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  • Call It a Comeback: Trey Burke’s Unprecedented Career Resurgence

Call It a Comeback: Trey Burke’s Unprecedented Career Resurgence

Photo: Bailey Carlin/TKW Illustration
Burke was a castaway without a trace of survival since leaving the Utah Jazz and Washington Wizards. But the former lottery pick found a home in Westchester with the G League Knicks, and soon found a place on New York’s squad to survive and thrive. How did Trey get here and how far can he succeed?

Three years to the day.

That’s how long it had been since Trey Burke made his last NBA start. It came about a week and a half before he fell out of Utah’s rotation for good, the continuation of a downward spiral that had yet to reach it’s lowest point.

It’s unclear when exactly Burke hit rock bottom, but there are two things we know for sure: First, Sunday night in Washington—where Burke started, killed it, and led the Knicks to an unlikely win—was the highest he’s been in a while.

Second, and more importantly, is that it doesn’t look like Burke is done climbing.


Great expectations

Careers in the National Basketball Association generally follow one of four paths:

  • Path 1: you’re pretty clearly a star from day one. Even if the going might get rough at times, there’s never a doubt in anyone’s mind that you have the goods.
  • Path 2: you stink, and continue stinking. This isn’t the most interesting of paths. It’s like driving through Kansas.
  • Path 3: you start slow, look like a bust, and then someone, somewhere figures out that you’re good. This happens all the time, mostly because people like Billy King have jobs.
  • Path 4 (the rarest path): you come in guns blazing, but the league figures you out sooner rather than later, and your career is a dud before anyone realizes what happened.

The list for “Path 4” is a long and not very illustrious one…Landry Fields, MarShon Brooks, Jonny Flynn, Jamario Moon, Luther Head, Jarvis Hayes, Adam Morrison, to name a few—all were members of All-Rookie teams from just the last 15 years and all flamed out within a few years. Sometimes injury played a role, but mostly the NBA just caught up to them. Hell, Michael Carter-Williams won Rookie of the Year in 2014 and it would be mildly shocking if he isn’t playing overseas 18 months from now.

Joining MCW on the All-Rookie First Team in 2014 was one Trey Burke, who is now trying to write a script straight out of Tinseltown.

It was just four years ago that Burke finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting behind Carter-Williams and Victor Oladipo. He won the Rookie of the Month award three times that season, one year after being named the national college player of the year.

Burke was far from great during his rookie year with the Jazz, shooting an unsightly 38 percent from the field. His 33 percent from deep on nearly five attempts per game showed promise, though, as did his near six dimes a night, first on the team. Mostly though, he was a positive force on an otherwise terrible team.

Thanks to a broken index finger, Trey missed the first dozen games of his rookie year. The Jazz lost 11 of them, as well as the first two after Burke’s return when he came off the bench and played limited minutes. He started every game the rest of the way, with the team going 24–44 during that stretch. Before Utah slid down the standings to end the year, losing 20 of the season’s final 24 games, they were 20–23 in games Burke started with a roster filled mostly with young, raw players and cast-offs.

Without Trey, it would have been a lot worse. According to Cleaning the Glass, which measures a player’s efficiency differential on a team, the Jazz were 6.3 points per 100 possessions better with Burke on the floor than with him off, which was in the 85th percentile of all NBA players (for comparison’s sake, Gordon Hayward, Utah’s leading scorer that year, was a +1.6 in the same category).

According to NBA Stats, the Jazz offense died a slow, painful death without Burke—Utah scored only 95.8 points per 100 possessions when he sat, which would have been even worse than the last place “Process” Sixers that season.

Without question, he had as much promise as any rookie guard in the league. And then it all began to fall apart.

Shaken, not stirred

Thanks to the tank, the Jazz moved up to the fourth pick in the draft and selected another point guard, Dante Exum. This came after firing their head coach Ty Corbin and replacing him with Quinn Snyder. Burke now admits both moves messed with his head, and the stats showed. In his sophomore season, Burke’s shooting became even worse. His 36.8 field-goal percentage was dead last among the 76 NBA players who took at least 12 attempts per game, one spot behind the Kobe Bryant’s penultimate season. As a result, Burke started only 43 of 76 games. The following year—his last in Utah—he started none. Last season’s extended cup of coffee with the Washington Wizards impressed no one.

To encapsulate just how far Burke’s career careened off the cliff, let’s go back to that efficiency differential stat from Cleaning the Glass. What started as a +6.3 dropped to a -2.9, then to a -6.3, then to a  -15.3, which was in the fourth percentile of players league-wide last year. It was no surprise that by the time rosters were done filling out in September, Burke was nowhere to be found (despite claiming to have received two-way contract offers, which Trey says he turned down in order to rebuild his image through the G League—a humbling experience).

From Westchester with Love

This season, Trey Burke is one of seven players in the NBA averaging 20 points and seven assists per 36 minutes, per NBA Stats. Five of the other six—LeBron, Harden, Russ, CP3 and John Wall—are future Hall of Famers, and the last is Dennis Schröder. Burke’s efficiency differential this season is a +1.4, which on this Knicks team counts as a minor miracle. The Knicks are hanging with teams when he’s out there and getting outscored by 7.3 points per 100 possessions when he’s not.

Fans concerned with his ability to be a “true” point guard should take solace in his team-leading assist percentage of 32.9 and minuscule turnover rate (6.7 percent). Of the 53 players with a usage rate over 25, he’s the only one with an assist to turnover ratio above three, 3.87.

There are legitimate questions about whether Burke’s productivity is sustainable, though, just like in Salt Lake City. His true shooting percentage of 58.1—right in the neighborhood of All-Stars Kemba Walker and Victor Oladipo—seems unsustainable. He’s hitting half of all midrange shots and 52 percent on long midrangers—both in the top five percent of players at his position. Combined with the fact that he takes a greater percentage of of his shots from those distances than just about anyone, it’s fair to wonder whether his scoring punch for New York could survive even a slight drop off in his shooting.

Then there’s his defense. The Knicks are giving up 113.4 points per 100 possessions with Burke on the floor, a number that would rank last in the league. Even playing with Frank, that number is still very high—109.6, per NBA Stats. That said, embattled coach Jeff Hornacek has praised Burke’s defense since Trey’s arrival. It’s not hard to see why; although he’s had a tendency to get caught on screens and occasionally has trouble sticking with his man, he’s also a pest that gives full effort and knows what he’s supposed to be doing, which is half the battle:

When surrounded by the right pieces, it’s not unimaginable to envision Burke has a serviceable guard with reputable defense.

Even with the concerns on both ends, it’s also entirely possible that Burke hasn’t yet reached his peak. Just 25 years old, Burke is at an age where many players come into their own, including one four-time All-Star who’s current team was ready to give up on him less than five years ago.

At 25, Kyle Lowry was in the middle of his second full season with the Houston Rockets. They would become the second team to give up on the undersized point guard (he was drafted by Memphis), and they almost weren’t the last.

In December of 2013, Lowry was famously nearly dealt to the New York Knicks (“the deal was done” he would later say), but James Dolan apparently vetoed the trade at the last minute. To date, it was the last season Lowry didn’t make an All-Star team. (Maybe being threatened with having to play on the Knicks lights the fire under seesawing players.)

Like Trey, Kyle is short—his listed six feet is probably generous, too—but that’s merely where the parallels with Burke begin. For much of his career, Lowry was nobody’s idea of a long-term solution at point guard. When he first arrived in Toronto in 2012, Lowry started only 15 of the team’s first 45 games, per Basketball-Reference. Toronto was 16–30 when Lowry finally took the starting job for good José Calderón, a familiar face for Knicks fans. The Raptors went .500 the rest of the way.

Burke can look to Lowry for inspiration in two areas in particular. First, the former Wildcat worked hard to become a long-range threat after shooting just 26 percent from deep through his first four years in the league. Burke was a career 33 percent shooter from three before this season. So far for the Knicks, he’s hitting 38.4 percent of triple attempts on 4.8 attempts per 36 minutes.

Second, and more importantly, Lowry reinvented himself as a dogged defender, who is now respected as one of the peskiest on-ball dudes in the league despite his verticality, or lack thereof. Hopefully, Burke seems to be showing signs of doing the same.

Lowry is just one of a long line of point guards who, whether it was due to teams not believing in them or the player not figuring it out, didn’t get things going until past the midway mark of their 20’s. At 25, Isaiah Thomas was a Suns castoff dealt to the Celtics for a mid-first-round pick. Steve Nash was a backup in Dallas. Chauncey Billups was a part-time starter with the Timberwolves. Ditto for Goran Dragic in Houston. Heck, John Stockton is the greatest statistical point guard of all time and his age-25 season was also his first as a full-time starter.

My Next Chapter

With Burke, it’s very possible that his downturn was partially the result of self-inflicted wounds. We shouldn’t discount how much a change of lifestyle (he’s happily married now) and, reportedly, renewed faith in God has helped Burke both on and off the court. He took inspiration from John Wall last year and it helped him realize he needs to attack every game like it might be his last. We’ve all seen people who turn their lives around mid-stream thanks to a change in priorities—we just don’t usually see it from professional athletes, who often realize the need to adjust when the ship has sailed.

Still, going from legit franchise building block to out of the league, and then back to putting up near-All-Star level numbers on a per minute basis, albeit in limited court time?  It’s rarer than Damyean Dotson getting off the bench.

There have been players who have come into the NBA with much acclaim and find their niche later in their careers—J.J. Redick is a recent example—but they usually don’t taste any success early on like Burke did. Tyreke Evans won Rookie of the Year before hitting a lull, and is now a valuable bench combo guard. His low point never saw him unable to get work at the pro level, though. Ditto for Dion Waiters, who went from top-five pick to a near league-minimum one-year contract before striking gold with Miami last offseason.

There have been plenty of players who spent time in the G League following NBA stints that later came back into the bigs to make an impact, but none that started out with Burke’s fanfare. Hassan Whiteside was the 33rd overall pick in the draft but barely played with Sacramento in between trips down to the minors (among various continents). Shaun Livingston easily had the most early-career success of any G Leaguer to return and actually be good, but a devastating knee injury had a little-to-a-lot to do with that.

Perhaps the closest comp to what Burke is trying to do was accomplished by another undersized guard that New Yorkers know quite well, Nate Robinson. Robinson will play in the BIG 3 league, but well before that he performed some late-game heroics in New York. At one point, though, Nate was nearly out of the league at 26 years old before the Chicago Bulls took a flyer on the former slam dunk champion while Derrick Rose was sidelined. Nate the Great’s biggest moment for Chicago was playoff brilliance, where he led an undermanned Bulls team to the second round, facing LeBron James‘ Miami Heat team. Robinson led the Bulls to a game-one upset over James, though, with 27 key points.

On Monday, Burke led the Knicks in a comeback against the Hornets, eventually running out of steam (and defensive ability against Kemba Walker) and losing in overtime. Burke scored 42 points and dished out 12 assists in the entertaining defeat.

What’s next for Burke and the Knicks?

There are still far more questions than answers at this point. Does Burke top out as a starter or just a high-end backup? Should his presence on the roster influence how the Knicks draft, and in particular, should it change their mindset when considering whether to pick another undersized point guard who dominated college and may or may not share the same name? If Burke does keep ascending, will New York feel the need to pay to keep him in orange and blue come the summer of 2019 (he’s signed to a non-guaranteed, team-friendly deal in 2018–19)?

(And by the way, don’t dismiss the possibility of Burke remaining with the team long term. Thanks to his dirt-cheap contract for next season, Burke’s cap hold for 2019 will be under $2.4 million. They should theoretically be able to spend serious dough on an outside free agent while holding onto Burke’s Bird rights, thus allowing them to go over the cap to sign him to a deal up to four years, $36 million. Hat-tip to @KnickFilmSchool for all of this.)

In the meantime, the former Wolverine will sit back, enjoy his alma mater’s first trip to the Final Four since he was there, and continue to battle for minutes with another point guard who would do well to look across the locker room and learn from Trey’s journey, Emmanuel Mudiay.

At this point, Burke has to look at Mudiay and realize how far he’s come. He is on the verge of doing something truly unprecedented in NBA history. If it continues, the Knicks are going to have some very interesting decisions on their hands.

They’ll be thrilled if they have to make them.

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