ORLANDO — It’s no secret statistics can be deceiving. Exhibit A: The numbers Trey Burke put up against the Miami Heat could lead you to believe the rookie is a bust.
Truth be told, Burke did have a dud of a game against fellow Ohio native LeBron James and the two-time defending champs, including an NBA-low three points on 1-of-8 shooting in Monday’s 117-94 blowout loss.
Even Burke admitted it was a clunker.
Add more evidence, though, and it’s clear that this first-year player is putting together a very nice body of work in his inaugural professional season since a broken finger delayed his debut.
Exhibit B: Three 20-point performances in his first 15 games.
Exhibit C: Rising assist numbers.
Exhibit D: Playing a key role in the Jazz’s vastly improved offense since his insertion into the lineup.
Exhibit E: Rookie of the Year consideration after beginning his career with averages of 12.4 points, 4.9 assists and just 1.2 turnovers.
Well-respected people around the NBA are taking notice.
In the past week, the 2013 NCAA player of the year has been spoken highly of by the likes of four-time MVP James, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and the Nuggets’ new bench boss, Brian Shaw.
The more Burke plays, the more NBA fans the former Michigan star picks up.
While in Denver, Shaw said he was impressed with what he saw while scouting Burke, who then went on to tally a double-double of 10 points and 10 assists in Utah’s 103-93 upset win. The ex-NBA player credited Burke for being integral in pushing Michigan to the NCAA championship game and for adapting his pick-and-roll abilities and offensive execution skills to his new job.
“You have a point guard who has a good feel for the game,” Shaw said. “Although he is a rookie, (Burke) has a real good feel for the game and a good understanding of the game. I think he takes pressure off a lot of the other guys. He sets the table for them, makes it easier for them.”
Burke got more praise Saturday night from the best in the business after his Jazz-leading 20-point outing versus San Antonio.
“He’s got a great demeanor. He doesn’t get excited about a good play or get down because there was a mistake. He plays,” Popovich said. “He plays with his teammates. He’s under control. He’s aggressive. He’s a fine young player.”
Burke said his cool-headed approach is just how he is, how he’s always been. And he knows that he needs to keep his calm demeanor to be the most effective leader in his point guard role.
“It’s natural. I think me playing my position, I’ve got to be a poised guy out there. My teammates feed off of me,” Burke said. “Point guard is kind of like quarterback out there on the court. I felt like that’s something I need to show. I need to be poised out there on the court. I need to be able to make plays on the team. When things don’t go right I need to be under control and not show any type of emotions. I think that’s just something I’ve always had from a young age.”
The Jazz noticed that from him at Michigan. It’s one of the reasons why the organization traded two first-round picks to acquire the No. 9 selection on draft night from Minnesota.
“That’s the one of the things you look for in the young guys, especially the point guard,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. “If they can play steady, they can be great. For the most part, he has been pretty steady.”
Burke didn’t lose his mind or cool Monday, but he didn’t play composed. Corbin noted that the point guard held the ball too long, waiting for something to happen. Unfortunately, the thing that often happened was the Heat’s attacking defense created havoc and the Jazz's offense sputtered.
“I think he got caught up in the Miami thing (Monday) night,” Corbin said. “We’ll just rack it up as that and move on.”
It’s easy to understand how nerves could've gotten the best of Burke on this night. That can happen when you're playing against one of the guys you looked up to growing up.
As a kid in Columbus, Ohio, Burke had an unforgettable chance to watch James and his St. Vincent-St. Mary High School squad take on Brookhaven High School in his hometown.
“It was something I’ll always remember,” he said. “It was my first time actually seeing him play in person. He was phenomenal. I could tell he was going to be a great player.”
Burke then attended James’ elite basketball camp before his sophomore season in high school.
During Michigan’s March Madness run last spring, Burke and James exchanged texts.
Burke admitted he’d pretend he was Chris Paul or another point guard while playing pick-up ball, but good luck finding an Ohio basketball player who didn’t idolize LeBron growing up.
“Obviously,” Burke said, “I watched him a lot.”
Burke called it "unfortunate" that he played the way he did against James, an off-night that contributed to the Jazz's loss.
"I’m just going to continue to try to work," he said.
James has kept tabs on the Jazz point guard over the years as he worked his way into becoming a legitimate NBA playmaker.
“I’ve been watching him since he was a seventh-grader. I’ve seen his growth over the years,” James said. “I was happy with the success he had in high school. I was happy for him with his success he had in college — even though he went to the M-school. ... I’m happy for him so far (in the NBA). He had the little injury to start the season, but he’s back now and he’s playing some good ball.”
James' support has meant the world to Burke.
"It’s very nice when you have a guy as great as LeBron james (saying that). It’s definitely great," Burke said. "It gives you confidence going out there, especially when he’s from your home state."
With that James encounter behind him, Burke is looking forward to Wednesday night's matchup with the Orlando Magic, a team that considered drafting him No. 2 overall but ended up selecting Indiana shooting guard Victor Oladipo.
“It should be fun going up against another rookie, a guy that is projected to be one of the Rookie of the Year candidates,” Burke said. “I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be exciting.”
Burke admitted he has a bit of extra motivation to play well against Oladipo, whom he became friends with during their Big Ten battles the past two college seasons.
The Jazz’s starting playmaker also wouldn’t mind playing well against a team that passed up on him during the 2013 NBA draft. Six months ago, Burke would have believed he’d be in an Orlando uniform instead of playing for Utah Wednesday night at the Amway Center.
Burke is happy with that turn of events, though.
“Once Utah ended up trading for me, it was kind of like ‘Wow!’ I had a meeting with them at the transition program, but I never worked out for them, so it was kind of weird,” Burke said. “But I feel like I’m in the right spot. We’ve got a growing team. We’re really young and I feel like we’re going in the right direction.”
This game is one of those defining moments for a player. It’s one thing to have a poor performance. That happens to everyone in the NBA, even LeBron. But how will Burke respond to one of his roughest outings with the Jazz?
“He didn’t play his best,” Corbin said. “He struggled a little bit.”
Corbin added that it’s just another learning opportunity for Burke, who’s been soaking up as much information and as many lessons as he possibly can so far. At Tuesday’s practice, Burke even talked about how much he’s learning from more experienced Jazz veterans about how to behave off the court, how to eat, how to get enough rest, and how to act to get the best on-the-court performance.
“I look forward to him being really good (Wednesday) night. He’ll respond. He understands,” Corbin said. “We had a little conversation. He didn’t play his best game and he feels bad about it. We’ll get the lesson and move on.”
Burke’s biggest fan in Miami seemed genuinely happy to have watch him move on from being a middle school player with promise to becoming one of the top players of his draft class.
“To see (Burke) be here now in this league where he’s always had a passion, always had a dream about being here,” James said, “I think it’s unbelievable.”