Is the former No. 9 pick making a comeback? Burke’s G League success suggests he’s on the right path
WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — How, exactly, does a No. 9 overall draft pick fall out of the NBA after four years? At the Westchester County Center on Sunday, one person suggested that Trey Burke didn’t have his priorities straight after starring at Michigan. The National Player of the Year and supposed can’t-miss prospect took his position for granted, needed to be humbled and didn’t focus on basketball the way he should have. Burke needed to take his craft more seriously and approach it with more maturity. He was not ready to be a professional.
And Burke’s self-criticism continued: “That Trey Burke — there was a lot of distractions going on with that Trey Burke. That Trey Burke was 19 years old. This Trey Burke now, I’m married, I’m in the house, I’m not worried about things that a lot of players worry about.”
Burke got married in October and turned 25 in November. His last couple of months have been spent dominating the NBA G League and having fun with his 3-year-old son. In 26 games for the Westchester Knicks, he is averaging 26.6 points, 5.3 assists and 1.9 steals, shooting 48.8 percent and making 41.6 percent of his 3-pointers. He was named Player of the Month for December, and Westchester is at the top of the standings heading into the NBA G League Showcase, which begins Wednesday.
His strong play in Westchester naturally led to rumors that he might not be there long. It has been hard for him not to think about teaming up with ex-Wolverines teammate Tim Hardaway Jr. again and playing his home games at Madison Square Garden, though he has been trying not to get ahead of himself.
“It’s kind of hard to do that in New York,” Burke told CBS Sports in a candid interview. “Even places that I go, people knowing me, you’re hearing it everywhere. You have your support system, your family talking about it. It’s a little tough. But we got the Austin Spurs tonight. It’s not like I should look forward to who the [New York] Knicks are playing next.”
The next day, Yahoo Sports’ Shams Charania reported that Burke is close to a deal with New York. It is expected to be completed once the team either waives or trades veteran Ramon Sessions, according to the New York Post‘s Marc Berman. If he has indeed played his last game for Westchester, it is because he had the right mindset when he got there.
Trey Burke is on the verge of a call-up.
Westchester Knicks/Getty Images/Mike LeBrecht
After last season ended, Burke was burnt out on the game he had been playing since he was three years old. When the Washington Wizards signed Brandon Jennings two-thirds of the way through the season, he lost his spot as John Wall’s backup. The Wizards came one win away from the conference finals, but Burke played only 20 garbage-time minutes throughout their entire playoff run.
This was not how he envisioned his career going, so he needed to collect his thoughts. Why did he stop waking up at 5 a.m. to work out, then returning to the gym later in the day, the way he did in high school? As a man of God, why had his faith wavered? Why was he getting in his own way?
“I had to look myself in the mirror and be real with myself,” Burke said. “I had to kind of stop lying to myself about I should be here, I should be this, this team should put me in this position when I wasn’t doing everything necessary to put myself in that position.”
Burke had to remember why he fell in love with basketball in the first place. He knew NBA executives and coaches wanted him to be more than just a scorer, so he had been trying to walk a tightrope when it came to aggressiveness. He knew he wasn’t playing with joy like the guy people saw in college, the attacking guard who some argued should be the top pick in the draft and earned comparisons to Chris Paul.
In the G League, Burke has been himself again: getting in the paint consistently, creating shots for himself and for his teammates. He has tried to be a leader on and off the court and a pest on defense. All the while, people have been asking him why he is not in the NBA. He almost signed a non-guaranteed deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder in September. There was interest from the Houston Rockets and New Orleans Pelicans, too.
“A lot of people don’t know that I chose this route,” Burke said. “I had some opportunities presented to me before the season and, bottom line, I didn’t want to take a two-way deal. I wanted to come down here and recreate my brand on and off the court, show teams what I really can do if I have the opportunity to run a team.”
Watching Burke push the ball and take no-hesitation jumpers, his hair in cornrows and a black sleeve on his arm, it is hard not to think about his childhood idol, Allen Iverson. In the G League, scoring sometimes appears too easy for him. The question is not whether he is talented enough for the NBA, but whether or not his renewed confidence will translate when he gets back there.
“When I saw him here, it’s a statement, you know what I’m saying?” Westchester assistant coach Keith Bogans said. “He’s on a mission. He knows what he wants to do. He came in with a goal. He had a blueprint. Obviously it’s paying off.”
Standing near the baseline before 1,825 fans filed in to see Westchester’s 95-92 victory over Austin, Burke finally sounded at peace with his turbulent time with the Utah Jazz. After finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting in 2014, Burke lost his starting job to Dante Exum halfway through his second year. The next season, with Exum injured, Raul Neto and Shelvin Mack started over him. Before he knew it, he had gone from a part of the Jazz’s core to an afterthought.
At the time, Burke felt Utah was trying to break him. He fell out of favor with fans who had high hopes for him and wound up being traded to Washington for a future second-round pick. Looking back, he thinks he should have found a way to stay true to himself, even if the situation was imperfect.
“I am a playmaker naturally,” Burke said. “Guys ask, ‘Are you a point guard? Are you a shooting guard?’ I believe I am a point guard and a shooting guard. I believe I’m both: a combo guard, you might say. I believe I can run a team as a point guard, though, and I think that’s the biggest thing. When you have the friction between me and the fans, I think that’s really what it was. I blame it on myself now. I can look back and I can say that it was me rather than them because I changed the way I played for the way they wanted me to play. That should never happen.”
With the Wizards, Burke knew he was going to be playing behind Wall, a four-time All-Star and “big brother to me,” he said. While he learned a lot from Wall, Burke felt he was held back by being in his shadow. He wanted the responsibility that comes with running the whole show. He still does.
“With your career, you have years on top of years on top of years to really establish who you are,” Burke said. “Even if you get established as a certain player, which I did in my first three years — of a role player, a guard coming off the bench — you can always change that. It all starts within, though. It all starts with your habits, it all starts with how serious you are about changing it.
“I’m at that point. I’m not a role player. I believe I still have a ways to go, but I do believe that I’m a starting guard in [the NBA]. I do believe that I’ma be an All-Star. I do believe these things in my heart.”
The tricky part is that G League call-ups are generally not afforded the luxuries of major minutes and a green light. Burke is well aware that he will have to thrive in a limited NBA role before getting a bigger one. “It’s called trusting the process,” he said, causing a teammate within earshot to shout out Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid.
Burke said he has learned to embrace that process and his past failures have made him better prepared for his next shot. Now that he is excited about what the future holds, he can feel pride, not shame, when he tells his story.
“In the past there was disappointment and frustration,” Burke said. “But I knew it would turn around. It was all dependent on me and how I approached things. But going forward, where I am now, I’m very proud. I think the sky’s the limit. I think I’ve been through a lot of the worst of the worst when it comes to being a top-10 pick. I believe that it’s only up from here.”