MATTHEW COLES, Associated Press
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — During the first 14 games of the season, the Utah Jazz offense was often politely described as sputtering and disjointed. Over the last six games, Jazz players and opponents have started using words like rhythm and flow.
The biggest difference is often the smallest guy on the court: Trey Burke.
The season started with Utah’s lottery pick on the bench recovering from a fractured finger. The Jazz dropped 14 of their first 15 contests, often in blowouts. Now they’ve won three of their last six, and many are crediting Burke.
Burke was the AP Player of the Year last season at Michigan. The Jazz packaged their two first-round picks to get the 6-foot-1 guard, who slipped to No. 9, then let most of their top veterans go in free agency.
Watching the Jazz flounder while he watched from the bench to start the season stoked his desire to be on the court.
“I was so ready to play again,” Burke said. Once he became the starter, the Jazz topped the 100-point mark three consecutive games after reaching that plateau only once in the first 15 games.
Burke’s emergence and the team’s recent surge was no surprise to veteran forward Richard Jefferson.
“When you draft a point guard and believe in his abilities, you craft your offense with his skills in mind. Then when you lose that guy in preseason, guess what, you’re going to struggle a little bit. We missed him, no doubt,” Jefferson said.
After only six games of Burke in the starting lineup, the whole outlook has changed.
“He’s getting better and he’s only played a handful of games. It usually takes rookies a while to find that rhythm. We will continue to improve as he improves,” Jefferson added.
Already, Burke has displayed a growing command of the offense and he takes care of the ball. In the last 133 minutes, he has only committed two turnovers. His ability to break down the defense is at a premium on this Utah team where few can create their own shots.
“He has started making the simple plays — like putting pressure on the defense and then dropping the pass to the bigs. It’s not sexy but it’s the right basketball play and it sets you up for things later on,” Utah coach Ty Corbin said.
Before the season, the team sent him to Spokane to work with John Stockton, the heralded Jazz point guard who owns the all-time NBA assist record.
“John taught me to be patient and get my teammates involved. He said the better passer you become the better scorer you can be,” Burke said.
The more time Burke spends on the court, the more difficult it is for opposing point guards to slough off and harass Utah’s most potent scoring threat, Gordon Hayward. Surprisingly confident for his level of experience, Burke attracts a lot of defensive attention as he skates through the lane, pushes the ball on fast breaks and pulls up for shots from all angles.
“Running the offense, it’s critical for me to know what coach wants, to pick the right play to go to at that moment. I think I am getting better at that every game,” said Burke, who credited his time on the injured list to opening his eyes to ways to improve the Jazz offensive sets.
Burke posted career highs in points in consecutive games against Phoenix (20) and Houston (21). Then against Indiana, the best defensive team in the league, he set a new mark for assists with nine.
He still misses shots he expects to make, but he doesn’t think about his finger all the time anymore.
Instead, he thinks about ways to improve the rhythm and flow. He ponders ways to help the team play better together. For a team that had a 1-14 record, there was remarkably little finger-pointing or poor effort.
“It’s a chemistry thing,” said Derrick Favors, who is often the recipient of Burke’s drive-and-dish passes. “We had to get used to a lot of new guys. But when Trey came back with us, he started hitting a lot of shots and then he got us all involved. He really helped us get going.”
Besides Burke’s return to the court, the Jazz have welcomed veterans like Marvin Williams, Brandon Rush and Jeremy Evans back from injury. The first full practice to involve all the players on the roster didn’t occur until Thanksgiving weekend.
“When we are healthy, we can be good — better than many of us even realize,” Jefferson said.
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