Trey Burke not hottest name in draft, but he could be the best player
Should NBA teams take a chance on Trey Burke with a top-five pick? Only if they want an extremely skilled, hyper-competitive winner with a steel heart who can help them win a championship.
If that doesn't interest them, then they should pass.
I've seen Burke as low as eighth in mock drafts. There is no way there are seven players in this draft better than Burke. If he drops that low, then stop making jokes about the NBA rigging its lottery. If teams are that foolish with their picks, then the draft is un-riggable.
Burke was the national player of the year at Michigan. He averaged 18.6 points and 6.7 assists and led the Wolverines to the national title game, which they lost to Louisville. Burke torched Louisville for 24 points in 26 minutes that night, and he had the most impressive athletic play of the night: a block of a Peyton Siva layup on a fast break that required exquisite timing, leaping ability and coordination.
Burke was called for a foul on the play, but it was a lousy call, and anyway, that's not the point. Nobody in the Georgia Dome had any doubts about Trey Burke that night. I was in the Louisville locker room afterward, and the Cardinals, who pride themselves on defense, did not even sound surprised by what Burke did. They knew how good he is.
What is the NBA missing here? Let's break it down.
1. He was the national player of the year, yet is still underrated.
Why is Burke underrated? Well, his percentages (46.3 percent from the field, 38.4 percent from three-point range) are impressive, but they only tell part of the story. Michigan was one of the youngest teams in the country, and an inordinate percentage of the offense ran through Burke. He took shots he would not normally take, and occasionally tried to take over games because nobody else would.
It wasn't selfishness. Burke is manic about winning, and his teammates and coaches were fine with him trying to take over because of how much they respect him. His decision-making was right for this particular team. But it did skew his percentages downward a bit. He will be more efficient when he is surrounded by better players.
2. He is small. But not that small. And this is not that big a deal.
Burke measured 5-foot-11 and 3/4 inches tall at the pre-draft combine. But that just measures him to the top of his head, and how often does a player use the top of his head?
Burke has big hands and is deceptively long. He has a longer reach than Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum, even though McCollum is 2-1/2 inches taller. Some teams may like Syracuse guard Michael Carter-Williams better than Burke because Carter-Williams has "an NBA body," but they need to look more closely. Carter is, indeed, five inches taller than Burke. But his wingspan is only 1-3/4 inches longer.
3. His height makes him seem high-risk. He is actually low-risk.
At the draft combine, Burke measured just as tall as current Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley Jr. did, with basically the same wingspan. Burke was slightly bigger than L.A. Clippers star Chris Paul. So we know that a player of his size can excel at his position in the NBA.
Meanwhile, the Cleveland Cavaliers may use the No. 1 overall pick on Kentucky center Nerlens Noel, who was 6-10, 206 pounds at the combine. If you can find a dominant 206-pound rim protector in the NBA, I'd like to meet him. Most of those guys are 20 to 50 pounds heavier. Noel is a solid prospect, but there is a lot of projecting going on. He needs to gain significant weight without losing his athleticism. He needs to add an offensive game, because he really doesn't have one; even at the free throw line, Noel shot 52.9 percent. He also needs to recover from a torn ACL, but in my "expert" "medical" "opinion", that is the least of my concerns. Hey, Noel could be a star. But he represents an awful lot of risk for a No. 1 overall pick.
Burke already has the game. The only question is whether he can translate it to the pros. And speaking of which ...
4. He fits the new NBA style.
It's a drive-and-kick and pick-and-roll league. Burke is great at using ball screens; at Michigan, John Beilein ran a million of them. He also has exceptional body control in the paint. The combination means he can make an NBA offense go.
5. He will find a way to succeed
Within the Michigan program, people speak of Burke almost reverentially, and it's not just because of his considerable talent. It's because he is a crazy competitor. From open gyms in the summer to practices in the fall, anybody who played with or coached Burke raved about his intensity. It's funny, because he doesn't seem intense. He seems quiet. But he brings his intensity to every drill in every practice.
Freshman guard Nik Stauskas told me in March, "Trey is by far the most impressive player I've ever played with." Yes, I know: Stauskas is Burke's teammate, and just a freshman. What does he know? Well, Stauskas played AAU ball with likely 2014 No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins. So this was no small compliment.
Michigan has recruited extremely well in the last few years -- along with Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. (a potential first-round pick on Thursday), the Wolverines have future first round-picks Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III. They also have a highly rated recruiting class that just landed on campus.
Yet Michigan assistant coach LaVall Jordan has taken to referring to Burke as "Halley's Comet." He means that a guy like this only comes around once in your life. Enjoy him.
The most successful people tend to have an exceptional trait. Burke's determination and mental toughness rival Paul's. He considered leaving for the NBA after his freshman year, and I thought he was making a mistake. He seemed, to me, to be a backup point guard in the NBA, and a likely second-round pick. But he went back to school and got stronger and much faster -- so much faster that in the first few games of his sophomore season, he was still adjusting to his improved athleticism. He got better in almost every aspect of the game.
Burke is ready for the NBA now. And if he tries 100 ways to become an NBA star, and he fails at all 100, he will go searching for No. 101. Burke is not the best athlete or biggest guy in this draft. But don't be surprised if he turns out to be the best player.