Leading up to the first preseason game for the Utah Jazz, most fans and bloggers figured Alec Burks would start at shooting guard this season. Then Tyrone Corbin announced shortly before the game that Gordon Hayward would be sliding over to the 2, with Richard Jefferson starting at the 3.
In a Salt Lake Tribune article from Steve Luhm, Corbin explained the decision, saying of Burks, "He gives us punch off the bench because he can put the ball in the hole... He can make things happen quickly."
And that's exactly what the third-year slasher did Tuesday night against the Golden State Warriors.
In 22 minutes as a reserve, Burks went 6-of-10 from the field, scored 14 points, dished out four assists and grabbed three rebounds.
There were stretches of the game when he looked like the best player on the floor—largely a product of this being the preseason, but also evidence that he could perhaps assume a different position by the time the real games come around.
Burks' views on the situation were shared by Luhm: "Everybody wants to start, but you have to be able to play your role."
If it's a role Corbin wants him to play, there may not be much Burks can do to change that. It wouldn't be the first time an NBA coach has kept one of his five best players out of the starting lineup—Gregg Popovich with Manu Ginobili for years or Corbin with Hayward last season, to name a couple examples.
But there's nothing wrong with Burks wanting to start. Or to take it one step further, fighting to prove he should start.
And if he wants my advice, there are three things he should focus on in that fight to line up opposite Hayward on the wing: defense, playmaking and efficiency.
Every team in the league starts its best player, often a wing. And while Hayward is a very solid defender with good size and vastly underrated athleticism, Burks has the potential to do even more to slow down those opposing stars.
At 6'6", he may be a couple inches shorter than Hayward, but his 6'10" wingspan is two inches longer and his standing reach is slightly higher as well.
Combine such a frame with top-tier athletic ability, and you get a player with the potential to dominate defensively.
For evidence of that athleticism, look no further than the 2011 combine, where Burks was one of the better athletes tested (his measurements and times can be found at DraftExpress).
Of all the drills conducted there, lane agility (demonstrated below by Shane Larkin) might be the best indicator of a player's ability to stay in front of a ball-handler. And Burks posted one of the best agility times of any shooting guard from the 2011 class.
But perhaps more important than numbers and physical ability is pure desire. To me, that's one of the things that makes Memphis' Tony Allen such a dominant force on defense.
Burks should make it his personal mission to become the kind of defender Corbin has to start in an effort to slow down the other team's star.
Burks has a head start on this one.
He spent a lot of time at point guard for the Jazz last season and worked with John Stockton this past summer. But he may need to place a bit more priority on kicking the ball out after he draws defenders with his drives.
The starting lineup already features two facilitators in Hayward and Trey Burke, but Burks might be more adept at getting to the rim and drawing big men off Enes Kanter or Derrick Favors. That was certainly the case during the team's first preseason game against the Warriors.
When Burks gets to the bucket, defenses will likely collapse, leaving space on the perimeter for Hayward and Burke—who may end up Nos. 1 and 2 in threes made this year.
Thus, Burks' playmaking may make him a better fit in the starting lineup than Jefferson.
Like Corbin said following Tuesday's game, Burks has the ability to score in bundles. But he can do so more efficiently.
In a way, this ties to the focus on being more of a playmaker. When Burks learns to pass up bad looks in favor of dishing to a teammate or restarting the offense, his shooting percentages should go up.
They weren't terrible last season—he shot 42 percent from the field and 35.9 percent from three-point range—but there's certainly room for improvement.
If he gets his shooting from the field up around 45 percent and his three-point mark closer to 38 to 39 percent, Burks could be a third weapon to create space inside for Favors and Kanter.
Both big men will soon become points of emphasis for opposing defenses. If the Jazz want to avoid double-teams inside, they need to surround their starting power forward and center with firepower on the perimeter.
Jefferson or Burks?
I realize that even if Burks spends the entire season in the sixth-man role, he'll likely play more minutes than Jefferson. But I'm still partial to the younger option as the starter.
Still, I can see the value in going with the 12-year veteran. Luhm cited experience as the main factor behind Corbin going with Jefferson, who could certainly bring some steadiness to an otherwise young and untested unit.
But in terms of what works basketball-wise or what offers the most versatility on both ends of the floor, it's Burks.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.
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