NEW YORK — Only in January can the swapping of a third-string point guard for another feel relevant. But when it's the New York Knicks adding a player just four NBA seasons removed from being selected ninth overall in the draft (and still just 25 years old), it's more than seasonal news.
On Sunday, the Knicks officially acquired Trey Burke, a former lottery pick who lit up for the G League for the Knicks' affiliate. Burke averaged 26.6 points per game, the second-best mark in the league, to go along with 5.4 assists. He was named the league's Player of the Month in December, and he seems to be a different player than the one who flamed out after four NBA seasons.
"I wanted to just start from scratch, kind of re-create my brand, show what I can do on a night-in, night-out basis with consistent minutes," Burke told reporters Sunday when asked about his decision to play in the G League. "I think going down there, a lot of people look at it as a knock. But for me, when I went down there, it was more so like a growing period for me. I kind of wanted to start over."
But there's a reason—or a few—that Burke was in that position in the first place.
Did he improve his game to the point where his presence could wind up saving a derailing Knicks squad? Short answer: Eh. Or, as one scout at the NBA G League Showcase last week put it: "He's fine, but if he's you're difference-maker, you're in big trouble."
The thing Burke can do is score. That was never his problem. For his career, he's averaged 15.6 points per 36 minutes. He's quick, elusive and a smooth mid-range shooter. His long-range stroke, meanwhile, has improved immensely since he was drafted. Burke drilled 44.3 percent of the 3.6 triples he launched per game last year with the Wizards; in the G League, he maintained that efficiency (41.8 percent) despite taking nearly three more treys per game.
Put simply, he could provide the Knicks' floundering offense, currently 16th in the NBA, something it doesn't posses: a point guard who can generate looks and also space the floor past the arc.
"[He gives us] a little more of the ability to penetrate, to get into the lane and the push the ball," Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek said Sunday. "He's got the ability to hit the outside three-point shot. If teams go under, he can keep them honest."
That last part could help the entire team, especially Kristaps Porzingis. In theory, Burke's presence as the ball-handler on a pick-and-pop could draw Porzingis' man into the paint and give the Knicks' unicorn more time and space—two things he rarely has—to let the ball fly.
But one of Burke's limitations since entering the NBA has been his inability to create for others. It's one of the reasons the team that originally drafted him, the Jazz, dumped him onto the Wizards for the measly price of a second-round pick and why the Wizards this summer declined to offer him a contract.
"He's a scorer, not a playmaker," said another scout, a sentiment echoed by multiple talent evaluators at the G League Showcase. Relative to how much offense he created, Burke's assist rate during his two final years in Utah was one the worst marks in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass.
He did improve that number considerably last season in Washington, and he said Sunday that part of the reason he elected to sign with a G League team out of training camp instead of pursuing other NBA opportunities was to prove that he could, indeed, quarterback an offense.
"Can he lead a team, run a team, defend—there were certain questions that I feel like when I went down there I was able to prove and show," Burke said. "With consistent minutes."
Which, of course, he won't be seeing with the Knicks, at least not for a while. They're still comfortable with Jarrett Jack as the starter, and nearly all other PG minutes are reserved for rookie Frank Ntilikina, who the Knicks would like to see develop throughout the year.
Burke, not surprisingly, spent his first game with the Knicks active but on the bench, and Hornacek acknowledged it could be difficult to find him minutes in the immediate future. He did play eight minutes the following day against the Brooklyn Nets (and scored five points go to along with two assists), but part of that was because the Knicks were playing the second game of a back-to-back.
There's also the issues that Burke has had on the defensive end. He's a thin 6'1" and never prioritized stopping opponents. Also, as he acknowledged in a recent interview with CBS Sports' James Herbert, he had trouble adjusting to life as a professional basketball player after being drafted.
Yet there's no arguing that signing Burke was a smart move. There's no downside. Best-case scenario: It turns out he has changed and improved and morphed into a player worthy of a lottery tag, and the Knicks strike gold. Worst case: He remains a score-first point guard who doesn't help his teammates and spends most games glued to the bench.
The latter scenario might not excite fans, but it's the more likely outcome.
Yaron Weitzman covers the Knicks and NBA for Bleacher Report. All stats via NBA.com unless otherwise noted. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman, listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here, and sign up for his newsletter here.