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The evergreen potential of Utah’s Alec Burks

A closer look at the Utah Jazz’s perpetual ‘best free agent’ Alec Burks.

“Our best free agent, I’ve said this before, is Alec Burks,” said Utah Jazz General Manager Dennis Lindsey three years ago tongue in cheek after the Utah Jazz had a quiet offseason similar to this one. After the Utah Jazz had a similar second half surge—but not as drastic—as last season, the Jazz front office decided it was best to stand pat. After all, the Utah Jazz had enjoyed tremendous success and improvement on the defensive end, Dante Exum was showing flashes, and the team wasn’t even at its healthiest. Alec Burks had been out for the past season with a shoulder injury. Burks had just signed a 4 year / $42 million extension and the Utah Jazz saw him as a valuable part of their team going forward. Then what should have been a breakout year for Burks was derailed by an ankle injury. This is the story of Alec Burks: Evergreen Potential.

Unless Alec Burks takes a Joe Ingles-like trajectory upward, Burks’ career with the Utah Jazz will be remembered as one of what if’s and what could’ve been’s. When Quin Snyder took over in Utah after Tyrone Corbin’s was fired contract was allowed to expire, many anticipated that the Utah Jazz’s Core Four™️ of Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, and Enes Kanter would get a lot of run and development. They would not be disappointed either.

All of them saw huge increases in minutes that first season with Snyder including Alec. Burks averaged 33 minutes a game while averaging 13.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg, and 3.0 apg. His three point shooting percentage went up to 38.5%. It seemed that Burks had found a believer in Quin ... that is until Alec Burks had to be shut down because of an injury to his shoulder. That’s when the first year of Alec Burks being the Jazz’s biggest free agent narrative started. Burks dominated in offseason workouts. The coaching staff couldn’t stop hyping him up. Dante Exum was hurt for the season with an ACL injury, so the opening was there for Burks to really fill a need at guard during his time away. Unfortunately, Burks would get hurt again ... this time an ankle injury that limited Burks to only 31 games the next season.

This is a good time to look at the Jazz’s roster makeup and their focus. Burks missed significant time during the first two years of Quin Snyder’s tenure with the Utah Jazz. During those years, Dennis Lindsey and Quin Snyder had an intense focus of development and finding out who they were as a team. During those two years, Gordon Hayward went from skinny kid from Butler to Captain America stand-in. Enes Kanter struggled on defense and had a clash of personalities with the team which got him jettisoned to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Rudy Gobert went from D-League Idaho Stampeder to starting center of an up and coming defense. Trey Burke was benched in favor of Dante Exum. Utah went through a roulette of point guards. Rodney Hood took advantage of Burks’ absence. Joe Ingles went from undrafted to rotation player. Shelvin Mack was brought in to try to solidify the point guard position while Raul Neto and Trey Burke struggled. All. of. that. happened in just the two years of which Burks missed the majority.

When Burks—FINALLY—returned to the roster healthy, Utah had moved past the development and discovery part of their rebuilding effort and had moved to playoff contention. Burks had missed the basketball equivalent of half the semester then had arrived back with the team just in time for midterms. The makeup of the team was completely different. Utah decided it was time to bring in veteran contributors to expedite the time it’d take to contend and in order to placate Gordon Hayward during his contract year. It was going to be hard enough for Burks to fight for minutes in the rotation with just Dante Exum, Shelvin Mack, Rodney Hood and Joe Ingles, but now Utah had brought in George Hill and Joe Johnson. Both big time contributors even later in their careers.

Burks third season under Snyder’s tutelage went predictably. He played only 653 minutes that season as he struggled even when he was on the court, fewest in his career. It was almost as though Burks treated every possession as if it would be the possession to earn him more minutes. That could have been true, but ultimately that season Quin Snyder went with veterans over potential, knowns over unknowns. Shelvin Mack over Dante Exum for back up point guard. Joe Ingles over Rodney Hood at shooting guard. Boris Diaw over Derrick Favors at times at power forward. Joe Johnson as the first sub off the bench. Burks shooting percentages all dropped, and he even saw a stint with the Salt Lake City stars. In his seventh season, Burks hit rock bottom.

Then the summer of Gordon Hayward hit. The precious left for Boston. George Hill didn’t re-sign with Utah. Shelvin Mack was gone. Dante Exum suffered an injury before in preseason. Most importantly, the Jazz had a rookie shooting guard in Donovan Mitchell who might take some time getting adjusted. The opportunity for Alec Burks to have a resurgence was available for the taking. I even wrote in preseason of 2017-2018 this:

The storyline that no one outside of Utah is talking about is the return of Alec Burks. Burks has the most to gain from Exum’s absence. Burks was outside of the rotation to start preseason, much like how Joe Ingles didn’t figure into the Jazz’s plans last preseason. For those that remember, it took an early season injury to Gordon Hayward to open the door for Ingles to secure a rotation spot.

Burks had already dealt with two false starts returning from his own injury woes. He’s hoping the third time is a charm, and sometimes charms coincide with curses. With Exum going down, Burks’ opportunity presented itself.

While many have rightly predicted that Rodney Hood will be given the opportunity to be the Jazz’s leading scorer, Burks could be a darkhorse candidate to take that honor while being a sixth man of the year contender come April. The NBA hasn’t seen a healthy Alec Burks for almost three seasons now, and Burks could go from being trade bait to go-to scorer for Utah with the absence of Exum.

But he has to stay healthy first.

Alec Burks got opportunities early in the season to play, but then something called Donovan Mitchell got started. He started cannibalizing Rodney Hood’s minutes which in turn cannibalized Alec Burks minutes. Burks went back to third string until another surprise rookie, Royce O’Neale, usurped Alec Burks for time on the floor due to O’Neale’s elite perimeter defense. Even when Rodney Hood was jettisoned to Cleveland, Alec just couldn’t see much time on the court. Burks did play the third most amount of minutes for a season in his career, though. He averaged 7.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg, and 1.0 assist per game.

That is until the Houston series. Then it seemed the light from three seasons ago finally flickered on again.

The Utah Jazz were missing Ricky Rubio. Royce O’Neale was struggling offensively against Houston’s elite perimeter defense. Utah needed someone—ANYONE—who could create their own shot and get a bucket who was not named Donovan Mitchell. Quin Snyder in the Houston series—exasperatedly so—threw in Alec Burks in game 2 as sort of a hail mary. The gamble paid off in a big way. Alec Burks would score 17 points, pull down 4 rebounds, and dish out 6 assists as the Utah Jazz shocked the Houston Rockets on the road.

In his next three games, Burks would average 13.3 ppg on 54.5% 3P%, 3.8 rpg, and 3.3 assists in only 20 mpg. That would put him at a PER36 production of 23.6ppg, 6.7 rpg, and 5.4 apg game.

That strong finish and surprise from last season brings us to this year, the last year of what had been a promising 4 year / $42 million contract. That finish seems to have propelled Burks to greater trust by Quin Snyder. Burks has been the talk of preseason practices and offseason workouts—honestly, that’s pretty on brand for Alec Burks for his career. But the results on the floor in preseason have been very promising.

This is extremely small sample theatre, but in only three games in preseason, Burks looks to be picking up where he left off against Houston. Burks is averaging 12.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 4.0 apg on 40% 3P% in only 20.3 mpg. To put that in PER36 speak, he’s averaging 22.5 ppg, 10.1 rpg, and 7.1 apg. This is where we let you know to take this with a HUGE grain of salt as two of the three teams Utah has played were from the NBL. At the same time, he is dominating the competition he should be dominating, he is taking good shots, and looks comfortable in the Jazz offense.

Both Burks and Grayson Allen have turned into a diabolic tandem coming off the bench to form The Backcourt of Irrational Confidence. They are going to show their unwavering swag, sling the ball from deep, and be pests on both sides of the ball. Alec Burks in his 8th season in the league might finally be seizing on his evergreen potential. If Burks does, he might be striking right when the iron is hot. He is in a contract year, Snyder appears to be giving him the minutes to fill up the stat sheet, and Burks—now an older veteran on a young team—looks poised to capitalize.

In a season where the only change on the roster was drafting Grayson Allen, this might finally be the year where Alec Burks is the Utah Jazz’s best free agent.