PORTLAND, Ore. — Before Trey Burke’s role was redefined almost two weeks ago, the Utah Jazz point guard had what he described as a “big conversation” with his coach.
While informing Burke that he would be replaced in the starting lineup by Dante Exum, Jazz coach Quin Snyder brought up multiple points about what the second-year player needed to do better.
One of the biggest points?
“He told me he needs to see me improve more on defense,” Burke said.
Burke’s response might sound surprising to some.
Summed up, it was simply: Thank you.
During their player-coach meeting, Burke showed again that he has a strong grasp on some important life lessons: humility, a willingness to learn, respect.
And it wasn’t the first time Burke has reacted like this to constructive criticism.
“There’s been a number of times this year where there’s been something that’s happened where I’ve pointed it out, and there’s been consequences,” said Snyder, whose team faces the Trail Blazers in Portland Tuesday night. “Every time that’s happened, he’s thanked me for holding him accountable.”
Sometimes, Burke will send his coach a text message telling him that.
Sometimes, Burke will deliver the message in person.
But the 22-year-old Burke always tells his coach he appreciates being held accountable, even after receiving a dose of tough love.
The gesture is appreciated by Snyder.
“In order for him to be the player I believe he’s capable of being, I think he just needs that level of focus,” Snyder said. “Decisions like that are complex. That’s one part of it he’s taken seriously. … He’s taken the challenge in that regard.”
Snyder said it’s especially important for Burke to understand the importance of getting stops at the end of games. And the coach believes the point guard, who’s been asked to do more offensively than defensively as his team’s playmaker over the years, is grasping that concept.
“We need him to do both (offense and defense). It’s really that. That’s what I’ve seen,” Snyder said. “I like where he’s going with it. Everybody’s got things they want to improve on.”
The Jazz have won 3 of 5 games since Snyder put the fifth pick of the 2014 draft in the starting lineup in the spot the ninth pick of the 2013 draft had held since being healthy his rookie season.
Burke said Snyder told him it wasn’t necessarily a permanent swap, and the coach wanted the former Michigan player to know he wasn’t sending him to his doghouse.
“It’s not like punishment, either,” Snyder said. “That’s the totally wrong way to look at it. It’s really more than anything helping Dante too and helping our team.”
Though the 19-year-old Exum isn’t the scorer Burke is, the Australian gives the Jazz’s starting unit advantages in size (6-6 vs. 6-1) and speed.
Meanwhile, Burke, given an order to “be more aggressive” offensively, has certainly bolstered the bench’s scoring. He’s averaging 14.6 points (compared to 12.5) as part of the cavalry crew. His assists have dropped in half — from 5.0 per game to 2.6 — but he’s also committing fewer turnovers (1.0 vs. 1.8).
Burke has been urged to either shoot the ball or to attack quickly when he gets it back on pick-and-rolls. Otherwise, the offense sticks.
Snyder has referred to Burke as a sixth starter, and the point guard said he’s looking at his new role in that light.
“I’m starting to get used to it, but I don’t really feel like I‘ve got a new role honestly,” Burke said. “Coach wants me to still play the same … come out and compete, be aggressive, not just scoring, but making plays.”
Burke did just that in the 110-100 win over the Warriors on Friday, dishing out seven assists after accounting for only one in the previous two outings. He’s beginning to build more of a chemistry with bench mates like Rudy Gobert and Trevor Booker.
Booker acknowledged how tough it can be on a player to go from a starter’s role to the bench, but he credited Burke for handling the situation maturely.
“He’s professional. That’s the biggest thing,” Booker said. “He’s just been a big professional about it, still comes and gets his work in, and he’s still out there playing hard.”
The Jazz bench as a whole gave Utah an energetic boost in that Golden State win, with Booker scoring 17, Burke contributing 15 points and seven assists, Gobert adding 10 points and 10 rebounds, and Elijah Millsap chipping in nine points.
Snyder has liked the bench’s positive trend in general, too, since Burke joined the backups.
“Different guys have stepped up in different situations,” he said. “That’s what we’re looking for.”
Booker credited Burke for helping to spark that.
“It adds some scoring. I think since he’s coming off the bench, we’ve been scoring a little more off the bench,” he said. “And (we’ve had) a little more leadership on the court.”
Burke believes he’s making strides on his coach’s top priority, too.
“I think so. I think I’m growing in that (defensive) area,” he said. “I definitely think I’m competing on defense.”
That’s something his coach will thank him for.