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Trey Burke is Real Contender for Most Improved Player

Jose Carlos Fajardo/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

For Trey Burke’s first two seasons with the Utah Jazz (2013-14 and 2014-15), his extremely inefficient performance left Salt Lake City faithful wondering about the wisdom of the trade Utah swung in order to acquire Burke: it was a draft-night deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves where Utah gave up the rights to Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng. Over those two seasons, Burke had the league’s very worst field goal percentage among the 77 players who attempted at least 12 shots a game — just a few bricks worse than Kobe Bryant (37.4 percent compared to Bryant’s 37.8 percent). It looked not just possible but probable that, amidst a string of incredibly successful draft picks from the Utah front office, they made a mis-evaluation with Burke.

Even though we’re in the very early moments of Burke’s third NBA season, it appears that he has near-instantaneously reversed the trajectory of his NBA career. Not only is Burke posting a career best in practically every statistical category, but he has transformed from an offensive liability who needs “development minutes” into a dynamic off-the-bench scorer. If the rest of the season progresses as the first few weeks have, Burke should gather at least a few down-ballot votes for both the Sixth Man and Most Improved Player awards.

In Burke’s first two seasons, he started in 111 of his 146 games played. This season, he has come off of the bench in all 11 contests. Amongst a more selfish team, this would be viewed as a demotion. But within Utah’s selfless and hard-working locker room, there is the understanding that this is a lateral shift in responsibilities: while Burke isn’t receiving the glamorous pregame introductions, he has, more importantly, been liberated to operate as a proactive attacker on offense.

Credit head coach Quin Snyder with the innovative moves — and also credit his players for being willing to go with the program. Rookie point guard Raul Neto has been an unconventional but resourceful fit within the starting lineup, and fellow guard Alec Burks has also seen his scoring efficiency skyrocket from off the bench. These rotations allow Utah to have at least two creative wing scorers on the floor at all times — be it Burke, Burks, Rodney Hood or Gordon Hayward — and has also kept individual workloads at a responsible level: only two players overall, Hayward and Rudy Gobert, are averaging 31 or more minutes per game.

Here are three statistics that I see reflecting the incredible overall changes in Burke’s game:

1. More Shots At The Rim

According to Basketball-Reference, only 14.9 percent of Burke’s field goal attempts over his first two seasons came within three feet of the rim. This year, Burke’s rate of ultra-close shots has more than doubled, all the way up to 30.3 percent of his field goal attempts. By driving and finding so many shots in the key, Burke’s percentage on two-point shots this season is at 47.9 percent after a previous career mark of 40.5 percent.

2. More Assisted Shots

Burke’s three-point percentage has also taken a huge leap: from a pedestrian 32.4 percent over his first two seasons all the way up to a sizzling 47.2 percent this season. A big reason for the increase in the percentage is that the ball is moving much better within Utah’s second unit. Of the 17 three-pointers that Burke has made this season, NBA.com tracks 16 of them as coming off of assists.

3. More Attacks Early in the Shot Clock

Last season, NBA.com tracked Burke as taking 12.3 percent of his field goal attempts with less than four seconds remaining on the shot clock — shots that tend to be desperation heaves. This year, that percentage is all the way down to 7.3 percent. More of Burke’s shots are coming with between 22-18 seconds left on the shot clock — attempts that tend to come in the fast break, or at least before the opposing defense has been properly set. Last season, 10.6 percent of Burke’s attempts came in this early chunk of the possession, while this year that rate is up to 17.4 percent, highest among Utah regulars.

Put it all together, and you’ve got a player whose confidence is only going up and up with more open, in-rhythm shooting opportunities for him to capitalize on:

For the first time in his career, Trey Burke is truly looking like a lottery pick.

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