Alec’s a smart player. Sometimes he plays so fast and he’s so dynamic we kind of look at him and say, ‘He’s quick. He’s athletic.’ —Jazz coach Quin Snyder
SALT LAKE CITY — Alec Burks can’t fool Quin Snyder anymore.
Like most people in professional basketball circles, the Utah Jazz coach was well aware that Burks has been blessed with extreme athleticism and body control.
One only has to witness the 6-foot-6 guard quickly burst through the lane and then wildly contort himself into and out of a pretzel shape while soaring mid-air toward the basket to realize that.
New Jazz center Jeff Withey quickly noticed that this fall, describing Burks as being able to make “crazy layups.”
“It’s fun,” Withey added, “to play with a guy like that.”
But there’s more to Burks than simply being a gifted athlete whose leaping ability and coordination are such that he could playfully and repetitiously inform former Jazz player and 2012 NBA dunk champion Jeremy Evans that he was the best dunker on the team while sounding borderline cocky but not crazy.
Snyder was well aware of that aspect to Burks’ game when he took the head-coaching job in Utah a year and a half ago.
The rookie coach didn’t realize, however, that Burks was also a bright player with a growing basketball IQ.
“Alec’s a smart player. Sometimes he plays so fast and he’s so dynamic we kind of look at him and say, ‘He’s quick. He’s athletic,’” Snyder said. “He knows what reads to make. He tried to fool me when I first started like he didn’t know what he’s doing. Caught him! He’s got no wiggle room anymore.”
A smiling Burks, who's averaging a team-high 13.0 points this preseason, said Snyder has joked about the same thing with him. He knows the compliment comes with added expectations.
“I’m just street smart, that’s all that is,” Burks said, trying to brush off the compliment. “I pick up things quicker.”
Burks will be the first to tell you that he has become a smarter basketball player over the past year, though.
That education came through his blessing-in-disguise, injury-plagued 2014-15 season. Burks was more disappointed than anyone that he had to miss most of the final four months of the basketball year, but he took advantage of the time off. Instead of suiting up for games with his teammates after his season-ending shoulder surgery, Burks sat next to Jazz assistants, including Johnnie Bryant and Lamar Skeeter. He observed and absorbed basketball from a coach’s perspective.
“I feel like I really learned a lot just sitting out this past year, just a lot from being around the coaches,” Burks said. “I learned a lot about the basketball game that I didn’t know by playing, so I think that helped me out a lot.”
It showed his coach a lot about his mental makeup, too. This 24-year-old isn't just street smart, despite what he jokingly says about himself.
“I think it’s made him see the game through a different perspective. He was right behind the bench,” Snyder said. “Johnnie and Lamar, those guys were constantly saying, ‘You see that Alec?’ He probably wouldn’t say he sounded like me, but he sounded like one of the coaches (and) there was an awareness he had.”
The biggest takeaway?
“I was out (when the Jazz became a good defensive team), but I can play defense too,” said Snyder, speaking as if he were Burks. “And I think he can.”
For Burks, whose health and game seem better than ever after the surgery, it’s now a matter of applying what he knows.
And being reminded by the coaches he rubbed shoulders with so often the last few months of the 2014-15 season.
That’s why Snyder sounded a bit nitpicky about Burks’ game at practice earlier this week when the coach was asked about his starting shooting guard’s offensive game Monday, one of the few highlights of the otherwise dreadful preseason loss to Portland.
“I didn’t think he defended real well (Monday) night,” Snyder admitted.
The game “dictated that” to a point, Snyder said. The Jazz were using a bigger backcourt lineup in which he was playing point guard. There were tricky switching situations. Still, Burks’ coach thought he could’ve done better.
“He’s been really efficient. He’s a better decision maker in my mind than he’s shown,” Snyder said. “It’s just a question of him digging in and focusing more on situations.”
Snyder is willing to cut Burks a bit of slack because of the progress he’s made on the defensive end of the court. Despite his athleticism, Burks hasn’t been known for being a particularly strong defender. That’s why it requires all the more focus from him.
“Especially,” Snyder added, “when it’s not quite as instinctive for you off the ball in particular. He’s really made an effort. He’s done a good job. He just needs to keep concentrating on that.”
Snyder went over the defensive lapses Burks made Monday during Tuesday’s film session. The mistakes were mostly off-the-ball miscues.
“I’m not going into detail, but I made some mishaps on the defensive end,” Burks said. “We talked about it and we got past it. I’m going to do better the next time we get out there.”
The next time is Sunday in Portland, by the way. The Jazz have three more days of practice, including Friday night’s free open scrimmage (6:30 p.m., EnergySolutions Arena) in the meantime.
“It’s very important,” Burks said about the extra practice time this week. “We’re a young team. We need to practice as much as we can so we can get our timing down and get our concepts together.”
See. Coach Burks sounds like he knows what he’s talking about.
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