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Trey Burke Is the Missing Piece to the Knicks’ Cursed Guard Depth

The Knicks have stunted player development in favor of a veteran push to make (and fail to reach) the playoffs. What if promoting G League baller Trey Burke could answer both problems?

Many of us thought the Knicks would be passively tanking for a future wing. Yet here they are, surprisingly off to a decent start. They’re hovering over the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference as we head into the new year. While superstar Kristaps Porzingis has missed a few games, the tough void that hasn’t been completely filled in the absence of Tim Hardaway Jr.

Since Hardaway Jr.’s sideline, the Knicks have gone 6–5 as he nurses a stress injury in his leg. Despite remaining in contention in a bottom-heavy East, what the Knicks have sorely missed is a consistent option off the bench. They particularly miss a lot of threes (and don’t take a lot either). The one player that could take them over the edge is Trey Burke, Junior’s former Michigan teammate, and currently situated in Westchester on New York’s G League affiliate team.

Remember how good Trey Burke was during the Wolverines’ illustrious run in 2013? Not only did the stud point guard win National Player of the Year, he led the team to their first championship game since the Fab Five. After being held to seven points in the semi-finals, Burke exploded in the championship game—particularly via his superb penetrating ability.

While Burke’s NBA career has gotten off to a rocky start due to injuries and roster shakeups (he started 111 games out of 267 in three seasons for the Utah Jazz). He had several great moments as Utah’s rookie floor general. He finished third in Rookie of the Year votes and hit this dagger versus the Knicks early in his sophomore season. He had a slight drop-off after being traded to the Washington Wizards in 2016. Still, he reminded fans that he’s as good as his Michigan days by torching the Miami Heat earlier this year:

In desperate need of bolstering its backcourt, the Knicks acquired Burke for his ability to create his own shot, his lightning speed, and his unselfishness with the rock. One has to believe that the signing of his former Wolverines teammate was a selling point, too. As expected, he’s been one of the best players in the G League. So, should the Knicks invest in Trey Burke for the long haul?

To answer that question, first, let’s take a look at his production thus far.


Offense

The Westchester Knicks have a 15–8 record with only two losses on the road. Not only is Trey Burke the team’s leading scorer—averaging 27 points per game—but he’s among the more prolific scorers this season. The first-time G League guard has scored double digits in all but two games. Picking up where he left off in Washington, Burke is shooting 42 percent from beyond the arc, per NBA Stats.

With his Dyckman-esque handles, Burke is easily able to create space between him and the most tenacious defender. He doesn’t hesitate or settle for bad, rushed shots. What’s particularly endearing, similar to flame-throwers like Eric Gordon and Bradley Beal, his three-point form is so fluid. Whether he’s on the move or going man-to-man, Burke’s shot always looks smooth:

Burke does most of his damage from mid-range. As the anchor in the baby Knicks’ offense, the team getting off to hot starts often depends heavily on Burke’s talent at pulling up from the elbow. On the season, 70.1 percent of his shot attempts come from inside the arc with 25.3 percent of his points come mid-range. He breaks down defenders with a quick first step like Derrick Rose and has the soft touch at the rim reminiscent of young Tony Parker. The Knicks could benefit from having another slasher who can get to the cup. And given Burke’s skill at changing direction on the dime, how great would it be to see the Knicks play at a faster pace against teams that struggle to protect the paint?

Seeing another one of Westchester’s games live last night, to my surprise, Burke went scoreless for the entire first half. Coming out after halftime, however, Burke went off. He scored 16 in the fourth quarter alone, including hitting clutch free throws to close the game. Graciously, he looked to keep moving the ball when he couldn’t get any clean looks. The Knicks have improved their ball movement so much from last season as the roster has no possession-ending ball-stoppers. Burke is capable of weaving the ball in between tight spots inside and between his defenders, and he always knows where his big man is going to be coming off screens. Right now, the Knicks lack that continuity between Frank Ntilikina and Jarrett Jack. Burke is the ideal plug-in order to see less of Jack (and Ron Baker) on the floor.

Defense

At 6’1″ and 191 pounds, Trey Burke is undersized to be able to put the clamps on a majority of the elite guards. He masks that with intuitiveness for the passing lane. He’s not a great overall defender, and similar to THJ, that likely won’t be able to be improved upon. Yet combined with the length of Ntilikina, these two young guys can create a lot of pressure for the guards who prefer to play iso-ball. For his size, it’s believed Burke is a decent on-ball defender though. He’s averaging 1.9 steals per game—enough to be ahead of Frank as well as Courtney Lee if Burke were playing on an official NBA roster.

How does Trey Burke fit in with the Knicks’ future?

Burke just turned 25. He’s the perfect age to handle the scoring load as a second and sometimes third option. This season, Hornacek is in the position to play a three-guard lineup with Jack/Lee/THJ. With Timmy out, the Knicks miss a potent threat from beyond the arc. Lee is shooting more, which is great for his trade value, but for the Knicks moving forward, Burke addresses the long-term need of another efficient young scorer.

None of the Knicks’ point guards are averaging double figures in scoring. We are likely a season or two from seeing what Ntilikina is capable of as a bucket-getter. He’s shown promise and is moving towards being more assertive in getting his own shots off. Ideally, the Knicks call up Burke at some point this season to see how he and Frank could run the point. Burke could surely be a sixth man if General Manager Scott Perry isn’t able to move Lee for someone better than Burke.

Addressing the Knicks’ weakness as a three-point shooting team begins with reuniting the old Wolverine pals. Calling Burke up and including him in the development of Ntilikina will help THJ as well as KP be better long-distance shooters. It’s hard to say when we’ll see another deep draft of proficient scoring guards like last year’s, so it would be prudent of the Knicks’ brass to properly incorporate its G League affiliate star while giving KP a reason to be optimistic about staying well into his prime and beyond.

James Woodruff

Fan of Knicks/Cuse hoops, Panera sandwiches, Avion Tequila, and a good whiskey. Invested in improving your 40 time.

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