Michigan point guard Trey Burke and the New Orleans Pelicans have had the appearance of a good fit certainly since the NBA regular season ended and interest in the draft came to the forefront.
That has been the case even though New Orleans’ most pressing need is a bonafide, NBA-ready small forward, and the Pelicans’ starting point guard, Greivis Velasquez, finished third in the league in assists at 9.0, behind only Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul.
And the Pelicans selected Austin Rivers 10th overall in last year’s draft with the idea of his being the point guard of the future. Although Rivers didn’t look good at the point in summer league, he came on late in the season at both guard spots.
Also, Brian Roberts, a free agent now, played admirably at backup point guard last season, with big games against Portland and Denver when pressed into the starting spot because of injuries.
NBA draft analyst Ryan Blake said that’s just how the draft is expected to unfold, and Burke, who swept all the college player of the year awards, is a big-time player and competitor.
“If you need a small forward but the best player who falls to you is Burke, you take Burke,” Blake said. “You have to see what falls into your lap, see what happens.”
Burke, 6 feet, had an impressive workout for the Pelicans when he, Syracuse’s Michael Carter-Williams and Maryland’s Alex Len visited two weeks ago.
“He certainly could add speed to our team,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said.
Still, Williams wasn’t so sure about Burke, which is how he is about most of the draft prospects because of how young and inexperienced they are these days.
“I don’t know if he could stop (Oklahoma City point guard) Russell Westbrook, (the Los Angeles Clippers’) Chris Paul or (San Antonio’s) Tony Parker,” Williams said.
Burke has drawn favorable comparisons to Paul, although he does not appear to be quite the assists engine that Paul is. However, Burke, who said he text-messages back and forth with Paul, made the point that what he and Paul have in common is a strong will to win.
“Leadership as well as winning,” said Burke, who led Michigan to the NCAA tournament final. “Every level I’ve played at, I’ve always won, and that’s been my mentality since I was a little kid. I just hate losing, and I’m going to work hard from Day 1.”
Asked how he felt he was defensively, Burke said he is a very good defender. Michigan assistant LaVell Jordan, who coaches the Wolverines guards, said defense is a big part of why Burke was player of the year.
“He became more of a
student of the game
defensively, watching more film from that aspect,” Jordan said. “He
always was a good on-the-ball defender, but he became able to anticipate more, jump some routes.”
Jordan said Burke made many game-changing defensive plays this past season in particular.
“He came up with more 10-second (backcourt) calls, deflections and stops, especially when we needed it most, like in the NCAA tournament against Kansas,” Jordan said. “But that’s the competitor in him. He values winning.”
One of Burke’s more memorable games came against Carter-Williams, who is 6-6. Jordan said Burke made it very tough for him to handle the ball and be effective.
Because the Pelicans are not a great perimeter shooting team, nor do they have an effective post-up option, they can use more fast-break baskets.
“I’d love it,” Burke said. “That’s my style of play. I think I can play half court or up-tempo, but I prefer to play up-tempo. Getting out in transition is one of the strengths of my game.”
As evidenced by all of his accolades and winning, Burke seems to bring a lot to the table. Two big question marks continue to hover over him, however, and they pertain to his athleticism and size.
ESPN draft analyst Chad Ford has questions similar to that of Williams as to how Burke would match up.
“He’s a very skilled guard, but he’s 6 feet tall,” Ford said. “And while he’s not a bad athlete, point guards in the particular area where the elite athletes in the NBA reside, and you start thinking about Russell Westbrook or Derek Rose and John Wall.
“And you start looking at Trey Burke, and he’s much more average. He doesn’t have that explosiveness either as a leaper or — and I think this is especially the case — in his movement laterally. And that affects his ability to get by people at the next level and also to defend people, which I think is a bigger concern that NBA coaches are going to have. And that’s why people are not crazy about Trey Burke.”
Ford said expectations about Burke have to be tempered and that he is more likely to have a career like that of the Orlando Magic’s Jameer Nelson than he is like Paul.
Jordan, however, said that defensively, Burke knows how to make foes turn their backs because he is a pest. And Burke, who averaged 18.6 points and a Big Ten-leading 6.7 assists per game last season, said his skills will transcend to the NBA. His mental abilities make him more of a traditional point guard than some think, he said.
“Being a small guard my whole life, I had to learn at an early age how to control the game and how be a point guard first and a scorer second,” he said. “So I definitely think it is a strength of my game, as well, to get guys going. I think I learned a lot playing at Michigan, pick-and-roll action, reading my options and playing the game with a higher IQ.”
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