By John Schmeelk
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What have the Knicks found in Trey Burke?
Knicks fans are understandably excited to watch a young point guard that can run the pick and roll and get to the rim and score. Some have even suggested the Knicks give him priority over Frank Ntilikina.
Having just turned 25 back in November, can Burke become the Knicks’ future point guard? Let’s examine.
Burke didn’t appear out of nowhere. The former ninth overall pick by Utah in the 2013 draft was a top point guard prospect. Along with current teammate Tim Hardaway Jr., Burke helped lead Michigan to 31 wins and a spot in the NCAA title game. He averaged 18.6 points and 6.7 assists per game during that final season with the Wolverines. There’s no doubt he has talent, even if it didn’t manifest itself right away at the pro level.
Burke’s best season in Utah came as a rookie, as he averaged just under 13 points and six assists per game. However, he only shot 38 percent from the field. He struggled his next two seasons before getting traded to Washington for a 2021 second-round pick. He promptly lost his job as backup point guard to John Wall when the Wizards acquired Brandon Jennings. Burke has blamed off-the-court distractions for his early career failures.
To his credit, he went to the G-League this season and dominated, averaging 26.6 points, 5.3 assists, and 2 steals per game, while shooting 49 percent from the floor, including 42 percent from 3-point range. His advanced offensive stats were strong as well, with a 59 percent true shooting percentage and a 55 percent effective shooting percentage.
He was also named the G-League player of the month in December.
But is Burke a late bloomer or the NBA equivalent of a 4A player that will never be more than a journeyman? Even with his stellar numbers at Westchester, no NBA team offered him a contract, even though he could have been signed at minimal investment or risk.
Burke’s usage percentage at Westchester was a staggeringly high 30.1 percent, higher than LeBron James’ usage last season in Cleveland. An NBA team will never be successful with Burke controlling that amount of the possessions. He is only 6-foot-1 and 191 pounds and struggled defensively in the G-League. His defensive box plus/minus rating there was minus-1.4, making him worse than your average defender.
So far for the Knicks, Burke has shot an unsustainable 58.1 percent, knocking down mid-range jumpers through pick-and-roll opportunities. In just 14 minutes per game he has averaged 8.3 points and 3.9 assists. He is already the Knicks’ best pick-and-roll player and has provided scoring punch, his 2-point effort against the Nets on Tuesday notwithstanding.
So what is Burke’s future? My best guess would be in a scoring role off the bench. He would be useful with a second unit filled with defenders, so the offense could run through him while his defensive deficiencies get masked. There’s a chance he can be a starter in the NBA, but likely only if he continues to improve defensively, and learns to be just as efficient with fewer touches.
Despite Burke’s success, the idea that his development should be given priority over Ntilikina is comical. Ntilikina’s size and tools give him a much higher upside. Burke is also six years older than the Knicks’ rookie point guard. Ntilikina’s playmaking struggles this season were very predictable. He didn’t play point guard for his professional team in Europe and only had extensive experience handling the ball a lot playing against other teenagers.
Ntilikina’s shooting numbers are disappointing, especially given he shot 43 percent from 3-point range for his French team last season. He was mostly in a catch-and-shoot role there, while with the Knicks he is often asked to shoot off the dribble. His turnover issues can be linked to playing against more athletic players. Defensively, Ntilikina is already impressive and there’s no reason to think he won’t develop into one of the premier defensive players at his position.
Burke will not get bigger and has physical limits as a defender. Ntilikina’s problems offensively are things that can be corrected with reps and practice. His body may never allow him to be as quick off the dribble as Burke, but the Knicks have said they believe he can become more explosive with more strength work with American trainers. Whether that happens is anyone’s guess.
Ntilikina has been downright dismal offensively for much of January, but he has to be given the opportunity to play through his issues. He has played 20 minutes only twice this month and has logged under 10 minutes in two of his last six games. Given where the Knicks are as a franchise, that’s close to unforgivable. Burke has played well and deserves time too, but not at Ntilikina’s expense.
Those minutes should be syphoned from Jarrett Jack. Yet, with a team that is five games under .500, head coach Jeff Hornacek continues to give most of the minutes to Jack. It needs to stop.
Ntilikina’s defense will help the starting unit, and playing with guys like Kristaps Porzingis, Hardaway and Courtney Lee will accelerate his development as a playmaker. He will develop far better playing with those guys than getting minutes in the G-League as others have suggested, though that’s preferable, I suppose, to him playing less than 10 minutes per game with the Knicks. Burke will help the second unit score more consistently and could be an excellent pick-and-roll partner with Willy Hernangomez.
For the first time in a long time, the Knicks have a pair of young point guards on their roster that were both top 10 picks. They need to find out if either can be their long-term future at the position. To do that, Ntilikina and Burke need to play and they need to play now.
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