What are Trey Burke’s chances of succeeding in the NBA?

Jacob Eisenberg uses advanced statistics and videos to compare and contrast Trey Burke with some of the NBA’s best point guards. 

Let’s preface this scouting report with some harsh realities for Trey Burke:

A point guard renaissance has taken over the NBA. The point guards whom we typically think of as “league average,” and who probably would have been considered league average several years ago, are actually something quite different these days.

Take a player like Jrue Holiday as a prime example of how deep the position has become.

I wrote a raving column about Holiday’s development in late March and prematurely anointed him as an elite point guard. 280px-Jrue_Holliday_dribbling

Now, just three months later, I’m not even sure Holiday fits in my top-10 any more. Sure, he was an All-Star and averaged nearly 18 points and 8 assists. Regardless, it’s hard to say for certain whether Holiday is actually better than Ty Lawson, Mike Conley, or John Wall.

Players one notch below those aforementioned fringe All-Stars (think Kyle Lowry, Jeff Teague, Raymond Felton, and George Hill) can’t all be average or above-average starting point guards in the league. It’s just not mathematically possible. There are only fourteen spots for the “above average” designation. By my estimation, all fourteen of those spots are filled by players who will be All-Star candidates at the start of next season.

Burke is expected to be the first point guard taken in the 2013 draft. Rest assured: whichever team picks Burke will be doing so under the expectation that he can immediately take the reigns of the franchise and become an above average starter in the league.

Does this mean Trey Burke is doomed from the start?

A pessimist will happily point to three recent instances and say yes:

1. Kendall Marshall was in Burke’s shoes last season as a top point guard in the draft. Just one year later, the Suns are already considering taking a point guard in the lottery to replace Marshall. Marshall’s inability to shoot simply prevents Phoenix from ever playing him serious minutes behind Goran Dragic.Brandon Knight

2. The Pistons used the eighth pick in 2011 on Brandon Knight. Now, Detroit is realizing that he will probably never develop into the above-average point guard they were hoping for. In 2013-2014, they will try to reinvent him as a shooting guard.

3. Kemba Walker was a superstar in college and has shown flashes of stardom in the NBA. And while it may be too early to say for sure, few executives consider him to be a legitimate cornerstone point guard of the future. He might be better suited for a career as a super scorer off the bench.

Clearly, the cards are stacked against Burke as he will face lofty expectations from day one. Regardless, I believe he has the best chance of any point guard in this class to reach the above-average (aka potential All-Star) level.

To properly assess Burke’s credentials and candidacy, I made two extensive Excel spreadsheets and analyzed how Burke compares out of college to some of the league’s best point guards from the past 10 drafts.

While there was conclusively too much data to sift through and discover breakthrough patterns from such little time, I was able to ascertain that every great point guard in the NBA who lacked elite athleticism out of college (sorry Westbrook, Rondo, and Rose), became great in the NBA because they did two things extremely well in college: take good care of the ball and keep defenses honest on the perimeter with a strong jump shot. Sure, scoring, rebounding, assisting, and steals were all somewhat important. However, when it came to the most indicative stats, Assist to Turnover Ratio and True Shooting % reigned supreme.

Using this knowledge, I then made a second spreadsheet with a smaller sample size. In this second spreadsheet, I took six former college superstars who were all drafted in the first rounds of recent drafts. I then compared these players’ college stats, videos, and combine results to Trey Burke’s.

What I eventually came up with was a tier system of players whose transcendent college talents translated to varying degrees of success in the NBA. I analyzed a superstar (Chris Paul), a star (Mike Conley), a starter (Jeff Teague), a sixth man (Jarrett Jack), a backup (DJ Augustin), and a bust (Acie Law). 414px-Acie_Law_Warriors

While Burke likes to compare himself to Chris Paul in interviews, I had been quietly fearful of Burke’s game translating more directly to Law’s.

What I did not realize until after the study was that Law entered the draft at 22 years old. Because Burke is two full years younger, he has much more room for growth upon entering the NBA than Law ever did. Overwhelmingly, my data supported the notion that the younger a point guard is at the time of declaration, the more likely he is to develop into a star.

The first (and easiest) thing I set out to do was prove that Burke’s height will have little determination of how he fares at the next level.

Player Height
Chris Paul 6’1”
Mike Conley 6’0.75”
Jeff Teague 6’1.5”
Jarrett Jack 6’3.5”
D.J. Augustin 5’11.5”
Acie Law 6’3.5”
Trey Burke 6’1.25”

As you can see, contrary to popular belief, Burke’s height will not be the “end all, be all” to his career. Plenty of successful point guards are shorter. Moreover, at 187 pounds, Burke is coming into the league a full 10 pounds heavier than Paul, Conley, or Teague did.

What video clips showed me  Burke needs to improve upon most is his pick and roll defense. As we saw with D.J. Augustin in the playoffs, defending the pick and roll properly is arguably the most important thing for undersized point guards to learn. Despite his hot shooting, Augustin was unable to stay on the court in the closing minutes of tight playoff games because opponents quickly identified him as a lame duck on the defensive end.

Augustin is too small to switch with big men on picks and isn’t fast enough to catch up to his opponents on blow-bys. Both the Knicks and Heat successfully lured Roy Hibbert out of the paint by merely setting a string of picks on Augustin. When the Pacers would inevitably switch, Augustin would invariably relent positioning in the post. Knowing this, Augustin eventually called off switches and consistently got burnt:

Burke has better lateral quickness and longer arms than Augustin. However, he often goes under screens and is too reliant on his length to disrupt an opponent’s shot. While Burke’s 6’5.5” wingspan helps him make up for some deficiencies in size, his length will only be considered as average among NBA point guards. Slipping under screens barely cut it in the Big Ten, it certainly won’t cut it against Stephen Curry or Kyrie Irving.

Unfortunately for Burke, going over the top of screens won’t exactly solve his problems either. Athletes like Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose can take an inch of daylight and turn it into two points at the rim within nanoseconds.

Burke also has a tendency to ball-watch, which clearly cannot happen at the next level:

It’s not an uncorrectable problem, but it does happen more times than you would like to see out of your floor general. In the NBA, smart cutters will eat him alive when he loses focus. But I digress.

If I were about to use my lottery pick on Burke, I’d make sure I had a personal trainer ready to work with him on his upper body strength and lateral quickness.

For such a bulky build, Burke is surprisingly weak in the upper body. He only bench-pressed three repetitions at the combine at the point guards’ standard weight. To put this in perspective, both Conley and Teague benched 13 reps at their respective combines, despite having longer arms.

While bench pressing has become a somewhat outdated barometer of total strength, it is still a good indicator of upper body mass. And as several experts have noted, Burke never appears to have smooth collisions when he drives into big men at the rim. If Burke builds his upper body strength, however, he will undoubtedly become a better finisher and reduce his chances of sustaining a serious injury later in his career.

Now that I’ve spelled out all the things Burke needs to improve, it’s time to analyze what the 20-year-old does well.

First and foremost, expect Burke to thrive on the offensive end. His 3 to 1 Assist to Turnover Ratio ranks him with the best point guard prospects of the last decade. What’s even more impressive is his care with the ball at fast speeds. Burke’s 4.3 to 1 Assist to Turnover Ratio on fast breaks is the best of all his peers in this draft (per Synergy Sports via DraftExpress.com) He has also mastered fast break lobs from far distances, as seen here:

Moreover, per 100 possessions, Burke’s 37.2 assists and 13.4 turnovers (per Statsheet.com) blow Paul, Conley, and Teague’s college numbers out of the water.

Michigan averaged 121.2 points per 100 possessions with Burke on the floor, ranking them among the top three offenses in the entire NCAA. Perhaps the best indicator of Burke’s value on the court can be found in his Roland Average. Per Statsheet.com, Michigan netted an average of 11 points better when Burke was on the floor compared to when he was resting throughout the season. Michael Carter-Williams, who some scouts prefer to Burke for his total package, only posted a 9.4 Roland Average for Syracuse.

While Burke’s highlights always seem to come from fast breaks, he is actually at his best as a pick and roll creator in the half court. He is an extremely clever distributor and already reads passing angles at an elite level.

Also, despite his youth and relatively small size, Burke utilizes his bulky frame like a seasoned veteran. Watch below as he seals off his defender, which subsequently gives his big man enough time to roll to the hoop:

Amazingly, only 8.2% of Burke’s pick and roll plays resulted in turnovers (per Synergy Sports via DraftExpress.com). In a league in which every team utilizes the pick and roll frequently, Burke may already be one of the most efficient pick and roll practitioners in the world.

Burke’s shooting percentages indicate that he will be a steady threat from the perimeter in the NBA. His 1.01 points per possession on jump shots is nearly identical to Damian Lillard’s coming out of Weber State last year (per Synergy Sports via DraftExpress.com). Moreover, Burke’s 42% shooting off the dribble was just barely worse than his 44% on set shots.

Burke’s College Shot ((TS% + 3PT%)/2), a statistic I invented to exaggerate the positive impact a good shooter has on his team, was 47.6% last season. To put that into perspective, a great shooter like Stephen Curry posted a 53.9 % College Shot in his best year at Davidson. Meanwhile, a very good shooter like Deron Williams posted a 46.2% College Shot in his best year at Illinois. Clearly, Burke already has good range.

While defenders will have to respect his range, they will need to be equally wary of Burke’s quick first step. When defenders overplay him, Burke uses his body and dribbling abilities to get around them handily. For a player we all shy away from calling an elite athlete, Burke gets to the rim at an alarmingly fast rate. He also has an improving touch around the rim and can use both hands to finish on the drive.

Overall, Burke’s vast offensive repertoire far outweighs his shortcomings on defense. Although Burke will face plenty of pressure and scrutiny early on, I expect him to overcome the adversity. We haven’t seen a point guard as statistically efficient and aesthetically pleasing as Burke on offense in quite some time.

Jacob Eisenberg writes the daily Evening News for Sheridan Hoops. He is a rising junior at Emory University and frequently reports at Atlanta Hawks games. Check out his website here. Follow him on twitter @eisenberg43.

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