The summertime pickup runs at UCLA have been legendary for decades in NBA circles, dating to when Magic Johnson was directing the Los Angeles Lakers.
Every July and August, the league’s elite players gather to compete against each other, stay in shape, hone their games and test themselves against the best. Friendships and rivalries are often formed in 100-degree heat. This offseason was no different, as Paul George, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and LeBron James made their annual appearances, with videos on Twitter and Instagram offering proof.
Alec Burks was also there. That’s significant for the Jazz and even more significant for Burks’ self-confidence. This was his first offseason pickup run in almost three years. He felt strong. He went to the basket and dunked. He got out in transition. He felt like himself again.
“I feel so much better,” Burks told The Tribune on Wednesday. “I’ve had a great summer, and playing at UCLA was the first time that I thought to myself that I’m back and ready to play like my old self.”
Burks’ ongoing saga with injuries is almost three years old. It began in 2014, with an injured shoulder that required season-ending surgery. He recovered by training camp of the next year, and was playing some of the best basketball of his career.
Then Burks’ run-in with Paul Pierce happened.
Playing against the Los Angeles Clippers, Burks went to the basket and took flight before Pierce undercut him and Burks fractured his fibula.
Both players later said the injury was unintentional. But the damage was done. Burks came back before the season was finished, but was nowhere near himself. He never recovered that summer and underwent surgery again last November. He came back in January, but he lacked his usual explosion and lift. He couldn’t get to the basket, and wasn’t nearly as effective.
“There were some frustrating times, but I never got down on myself or lost confidence,” Burks said. “It is what it is. People get injured, and it was something I needed to deal with. I cherish the game a lot more now. Three years is a long time. I was 23, I had never been hurt a day in my life. It makes you appreciate things a lot more.”
Burks — like many of his teammates — stayed in Salt Lake for much of the summer. He worked on strengthening his ankle and leg. He hung out with friends. He’s played basketball wherever there was a competitive game to be found. The mere mention of training camp in a little less than two weeks put a smile on his face. Indeed, this is a man itching to return to the NBA at 100 percent.
But are the Jazz ready for Burks?
In many ways, the team has moved on during his injuries, and Burks will have to fight for every minute on a roster that’s long on depth at the wing spot, even with the loss of Gordon Hayward.
Rodney Hood and Joe Ingles project as the starters. Donovan Mitchell and Thabo Sefolosha were added during the offseason. Joe Johnson and Dante Exum played on the wings a season ago.
That’s a bunch of talent Burks will have to navigate his way through for minutes. At the same time, the Jazz need scoring, badly. They need someone who can create his own offense and get to the free-throw line. If Burks can regain past form, he qualifies as a guy who can get these things done.
“I’m excited for Alec,” Hood said. “He’s looked really good this summer, and he’s healthy. That’s the main thing.”
Staying healthy in the summer, playing well in the summer and having it translate to the regular season are different challenges. But Burks has conquered the first, and eagerly anticipates the second.
That’s why he’s not worrying about playing time. He’ll be happy to be there and finally able to fully participate.
“As much as anything, we’re just happy for him,” Jazz General Manager Dennis Lindsey said. “ He’s had two consecutive injuries, first the shoulder and then when he took his fall. As much as anything we’re glad to see that he’s hit a significant stretch of being able to work on his body and skills. Now he’s playing basketball and he’s had no major setbacks. Alec simply deserves a stretch of seasons with no setbacks.”
Alec Burks update
• Missed most of the 2014-2015 season after having shoulder surgery
• Missed much of the 2015-2016 season with a fractured ankle
• Missed the first half of the 2016-2017 season after arthroscopic ankle surgery. He returned in the second half of the season, but missed much of Utah’s playoff run because of knee discomfort
• Is entering the third season of a four year contract