Sunday November 2nd, 2014

Alec Burks is arguably the most anonymous member of the 2011 draft class to receive a rookie extension.

The Jazz inked their shooting guard and former lottery pick to a four-year contract extension worth $42 million on Friday. The deal will kick in for the 2015-16 season and run through 2018-19 without any player or team options. Burks, 23, averaged 14 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game last season, his third in Utah. 

Burks hasn't shown the star potential displayed by Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson or established a track record as a full-time starter prior to this season, like Kemba Walker, Nikola Vucevic, Kenneth Faried. Although Burks averaged a career-high 28.1 minutes per game last season, he did so coming off the bench as veteran wing Richard Jefferson, whose best days are far behind him, got the starting nod from former coach Tyrone Corbin. Burks also hasn't had the benefit of surprising team success to boost his profile -- like Suns forward Markieff and Marcus Morris -- and he's played a grand total of 63 minutes in the postseason. For all those of reasons, many people likely reacted to this lucrative extension with one word: "Who?"

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Burks was drafted as a scorer -- he averaged 20+ points per game as a sophomore at Colorado -- and he's made progress towards fulfilling that reputation on the professional level. Last season, he got to the free throw line nearly five times a game and took more than 40 percent of his attempts in the basket area. Although his perimeter shooting range is limited, Burks has a fine stroke and he's confident on the ball, preferring to attack off the dribble or shoot from mid-range. This season was bound to be the first true test for Burks, who has been moved into the starting lineup by new coach Quin Snyder. A young Utah team will count on a balanced scoring approach, but Burks' emergence into a go-to night-to-night threat would be a game-changer.

That type of growth is what Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey and company are banking on. Utah should only have been willing to make this type of commitment if it strongly believes that it has a hidden gem (even if Corbin is largely responsible for the "hidden" part of that). A quick survey of guards from the last 10 years whose third-year scoring production is similar to Burks' average last season is a real bag of hits and misses: uninspiring names like Ronnie Brewer, Randy Foye, Evan Turner, and Gerald Henderson pop up, as do the more promising likes of Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, and DeMar DeRozan.

Not known as an impact defender, it's unfair to include Burks alongside Butler and Leonard, his two draft classmates. Indeed, both players were reportedly seeking significantly larger offers this fall and neither was able to reach an extension. At the same time, Burks will be making far more than Brewer, Foye, Turner and Henderson ever commanded, which means the Jazz really need that breakout campaign to happen this season, lest the second-guessing pick up real steam.

The final name, DeRozan, has been a popular comparison over the last few days. It makes some sense: DeRozan was 1) drafted as a scorer, 2) isn't much of an outside shooter), 3) isn't known as a defender), 4) has shown real progress as he adjusted to the NBA and expanded his game and 5) signed a four-year, $40 million rookie contract extension with the Raptors in 2012, a deal that is nearly identical to Burks' new contract.   

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It's important to note that Burks need not match DeRozan's growth pattern to provide a good return on his deal. The NBA's new media rights deal promises an influx of revenue that is expected to greatly increase the size of the salary cap beginning in the 2016-17 season. The final three years of Burks' deal will be paid out under a new financial reality that could see the league's current $63 million salary cap expand to somewhere between $80 and $90 million. The average annual value of Burks' contract is $10.5 million. Proportionally, a $10.5 million contract under an $85 million salary cap is roughly equal to a $7.8 million salary under the league's current system. In simple terms, Utah should come out of this one in good shape as long as Burks can become roughly 3/4 of the player that DeRozan has become. That feels ambitious, given that DeRozan made the leap to a 22-plus points per game All-Star in 2013-14, but still attainable.

Burks' extension marks the third major deal handed out by Utah over the last 12 months: forward/center Derrick Favors agreed to a four-year, $49 million extension last fall while Gordon Hayward received a four-year, $63 million contract this summer. Together, the trio will make roughly $39 million per year, beginning in 2015-16, but it is critical again to remember that the new salary framework kicks in the following year. Such a major commitment to three players who have yet to win big would be highly questionable in the league's current environment, as it would represent more than half of the Jazz's salary cap space. Once the new numbers kick in, however, Utah could have as much as $50 million to put towards its other young prospects (Trey Burks, Dante Exum) or other roster moves. The takeaway, for now, is that Burks' deal doesn't meaningfully crimp Utah's long-term planning, even if the price tag does present some initial sticker shock.  

Utah likely felt a little burned by letting Hayward enter restricted free agency this summer, as his four-year maximum offer from Charlotte was above what many observers anticipated. Locking in Burks avoids a repeat of that scenario, and it provides some peace of mind and stability to a developing player who was treated as an afterthought at times in recent years. The Jazz were well-positioned to take a calculated bet on Burks' blossoming: their stripped-down payroll means they will face little-to-no financial pain next season and the league's upcoming cap changes, as laid out above, will help maintain that flexibility after that. If Burks blows up, Lindsey will look shrewd. If not, his contract isn't likely to box in Lindsey or prevent the Jazz from proceeding through their rebuilding cycle.  

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