We like to believe player development and career progression is a straightforward and relatively linear path, especially for lottery picks. As a rookie you show promise, in your second season you follow it up with more consistency and by years three and four you’ve mostly figured “it” out and established yourself as a solid starter with potential for far more moving forward. Any deviation from that idealized track and you’re entering perma-bust territory.
Reality rarely follows such a linear path. That’s what makes giving up on young players — even those who have failed to find their footing in the league after a few years — such a risky proposition. Just look at Victor Oladipo, whose growth seemed to stagnate in Orlando and Oklahoma City before suddenly catapulting himself into star territory after a trade to the vile Indiana Pacers.
The Knicks have not historically been defined by a patient approach to player development, nor have they been a place players have looked to revive their floundering careers. However, since Scott Perry’s arrival through the ever-revolving door of executives atop the MSG front office hierarchy last summer, things seem to be evolving.
Since taking over, Perry has made it a point to emphasize the Knicks are still in the “talent acquisition” phase of their rebuild. A major component of this has been to acquire former lottery picks who, for one reason or another, failed to put it all together elsewhere. Players such as Emmanuel Mudiay, Mario Hezonja and Noah Vonleh are examples of this shift in approach, but the most promising of the whole lot has been Trey Burke.
A former Naismith Player of the Year at Michigan, his career hadn’t progressed as many had hoped when he was selected ninth overall by the Jazz in 2013. Burke arrived in New York last summer staring down what could well have been the last opportunity he had to make it in the NBA after flattering to deceive in Utah and Washington .
Burke, to his credit, recognized the crossroads his career was at:
Choosing to earn his way back to the league with the Knicks’ G-League affiliate in Westchester over taking a more straightforward path offered by Oklahoma City, Burke found a comfort zone. With Westchester Burke averaged 26.6 points and 5.3 assists on 48.8% shooting from the field and 41.6% from three. When he was signed to the Knicks’ NBA roster in January through the end of the season, he capitalized on his opportunities.
Appearing in 36 games over the 2nd half of the year, Burke was just one of four players last season — the others were LeBron James, Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry — to play at least 500 minutes, post at least a 55.0 eFG% and average 10 or more assists per 100 possessions.
Over the course of the final nine games of the season, Burke operated as the team’s starting point guard. In that time he averaged 18.7 points and 7.7 assists per game with a 52.8 eFG%. Just for comparison’s sake, Jeremy Lin averaged 18.5 points and 7.7 assists per game with a 48.2 eFG% from the start of Linsanity through his final appearance of the 2011/12 season.
No matter how you slice it, Burke played at a borderline elite level in his 785 minutes as a Knick last season. In particular he showed a level of comfort and efficiency operating out of the pick-and-roll that nobody else on the team came close to providing.
Equally capable of scoring himself — he finished in the 88th percentile for PnR ball handlers in the entire league — or creating for others, Burke gave the Knicks a much needed offensive jolt.
Improved finishing at the rim, where he shot a career-best 72.6%, transformed Burke into a threat to score at all three levels. That complete package of scoring skills is incredibly valuable for a guard to possess in today’s increasingly perimeter-oriented game.
What was most impressive about Burke’s performance was that he did most of his damage with Kristaps Porzingis off the floor. The pair only played 49 minutes together, as Porzingis suffered an ACL injury soon after Burke’s signing.
While he thrived offensively, Burke was nothing short of a sieve on defense. He had the second-highest individual defensive rating on the team at 114.2. Some of that is due to playing so many minutes with noted vortexes of defensive suckage like Enes Kanter and Michael Beasley.
Still, Burke himself was an easy mark. It wasn’t for wont of trying, but his lack of size and length made him an obvious target. In particular, opponents picked him apart in pick-and-roll, where he struggled to fight over screens without getting caught up.
This was a frequent sight when Burke defended the point of attack. Opposing point guards were able to get into the paint with ease and create havoc.
There are many questions surrounding Burke heading into the 2018-19 season and few answers.
When the mid-range shooting comes back down to earth is he still a potentially valuable piece?
If he does sustain the overall offensive production he provided last year did the Knicks manage to unearth and develop a starting PG of the present and future out of nowhere? Should they be willing to pay up to keep him in that scenario?
How productive can a backcourt pairing of him and Frank Ntilikina be on both ends?
Can we PLEAAAAASE see him get some extended run alongside Porzingis before the season’s over to see what kind of damage they can do in pick-and-roll?
Burke’s promising run last year provides hope, but due to the small sample size we can’t answer any of these questions with complete confidence. There are, however, reasons to be optimistic he can continue to provide a positive offensive spark.
While his mid-range shooting was unsustainably hot — he shot 53.6% on 166 attempts — his 64.9% clip from the free throw line was similarly cold and well below his 79.1% career mark. Burke could make up for a dip in his mid-range proficiency by increasing his attempt rate from beyond the arc, where he took just 27.5% of all his shots from the field, a career low. He would also do well to get to the line more frequently, something he’s struggled to do throughout his career.
Burke’s late blossoming, while certainly unexpected, is almost entirely in line with the scouting report on him prior to the draft. It also isn’t totally out of character for players of his size and skillset. Comparable guards like Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier also struggled to initially translate their production from college to the NBA. After a few seasons in the league they made significant leaps in their age 25 seasons, the same age as Burke was last year.
Still, it’s hard to believe in his odds at continuing to play at such a high level offensively with any great conviction. There’s a reason he had bounced around and was nearly out of the league before the Knicks picked him up off the scrap heap. Guys don’t normally just go from having a foot out of the league to posting rate stats on par with some of the league’s best players.
And, as we all know, good things don’t happen to the Knicks.
Until maybe they do? If the Jets can find a quarterback of the future, Knicks fans can live in hope that this team will ultimately find a point guard.
Ntilikina certainly remains in the mix long-term, but his raw offensive game requires seasoning and patience before maturation. Burke has already been through the growing pains the Frenchman will experience over the next few years.
He took the road less traveled, but there’s a reason he was once a much-ballyhooed lottery pick. The talent has always been there, it just never came together through the early part of his career.
Was last season a sign of the player he has now become or merely an unsustainable hot streak? The Knicks would be incredibly fortunate if he were to deliver on the promise he had as a prospect entering the league and carry on where he left off last season. As fans we can only hope that to be the case.