Utah has become nearly everybody’s trendy pick to climb up into the bottom of the Western Conference playoffs, passing falling Portland (I’m included in that group). The way the Jazz played after the All-Star break — 19-10 record while holding opponents to 94.8 points per 100 possessions (89 points per game) with a great defense that turned heads around the league. After Enes Kanter was shipped to Oklahoma City and Rudy Gobert started at center, Utah was a defensive force.
Another change that mattered for that team — Dante Exum was made the starting point guard. He was a better defender and used less of the offense than Trey Burke, which meant more offensive touches for Gordon Hayward and the better playmakers on the team.
Now Exum is out for next season with an ACL injury, and Burke is being thrust back into the starter’s role. Entering his third NBA season after staring at Michigan, Burke knows this is a key season for him to prove he is a starting NBA point guard who can run a playoff team, something he talked about with the Salt Lake Tribune’s Aaron Falk.
“I haven’t hit the goals that I have for myself,” Burke said between fulfilling autograph requests and posing for pictures at a community fair. “But I feel like they’ve been two solid years. I’ve been learning a lot, especially over this summer and last summer. But I know I have a lot of room to improve and I’m willing to work on those areas….
“It’s always unfortunate to see that,” he said of Exum’s injury. “You don’t want to see that for nobody. But it’s a part of the game and unfortunately it happened to Dante. It’s something that I really felt like [this year] was a opportunity either way. But I guess people see it more as an opportunity now because obviously we play the same position. I have to be ready to step up again and just make plays for the team. I think the biggest thing for the team is just winning. I could sit here and talk about a lot of personal things, but as long as we’re winning everything else will take care of itself.”
Burke is eligible for a contract extension after this coming season. How he plays this season will determine if the Jazz are even interested in that or in moving him so Exum can have a clear path.
There are two personal things Burke needs take care of to get to the winning, at least at the rate the Jazz expect.
First is defense, he did get beat plenty out on the perimeter. That said, playing with Gobert to protect the rim and clean up his mistakes did help — when Burke and Gobert were paired last season the Jazz allowed just 99.7 points per 100 possessions (with Exum and Gobert it was 98 per 100). Burke can be better on this end of the court, but he’ll be in a better position to do so this season.
Second, and more important, is taking fewer bad shots. For Burke, less is more. Burke is confident in his abilities as a playmaker and shooter, but he makes poor choices too often (ones he got away with in college). Last season he took 38.8 percent of his shot attempts from three, and hit just 31.8 percent of them. He doesn’t get to the rim enough, his assist numbers are not great. The Jazz’s offense dipped a very slight 0.9 points per 100 possessions after the All-Star break last season, but the ball was not in the hands of Exum to create plays as much as Hayward. And you saw the potential there. If Burke is going to be the guy with the ball in his hands, he needs to both make better decisions when he has it (make better shot choices) and cede some of that control to Hayward to make plays, or guys like Alec Burks to get their shots. Burke cannot be the offensive fulcrum.
Utah is going to be one of the most interesting teams to watch next season in the NBA — and it’s been a long time since we got to say that.