Draft Preview: Trey Burke

Can Michigan’s dynamic point guard dominate NBA as he did college world?

Trey Burke
Michigan point guard Trey Burke.
Jonathan Daniel/NBA/Getty Images Sport
(Editor’s note: Second in a recurring series leading to the June 27 draft. Coming Friday: A look at Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum.)

No position is more difficult for NBA scouts to project than point guard. College basketball is rife with undersized guards who dominate their sport, but good luck finding the one among a dozen of them whose skills will translate to the radically different NBA game.

Trey Burke oozes the intangibles that weaken the knees of NBA general managers whose teams lack that critical catalytic ingredient a dynamic point guard brings to the equation. The right point guard draws out the potential of the teammates at his side and elevates the whole above the sum of its parts.

Thirteen years ago, a point guard who oozed all of those same intangibles led Michigan State to the NCAA championship and put the onus of assessing how his mix of below-average height, modest quickness and limited shooting range would translate to the NBA on general managers. In a historically weak draft – Kenyon Martin, Stromile Swift, Darius Miles and Marcus Fizer were the first four taken – Joe Dumars grabbed Mateen Cleaves No. 1 with his first pick as Pistons president of basketball operations at the 14th position, right between the soon forgotten Courtney Alexander and Jason Collier.

Truth is, there aren’t many point guards as fans perceive the label left in today’s NBA. Chris Paul fits the bill. Steve Nash has carried the banner for the last decade-plus. Rajon Rondo piles up assists at an eye-popping rate. Ricky Rubio lugs the torch into the future. But Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving represent the modern prototype – as much scorer as distributor.The Pistons landed one of the purest point guards left when they traded Tayshaun Prince, the last link to the Goin’ to Work Pistons that played in six straight conference finals and won the 2004 NBA title, to add Jose Calderon.

But Calderon is headed for free agency on July 1 – the week after the June 27 draft. His backup, Will Bynum, will join him on the marketplace. The Pistons could always swing Brandon Knight and Rodney Stuckey back to the position where they broke in and spent the bulk of their NBA nights, of course, but if the course of the draft dictates they take a point guard with the eighth pick after Tuesday’s lottery bumped them down one spot, they likely wouldn’t hesitate to do so.

Burke goes into the draft as the consensus No. 1 point guard available, though the margin is slight over Syracuse’s Michael Carter-Williams and Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum. Who goes first might depend solely on team need or preference, because the three represent distinctly different types of point guard.

Burke has the most sizzle, coming off a national player of the year season in which he carried Michigan, as Cleaves did 70 miles up the road at rival Michigan State, to the NCAA title game.

Pop in the tape of Michigan’s regional semifinal win over Kansas, in which Burke scored all 23 of his points after halftime to lead the Wolverines from 14 points down with seven minutes left and five down with 21 seconds to play, his 3-pointer from NBA-plus range tying the game to force overtime. You can’t watch that, not after the two years Burke logged at Michigan while restoring a long-dormant program to national prominence, and not come away thinking Burke has a chance to leave an imprint on the NBA team that takes him in the June lottery.

I asked Burke at last week’s Chicago NBA draft combine if teams asked him about that game to gain insight into what makes him tick.

“One team asked,” he said. “They said it looked like toward the end of the game I get more aggressive than during the beginning of the game. I told them that’s a balance I’m trying to find. I realized our season was on the line and it felt like I had to get more aggressive and look for my shot more. At the beginning of the game, I didn’t have a good shooting half. I was trying to get everybody involved. I just felt like it was my time to get more aggressive and try to make plays for the team.”

It wasn’t the Pistons who did the asking. They were shut out of interviewing Burke in Chicago. He was on their request list – teams get 18 interview slots over three days at the combine – but the NBA makes the ultimate call on who sits before what teams.

But executives will love that quality about Burke – the willingness to put himself in the spotlight and accept the blame as readily as the glory. What they wonder about is if he’s got enough athleticism to overcome his lack of size, though it was somewhat encouraging for Burke that he measured at 6-foot-1¼ in shoes with a 6-foot-5½ wing span at the combine. The rap on Burke is that scouts rarely saw him turn the corner and blow by defenders. The flip side is that he still got into the paint with admirable frequency because he has a great feel for pacing.

Burke believes he still has room to grow, and based on his career arc to this point, there’s no reason to doubt him.

“Just show more explosion on the offensive end,” he said, “show ’em more defensive intensity. A lot of teams asked me about that. Sometimes I relax on defense and not understand I can’t do that. Night in and night out, you’re playing some of the best point guards in the world. That’s something I’m continuing to work on and continue to develop my lower body, get quicker and more explosive.”

Burke came out of high school widely known but not recruited by marquee college programs. Though he grew up in Columbus and teamed with Jared Sullinger at Columbus Northland High, Ohio State never offered him a scholarship. He originally committed to Penn State before John Beilein, hedging his bets against an early departure to the NBA by Burke’s predecessor Darius Morris, won out over an offer from Cincinnati.

Burke was very good as a college freshman, flirted with the NBA but decided to return when the first round wasn’t guaranteed, then excelled as a sophomore. His college numbers and accomplishments call to mind Chris Paul, and NBA scouts see much of Paul in Burke for his charisma and drive. But they’ll also concede the player they get might more closely resemble Jameer Nelson – a competent NBA starter also dripping with charisma and drive but not the game-changer one hopes to get for the price of a top-five pick, necessarily.

Ironic, then, that the two likeliest dropping points for Burke if he goes before the Pistons are Orlando, where Nelson will be on the last year of his contract, picking second, and New Orleans, picking sixth, where Paul saved a troubled franchise before being traded to the Clippers two seasons ago.

But Burke likely will have to hold his lead over Carter-Williams and McCollum in the minds of the seven teams picking ahead of the Pistons in order to be off the board before they pick. If he’s there at No. 8, Joe Dumars will have to decide if Burke has more than just an amazing set of intangibles that produced stunning college success. He’ll have to decide if Trey Burke is that one among a dozen dominant college point guards whose skills are readily adaptable to the vastly different NBA world.