Even though the Utah Jazz are an exceptionally young team, their focus on defensive intensity led to the team finishing dead-last in one surprising statistical category last season: pace. At 90.4 possessions per game, the Jazz were on the opposite side of the spectrum compared to the Golden State Warriors, who led the league at 98.3 possessions per game on their way to the championship.
Not that being slow is inherently a bad thing. Golden State’s opponent in the Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers, finished with just the 25th-fastest pace, and Western Conference heavyweights the Memphis Grizzlies were right behind them at 26th. But for a team who doesn’t have a ton of offensive playmakers like the Jazz, playing with a faster pace means more fast breaks, which means more opportunities at the basket before the opponent defense is set.
Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey is clearly aware of the positive effects of fast-break points. Joining the Utah TV broadcast during last week’s preseason game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Lindsey said:
We’re going to have to create stops, and transition quickly off of our stops, create offense off of our defense. If we do that, that will help us move to a different level.
So far, it looks like no Jazz player is more aware of this command from above than Alec Burks, who’s coming off a season in which he only played 27 games thanks to a shoulder injury. In this year’s preseason, Burks was clearly excited to get back onto the court, playing with energy that led to both a ton of fast-break points and also free throws earned from fouls drawn on the fast break.
In that same game against the Thunder, look at how Burks created a fast break effectively out of thin air. Utah’s possession started harmlessly enough, with Burks gathering a defensive rebound near the baseline. As Burks corralled the ball, he was behind the play:
But within seconds, Burks got out in front of the play, having blown past nearly every other player on the floor. He drew a foul on Kevin Durant, which is obviously a valuable moment for any Thunder opponent:
Later in the same game, Burks’s aggression off a Utah steal showed a huge key to his increased fast break prowess: getting the first accelerated step, from the defensive end, before any other player does. As Joe Ingles gathered the steal, look at how Burks already took a first powerful step the other way as other players were still computing the change in possession:
Once again, Burks got out in front of everybody, and once again drew a foul:
These examples aren’t just limited to one game — they happen every night. Here’s Burks with the first step off a steal against the Denver Nuggets:
Or here he is off a jump ball, of all things, against the Portland Trail Blazers:
The end result is a lot more high-percentage scoring opportunities for Burks. After averaging 5.4 free throws per 36 minutes in his first four seasons, Burks averaged 5.4 free throws per game this preseason — and he played 27.5 minutes per game. Also, three-point shots accounted for 18.6 percent of Burks’s career field goal attempts, a percentage that went down to 10 percent this preseason. Look for Burks to continue stealing a few buckets each night — whether they’re open dunks or free throws — with his lightning-quick first step.