22-year old Alec Burks was brimming with potential. Coming off his third season in the NBA with the Utah Jazz, he’d finally solidified himself as a rotational piece.
Burks was an important cog in the youth movement that Utah was undergoing at the time. Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors were both 22 and clearly the team’s most valuable assets. Trey Burke — a rookie at the time, but one who showed modest potential in his first season — was only 21. 21-year old Enes Kanter took full advantage of being gifted consistent minutes in his third NBA season. Even Rudy Gobert, also only 21 at the time and in his rookie season, was finding his footing on his path to being one of the most dominant big men in all of basketball.
Burks was coming off his most impressive season as a pro. His first two seasons saw limited action as he averaged only 16.9 minutes, including zero starts, but in year three, he took the leap.
In his third year, Burks missed only four games and started 12 times, averaging 28.1 minutes per game to go along with 14.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists. A gifted athlete, Burks was springy, a competent shooter and someone who could attack the rim to consistently draw fouls, terrorizing defenders on his path to the line. His potential to be a foundational piece in the Jazz’s rebuild was apparent and he helped bring life to an organization searching for answers following the departures of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap.
Four years later, we find ourselves asking what could have been after Burks’ ankles began to betray him.
Two games into his fourth NBA season, Burks signed a four-year, $42 million extension with the Jazz. Less than two months later, he would miss the rest of the season with a shoulder injury. Through the 27 games he did play that season, Burks was off to his best start under new head coach Quin Snyder. He started all 27 games and was shooting well from all areas of the court. But the progress amassed up to that point had been put on the shelf.
Almost exactly one year after being ruled out with a shoulder injury, Burks would be ruled out with an ankle injury, which would ultimately require surgery and knock him out for 50 more games. In November of 2016, Burks would undergo another ankle surgery, which caused him to miss nearly half the season as his numbers started to witness a drastic decline. After being generally healthy his first three seasons and finally establishing himself as a real NBA contributor, he would miss a total of 146 games over the next three years.
The 2017-18 season was a reason to believe he could gain it all back.
With Hayward heading for greener pastures in Boston, there was an opportunity for someone to fill his role. Rodney Hood was being molded for it, but could never become consistent enough to secure the spot and was ultimately traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers before the team had to decide whether or not to commit to him.
The surprising dominance of rookie Donovan Mitchell quickly filled the scoring void left by Hayward and the emergence of Royce O’Neale halfway through the season gave the team more options than anticipated. As a result, Burks was hardly given consistent minutes. He played in 64 games with one start but saw his overall minutes and numbers decline as Mitchell and O’Neale asserted themselves as prominent rotational figures. When Jae Crowder was brought over to Utah in the Hood trade, Burks struggled to see the floor at all.
Up until the Crowder trade, Burks averaged 18.6 minutes (albeit, rather inconsistently, sometimes playing 25 minutes in one game and then 10-12 in the next) and missed only six games. Following the addition of Crowder (his first game with Utah was Feb. 11), Burks was benched for 12 of the remaining 27 games and averaged only 9.8 minutes in the games he did find his way onto the court.
With the return of Rudy Gobert from injury, Utah was riding an unprecedented hot streak all the way into the playoffs and it was becoming obvious the team didn’t need Burks to help them get there. Following the Crowder trade, O’Neale played in all 27 games, started four of them and averaged nearly 22 minutes per game (in the games prior to the Crowder trade, O’Neale averaged only 13.3 minutes a night and didn’t play a minute in 13 of them).
O’Neale and Crowder brought a defensive presence on the wing lacking from Burks and Hood. While not a bad defender by any means, Burks just couldn’t match up with the abilities of his teammates and his offensive production wasn’t as necessary. Mitchell was scorching teams left and right while Joe Ingles shot over 44 percent from deep on five-plus attempts per game.
Burks found himself to be the odd man out on a playoff team that thrived without him. Heading into next season, he’ll enter the final year of that same four-year extension he signed shortly before the injury bug began to plague him.
While Burks doesn’t bring a unique skill set to the floor, he does have plenty of qualities that make him a valuable player going forward, even as a starter or first man off the bench. Keep in mind, he just turned 27.
The best indicator of Burks’ potential is a three-game stretch he experienced from Nov. 30 through Dec. 4. In three consecutive games, Burks scored 28, 24 and 27 against the Clippers, Pelicans and Wizards. The game against the Wizards was a 47-point demolition by Utah in Gobert’s first game back from injury — although, he would appear in just six more games before missing the following 14, only to return again and lead the Jazz to a 30-8 record to finish the season.
While three games is a small sample, Burks’ impact on the game was anything but. He showed confidence in his shot, shooting 50 percent from three on 16 attempts. He played incredibly smart basketball, making the right pass and turning the ball over only two times in nearly 90 minutes. He showed his ability as a superior rebounding guard, an aspect of his game that has always been criminally underrated (in 2016-17 and 2017-18, Burks finished in the 96th and 97th percentile, respectively, in defensive rebound percentage among his position, according to Cleaning the Glass).
He was focused defensively and clearly outplayed O’Neale on that end, but it was short-lived. His 6-foot-10 wingspan allows him to clog passing lanes and intercept passes, but his off-ball defense is questionable and he struggles to contain bigger wings.
In comparison to O’Neale and Crowder, Burks is arguably the better overall player, despite receiving the short end of the stick. While both are the better individual and team defenders — skills the Jazz are built on — Burks is a better scorer and much more effective with the ball in his hands. But therein lies the issue.
Burks requires the ball to be in his hands to be effective while Crowder and O’Neale are much better working within the flow of the offense and capitalizing on opportunities that come their way. He posted a usage rate of 22.9 percent last season, which ranked in the 82nd percentile among wing players, but he was dreadfully inefficient. His “assisted by” shooting numbers are phenomenal, but he normally prefers to operate with the ball in his hands and elects for midrange jumpers over 3-pointers — a bad recipe for success as the NBA moves further and further away from the middle area of the court.
Isolation plays made up 11.3 percent of his offense, according to Synergy, the highest on the team. However, he ranked in only the 51st percentile. But when he rips down a rebound, his eyes are immediately up as he dissects his path to the other end of the court, knowing he can do so by himself.
His athleticism also makes him an ideal option as a cutter. His first step is lightning quick and he loves to make hardline cuts toward the rim if he sees an opportunity to go up with the ball. He ranked in the 76th percentile as a cutter, averaging 1.36 points per possession. When paired next to an excellent passer such as Ricky Rubio while Mitchell is the general focus of defenses, Burks can be set up quite nicely. The two sequences below happened on back-to-back possessions.
What Burks has going for him is the ability to provide instant offense. With Hood traded away in favor of more versatile defensive wings, Burks and Mitchell are the only two players the Jazz have that can come in and rattle off six to eight points all by themselves.
The Jazz may have been an elite defensive team all season, but offensively, they went through plenty of struggles with a rookie as their primary option. The team was 16th in the league in offensive rating (108.4) on the season. Another year under Mitchell’s belt will hopefully shore up some loose bricks, but even when Gobert returned in mid-January and the team’s hot streak began, its offensive rating remained at 108.4 during that half-season stretch (though, its 97.5 defensive rating during those 38 games was borderline historic).
In the playoffs, the Jazz’s offensive rating dipped to 102.9 in 11 games. They lost to the Houston Rockets in five games, scoring under 100 points in three of them. Burks played less than 23 total minutes in Utah’s gentlemen’s sweep of the Oklahoma City Thunder but saw an increased role against the Rockets.
In order to keep up with Houston’s offensive hell-fire, Burks was almost necessary to come in and contribute on that end, which is exactly what he did. He averaged 11.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists in 19.2 minutes per game on .438/.462/.917 shooting splits. Not so coincidentally, his best outing was Game 2, when he scored 17 points in 22 minutes — the only game the Jazz won in that series.
Heading into the upcoming season, uncertainty faces Burks. In the final year of his deal and still knocking on the prime of his career, he needs to impress if he wants to cash out next summer as an unrestricted free agent.
Ingles, Crowder, O’Neale and Thabo Sefolosha will hog the wing spots while Mitchell, Rubio and (a healthy) Dante Exum will control the backcourt. Rookie Grayson Allen is even expected to steal some minutes. Consistent burn will be scarce and his play will determine if he can work himself into the rotation.
A bad stretch of games could cement his role on the bench and Burks could possibly be a future trade chip if the Jazz find themselves winning without him. The margin for error is practically nonexistent and Burks might be the odd man out right before the most important summer of his career.The