Cheering for one of the worst teams in the NBA can cause a fan to get desperate about finding something to, well, cheer for.
In the context of a better rookie class, Burke's numbers and Utah's record would make him a disappointment for a top-10 pick. But the 2013-14 crop of newcomers has the second-worst average for wins above replacement players (or WARP), according ESPN's Kevin Pelton (subscription required). On the only two classes in NBA history with a negative WARP, he said:
The 1990 draft (3.7 WARP as rookies) and 2007 draft (2.8) also were relatively weak, though they'd eventually yield superstars Gary Payton and Kevin Durant, respectively. But the 2000 draft had been the only rookie class since the ABA-NBA merger to leave the league worse off than if no rookies had played at all -- until now.
As a part of this woefully ineffective crop of rooks, Burke has managed to look decent by comparison. He even won rookie of the month twice.
Extending the lens beyond this season paints a different picture, though.
The Case against Burke
There are a few different ways to find rookie campaigns comparable to Burke's. Let's start with some basic numbers. His averages of 12.6 points and 5.5 assists look decent, but his field-goal percentage of 38.1 torpedoes his effectiveness.
In NBA history, there are 11 players who've averaged more than five assists while shooting less than 40 percent from the field during their rookie season. In that group of 11, Burke is ninth in assists and rebounds per game, and last in steals and player efficiency rating (PER).
His PER of 12.5 puts him right around the same level of efficiency as the rookie seasons of Muggsy Bogues and Jason Williams (more on that later).
We can find more comparable players using offensive and defensive rating (ORtg and DRtg). According to Basketball-Reference, ORtg is "points produced per 100 posessions." DRtg is "points allowed per 100 posessions."
There are nine rookies in NBA history with an ORtg between 99 and 103, and a DRtg between 113 and 117. In that group, Burke's field-goal percentage of 38.1 is last.
The two players from the two groups whose rookie seasons are easiest to compare to Burke's are Williams and Jimmer Fredette. Yes, Jimmer—the player so many Jazz fans who also rep the Utah Utes love to hate:
Statistically, Williams is the best comparison. But as I'm sure you recall, his game had much more flair to it. Burke is more of a chest pass guy, while Williams had a repertoire stocked with a variety of behind-the-back passes and fancy dribbles.
Physically, Burke is more like Fredette. Yes, he's a lot smaller, but his athletic ability is similar. According to DraftExpress.com, Burke had a max vertical jump three inches better than Fredette's. But it was Jimmer who had a better lane-agility time (almost a full second better, in fact).
Fredette, now a guard with the Chicago Bulls, has been skewered by critics over the course of his three years in the NBA because of his lack of athleticism, but Burke might be even slower laterally. It's part of why he's struggled so much defensively this season—that and his size (he's listed at 6'0").
With those kinds of physical limitations, a consistent jumper is critical. Burke certainly hasn't exhibited one, and it's making everything else harder for him. But that doesn't mean he can't become the real deal.
The Case for Burke
Burke's shot may be broken, he may not fit the size profile of an NBA point guard and his team's been terrible this season. But there's reason to believe he can fix his shot, neutralize the negative effects of his lack of size and help his team play better.
He needs to have the right mentality. He needs to recognize there's a ways to go and it's going to take some hard work to get there. It's an attitude he may already have. While talking about how Utah always introduces him last among the starting five, Burke told Vince Ellis of The Detroit Free Press:
I eventually want to be in that vein, but I don’t want to say I am that guy right now, but I’m definitely working to be that type of franchise guy. I noticed that in the beginning of the season that they called me last. It was kind of awkward at first, but now I’m kind of used to it. I’m sure none of the other guys really care about it. I think that definitely gives me confidence, makes me work harder to become that guy some day.
He's already shown flashes of being that guy. In clutch time (defined as "4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points" by 82games), Burke is shooting 50 percent from the field and averaging 30 points per 48 minutes. Something clicks for him in tight situations, and his mental toughness supersedes his inconsistency and lack of size:
It's just finding consistency that's eluded Burke.
Mechanics don't seem to be the problem. He generally has decent balance, his elbow isn't pointing out as he raises up, and his follow through is consistent.
So his problem may be a mental one. NBA defenses apply more pressure and individual defenders close out faster than Burke is used to. As a shooter, it's tough to block that out. It will take time.
It certainly did for him in college. The jump from high school to a major NCAA program led to less-than-stellar percentages for Burke as a freshman at Michigan. But as he adjusted to the speed and athleticism of the college game, those numbers crept up:
If the same happens for him in the NBA, everything else will become easier for Burke. A consistent jump shot will keep defenders honest, forcing them to go over screens in the pick-and-roll game, which will open up driving lanes. That will lead to more layups and opportunities for Burke to dump the ball off to Derrick Favors or Enes Kanter.
Distributing like that is something Burke already does effectively, though not enough.
He's shown a knack for taking care of the ball, as his assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.9 trails only Nate Wolters, Matthew Dellavedova and Ray McCallum among rookies. He just needs to pass more.
NBA.com defines an assist opportunity as "passes by a player to a teammate in which the teammate attempts a shot, and if made, would be an assist." Burke is second on the Jazz behind Gordon Hayward in assist opportunities at 10.6. Meanwhile, he's taking 12.6 shots a game.
Part of this is a function of the fact that Hayward often initiates the offense, while Burke plays off the ball. But there are certainly times when he's hunting his own shot rather than looking to set one up for a teammate.
He'd be wise to model his game after another Jazz guard who was supposed to lack the physical tools to be successful at this level.
John Stockton averaged more assists than shot attempts over the course of his career. Among the top 100 in NBA history in assist average, Bogues, Nate McMillan and Kendall Marshall are the only others to do that.
Burke won't get to that point, but it's the direction he should head. As he strives to be more of a traditional point guard, he'll get closer to being "that guy."
When defenders have to worry about cutting off driving lanes and playing passing lanes, Burke will be able to spot up for jump shots. If he's hitting those consistently and forcing the opposition to worry about closing out, driving will be easier.
It will take a ton of work, but improving each skill benefits the other. And if he finds that balance, there's still a chance Burke can become the real deal.
Andy Bailey covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.
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