Curry, but improvement can be made. Curry struggled his first three seasons in the league around the hoop but has figured it out. Burke and Snyder worked hard on a running floater last summer (that Jazz play-by-play announcer Craig Bolerjack mentions each time it’s used) to help him be more efficient around the rim; so far Burke has struggled with the new shot.
Let’s break down Burke’s shooting numbers: In catch-and-shoot situations, he averaged 46 percent from two and 35 percent from three, which are very solid numbers; but on pull-up jumpers he only shot 40 percent from two and 18 percent from three. The highest percentage of his shots comes from pull-up jumpers that require playing one on one, which is not his strength. If the Jazz can get Burke to become more of a spot-up shooter and less of a creator, then he might become a great role player for the Jazz. Burke has been an alpha dog his whole career, and switching to a role player could be a challenge and a blow to his ego.
Burke also took a lot of his jumpers late in the shot clock. In the last seven seconds of the clock, he averaged just 35 percent from two and 32 percent from three. The Jazz must become more effective early in the shot clock so Burke (and others) aren’t forced to take terrible shots. As their young talent improves under Snyder’s system, the Jazz should become better at this.
The Jazz have brought in a lot of talent to challenge Burke. First, Dante Exum was drafted last season and during the year took the starting role from Burke. Then the Jazz signed Bryce Cotton from the D-league's Austin Spurs to a non-guaranteed deal. This summer the Jazz signed their former second-round draft pick, Raul Neto, from the Euroleague to a multiyear deal.
After taking over the starting job, Exum showed he still has plenty of work ahead of him to be a finished product, but with a 6-foot-6 frame and a lighting-quick first step, the position should be his for a long time. Plus in his one summer league game, Exum showed a lot of growth to make the Jazz feel more hopeful that his development is on schedule to becoming a very good starting point guard.
For now it’s safe to assume that Burke is second on the depth chart, but how Neto transitions could put even more pressure on Burke. According to Lindsey, “[Raul] plays with great energy. Even though he’s a little undersized, he’s an excellent defender already. Very good lateral movement. He plays with great imagination. He’s a pass-first guy.” The negative side is Neto’s shooting, but Lindsey is optimistic: “He didn’t shoot the ball so far this year with his club team as well as he shot the ball this summer with Brazil.” If Neto can shoot the ball like he did playing with the Brazilian national team and can adjust to the speed of the NBA, he will give Burke a run for his place on the depth chart.
Then there is Cotton, who averaged 47 percent from the floor and 45 percent from three while playing in the D-league. In only 15 games with the Jazz he continued to shoot OK, averaging 42 percent from the floor and 35 percent from three. The problem with Cotton is his size. Draft Express has him listed at a very generous 6 foot, but he makes up for lack of stature with his blazing speed. In limited time and against backup players, Cotton did very well and was the Jazz’s best player in this year’s summer league. In his time with the Jazz, he’s done an outstanding job of pushing the pace, something Snyder wants and something Burke has struggled with.
The pressure is on Burke as the 2015-16 season approaches. Most teams don’t carry more than three point guards on the roster, so keeping all of them seems highly unlikely. Burke is a good teammate, leader and hard worker, and the Jazz have already invested lots in him. If he can accept a different role and find a consistent shooting touch, he could excel with the Jazz. But if he struggles and the other guys perform, Burke could force Lindsey’s hand, ending his time in Utah.
Kincade Upstill has lived in Utah County is entire life, graduated from BYU, and would follow the Jazz to the ends of the earth, if his wife and three daughters allowed it. Contact him at [email protected] on Twitter @kincade12