Since joining the New York Knicks in mid-January, Trey Burke has been averaging a modest 12.2 points, 4.0 assists and 1.8 rebounds per game — not eye-popping numbers but respectable for a player who was not extended a qualifying offer by the Wizards last summer and began this season in the G League. Convert those numbers to per-36 minute averages — 23.2 points, 7.6 assists, 3.3 rebounds — and you have something closer to what the Utah Jazz were probably hoping for when they selected Burke with the No. 9 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft.
Burke’s resurgence was highlighted by a definitively eye-popping 42-points, 12-assist performance against the Charlotte Hornets earlier this week. So far that resurgence has just carried him from fringe replacement player to somewhat useful rotation player, but he has still come an incredibly long way.
The most noticeable difference between the Burke who dropped 40 on the Hornets and the Burke who couldn’t stick with the Jazz is that the present version is making shots — he’s posted a 58.1 true shooting percentage in New York, compared to an average of 47.4 across his first three seasons in Utah. Burke was billed as a shooter/scorer when he entered the NBA after two seasons at Michigan but didn’t quite live up to that reputation. He was respectable on mid-range jumpers in Utah, just over 40 percent, but he only made 52.7 percent of his shots around the basket and just 32.9 percent of his 3-pointers.
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The initial struggle to finish around the rim made sense, Burke is not overpowering or an explosive athlete. The shaky 3-point shooting was a bit of a surprise — he made 38.4 percent of his 3s in his last year in college and by Andrew Johnson’s formula for projecting the 3-point shooting percentage of an incoming rookie, we would have expected him to be about a 36.5 percent 3-point shooter.
The improvement for Burke this season is coming a variety of areas.
While the improvement on his jumpshot is noticeable his increased facility off the dribble is at least as important, and the interplay between the two areas is what’s really making him a useful three-level scorer. Here, in the second half of his huge game against the Hornets, we can see Burke attacking Kemba Walker confidently in transition, using a screen to find space at the free throw line for the pull-up jumper.
Then, getting Frank Kaminsky on a switch, Burke creates space for himself with the jab step and gets the lucky bounce on the step back 3.
Here, late in the fourth, Burke runs Walker through a screen and then uses a hesitation dribble at the elbow. Walker doesn’t seem overly concerned with recovering to get in front of Burke, both because Dwight Howard is half-heartedly lingering and because the book on Burke is that he’d probably rather pull-up. Burke’s hesitation puts Walker off balance and he’s elbow to get to the rim and finish.
Over the last two seasons Burke has established that he can be a useful catch-and-shoot player. At his size and with his defensive deficiencies adding some sort of off-the-dribble creation was the only way to really earn himself minutes. He’s driving much more frequently and effectively than he did in Washington or Utah and he’s also been much more accurate when pulling-up off the dribble. The effectiveness in each area puts more pressure on the defense and allows him to manipulate space more.
Obviously, we’re still talking about a very small, low-stakes sample (just over 500 minutes in New York) and his field goal percentage on drives and pull-up 2s looks like enough of an outlier that we would expect it to regress somewhat. However, if he can settle somewhere between this peak and what he was for the Wizards last year that’s probably enough to make a useful offensive player. Of course, his Defensive Real Plus-Minus is still in the bottom 10 percentile for points guards, down in the Isaiah Thomas-Zach-LaVine-and-rookies territory, so let’s not go saving any All-Star slots for him just yet.
Still, young players figures out how to make himself useful is always a good story, regardless of how it ends.