This is Alec Burks’ eighth season with the Utah Jazz.
By the end of this campaign, he should be top 25 on the Jazz leaderboard in games. He’s already 23rd in points. And if he plays the way he is right now for a few more months, he’ll be knocking on the door of top 30 in Win Shares.
And there’s the rub.
“If Burks continues to play well” has been a fairly common refrain over the course of his career. And whether it was injuries, coaching changes, struggles in certain roles or just struggles in general, it usually didn’t continue.
But this season’s hot start offers reason for optimism.
Following Burks’ 18 points on 6-of-10 shooting in 15 minutes against the Dallas Mavericks, he’s now first on the Jazz in 2018-19 Win Shares per 48 Minutes. Among players with at least as many minutes, he trails only Rudy Gobert in Box Plus-Minus. And his per-possession numbers are (understatement incoming) impressive.
His 2.5 Box Plus-Minus and .251 Win Shares per 48 Minutes would both be career highs. Easily. The Win Shares per 48 Minutes ranks 12th in the NBA right now.
This isn’t just a hot start. This is a “let’s re-evaluate the way we think about Alec Burks” start.
Could it all come crashing down with a few bad games (or Quin Snyder reducing his role again)? Sure. It has before. But again, there may be reason to hope things are different.
Before we get there, though, let’s look at a few times hopes for Burks were dashed. And let’s go all the way back 2013-14 for the start.
That season, Burks played 2,193 minutes, his career high by over 1,000. He averaged 19.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.8 assists per 75 team possessions. He posted the only above-average Offensive Box Plus-Minus of his career. It was his age-22 campaign. Things were looking up.
Then, 27 games into the follow-up season to his breakout, Burks suffered a shoulder injury that would sideline him for the remainder of 2014-15.
It’s been a constant struggle to stay on the floor since then.
From 2014-15 through 2017-18, Burks averaged 41 games a season. It’s a stretch that included the Paul Pierce foul that broke Burks’ leg in 2015. And it’s a stretch that included a coaching change from Tyrone Corbin to Snyder.
Season-ending injuries in back-to-back years, in combination with a shift to a new system that favored ball movement over his iso-heavy game made Burks’ second NBA contract one massive adjustment period.
And now, perhaps, the adjustment has been made.
Viewed in isolation, this hot start is probably coming on too small a sample to draw meaningful conclusions. But, when we combine these seven games with the nine Burks played in the 2018 postsesason, it gets a little easier to think this might be sustainable.
In the pressure cooker of the NBA playoffs, Burks averaged 25.1 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.2 steals per 75 team possessions, with a .581 True Shooting Percentage. His Win Shares per 48 Minutes for those games was .169. Gobert was the only Jazz player who topped Burks in Win Shares per 48 Minutes in the series against the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets.
Beyond the numbers, we also have Burks’ general approach to the game now as an indication of sustainability.
The reckless drives of yesteryear feel a lot less common. Now, Burks is better at recognizing when he does or doesn’t have an advantage on the catch. If the closing defender is still incoming or off balance, he attacks. If he’s ready, Burks is better about swinging the ball.
The improved approach has led to a field goal percentage of 61.8 in the range of zero to three feet from the rim since the start of the 2017-18 season (playoffs included), compared to 49.8 percent over the three previous seasons.
An increased willingness to shoot threes helps too. In the same time frame as above (start of the 2017-18 season till now, including playoffs), just over a third of Burks’ attempts are coming from downtown (his exact three-point attempt rate is .342). Over the three previous seasons, his three-point attempt rate was .253.
It may not seem like much, but those little adjustments, in combination with just being healthy and having some real game time to adjust to Snyder’s system, could make a world of difference for Burks and the Jazz.