Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert are the only players who were on the Jazz’s roster the last time Alec Burks was fully healthy and playing a major role. That was five years ago. Gobert, though, spent part of that 2013-2014 season in what is now called the G League, and much of it not playing.
So you might call Favors the expert on Burks' game among his teammates, and when he says something like this, it means more than if it came from nearly anyone else.
“He looks like AB before the injury. He’s been explosive, passing the ball a lot better, and getting back to the way he was playing before he got hurt,” Favors said. “I think he’s going to have a big year for us.”
You may remember that 2013-14 season for Burks, where he played in 78 games, averaged 28 minutes and 14 points per contest. It was the highest-efficiency year of his career (he shot 45 percent overall and 35 percent from 3), and had the highest usage rate on the team, even more than an up-and-coming Gordon Hayward.
And yet … the Jazz were terrible. They won only 25 games, their offense ranked 25th in the league, and when Burks was on the floor, they were outscored by 7.3 points per 100 possessions. That wasn’t his fault: They were bad with him off the floor, too. But he wasn’t exactly the key to winning games.
That’s been the book on Burks since he came into the league, actually — fair or not, that he doesn’t play winning basketball. He’s frustrated coaches with his tendency to freelance, on both sides of the ball, at the expense of his team.
Here’s the good news, then: While Burks was flattered by Favors' compliment, he disagrees. He thinks he’s better than he was before the injuries.
Take, for example, his penchant for rejecting screens. Rather than running his defender around the screen, Burks liked to fake using the screen, then drive to the rim the other way, hoping to catch his defender leaning. According to Zach Lowe in 2013, “Burks dribbled away from the pick on 36 percent of pick-and-rolls he ran, the highest such rate by a giant margin among guys who ran at least 35 pick-and-rolls, according to Synergy.”
Rejecting a screen was an effective strategy for Burks getting to the rim, and while it surprised the defense, it also surprised Burks' teammates too, who didn’t know where to go because their play had been cut off. And if it turned out he couldn’t get all the way to the rim, the result was usually a tough midrange pull-up of some sort: a bad shot.
Now, though? He doesn’t want to do that anymore. “Usually, I rejected the pick every time, because I knew I can get by a guy,” Burks said. “But now I’m just reading the defense.”
And what he does after using that screen and getting that advantage matters too. “Before, I was just trying to dunk it on everybody, and that’s what got me hurt,” Burks said. “Now I’m just going to read. If I have to finish, I’m going to finish. If I have to pass, I’m going to pass. If I get fouled, I get fouled. I don’t know what’s going to happen beforehand.”
That’s earned him plaudits from his coach. “Alec is such a creative offensive player, he’s got great quickness, and handles the ball well. ... Alec’s a really good passer. It’s just his progression and evolution as a player," Quin Snyder said.
“You have to respect the work he’s put in, not only to get his body back, but to develop as a player," Snyder continued. "And everything that he’s doing right now, he’s trying to play the game the right way, and it shows.”
Snyder’s trust was reflected in Burks' playing time during the preseason: He averaged 19 minutes per night, and even was the first man off the bench in one contest. And Burks repaid him by playing well during those minutes, scoring 13.4 points per game while shooting over 50 percent from the floor. Whether Burks or Grayson Allen ultimately wins a rotation role largely will depend on the defensive effort from both, but Burks will get opportunities.
So yes, after recovering from injury, Burks' speed is back. But what’s new is his ability to control it.
“I’m not going 100 miles an hour. I can read,” Burks said. “It’s beautiful what you can read when you’re not going so fast.”