Trey Burke won numerous National Player of the Year awards on his way to leading Michigan to a national title game appearance. He made a savvy decision to pass up the NBA draft after his freshman season, and used his sophomore campaign to show off his abilities both as an efficient, high-usage scorer and an excellent assist man who took terrific care of the ball. On a team with so many underclassmen, that's especially impressive.
Now Burke must prove he can develop into a notable NBA point guard, despite a relative lack of size and the elite quickness that normally is a necessity for smaller lead guards in the NBA. Burke is no stranger to overcoming doubters, but he'll have to do so again to have a solid NBA career. That's despite expectations that he will go somewhere in the top seven or eight picks in this month's draft, and possibly as high as No. 2 to Orlando.
One large plus for Burke is he was extremely good overall at Michigan in the pick-and-roll, obviously a huge component of any NBA point guard's game. Here's an interesting video clip showing one of Burke's techniques, where he "boxes out" his man coming off a screen while maintaining his dribble. That keeps the chasing defender on his back, allowing more time for the big man to roll and for Burke to find a passing lane or make another decision with the ball.
Burke's numbers this past season also support his excellence in this action, although he'll probably have to add some more variety to his approach against better, bigger, savvier defenders at the next level.
Per Synergy Sports Technology, Burke dribbled toward the screen on the vast majority (167-of-218) of his pick-and-roll opportunities, and the majority of the time he came off the screen, he ended up pulling up for a jumper. He only "rejected" the screen 30 times and tried to split the defenders on a hedge 14 times all season. He had some decent success getting to the rim off the pick, but his turnover rate increased significantly in those situations, though the data set is small.
Here are two sets in the national title game. On the first occasion, Burke uses the screen to pull up for a jumper. The second time, he gets doubled and skips a pass back to Tim Hardaway Jr. who then finds the roll man.
Burke also showed himself to be a very capable shooter from any distance, making 50 percent of his field goals (including 38 percent from the arc) and 80 percent from the line.
How will Burke's game translate to the NBA? Is he a worthwhile gamble in the top five of this year's draft?
There certainly are other point guards in the league that are around Burke's size (he's listed at 6-foot-1 with shoes, but his wingspan measured 6-5 1/2), but many of those small guards (Chris Paul, Ty Lawson, etc.) are much, much faster/quicker than Burke. So it's fair to ask whether Burke will be as effective (and efficient) as he was at Michigan when faced with quicker and/or bigger defenders who are used to guarding better athletes than Burke.
When you start looking around at more appropriate (read: not otherworldly quick at this size) comparables than the ones listed above, you get into guys like Jameer Nelson and Raymond Felton. Maybe add in Luke Ridnour or Mike Conley (even though I think Conley's a better athlete than Burke). Then throw in younger players such as D.J. Augustin, Kemba Walker and possibly Brandon Knight. Not one of them has been a complete wipeout in the pros (although Augustin hasn't been all that good) and a number of them are having/heading toward pretty solid careers, but they're all secondary types that need better players around them to succeed.
Burke's sophomore season at Michigan is actually remarkably similar statistically to the one Nelson had as National Player of the Year at Saint Joseph's in 2004. Nelson has evolved into a 30-minutes-a-game guard for Orlando, chipping in 13-14 points and five or six assists a game for the better part of eight seasons now. This is not to say that Nelson and Burke are the same exact type of player. Forced to guess, I'd say Burke has a solid chance to be as good a pro as Nelson, but we're not talking about All-Star-type numbers, or the kind of lead guard that will head a title contender. Nelson is a nice, solid starter making a good living (he earned $8.6M from the Magic last season). Of course, he was also the 20th overall pick in 2004. All of the other guys listed above have worse career numbers than Nelson with the exception of Felton, who may be a smidge better (even taking out the 54 games under Mike D'Antoni).
Burke's size and lack of elite quickness also are a concern on the defensive end. He was a solid-but-not-great defender in college, and obviously the level of talent he'll face in the NBA will be an enormous leap from that standard. Will he be able to keep guys out of the lane? Is he physical enough to fight through screens? Will his height make him a post-target for opposing guards? The answers to these questions may largely determine Burke's pro prospects, because it doesn't look like he will end up being a devastating offensive presence in the pros.
Teams looking for a point guard in the first round of the draft will face an interesting dilemma. Burke clearly is a more polished player at this point than Syracuse's Michael Carter-Williams, the other prime option on the board. But, even though he lacks a reasonable jump shot at this point, is Carter-Williams' combination of great size, court vision and defensive potential a better bet?
It may come down to what the team picking is interested in. Carter-Williams likely has a much bigger "bust factor" than Burke, but his "boom factor" appears to be higher as well. Burke's overall range of career possibilites seems much tighter, and therefore safer. How much you love Burke depends on where you think his range begins.