Thunder taking low-risk bet on free agent Alec Burks' health
Alec Burks fitting the mold has never been the issue. The 27-year-old has always had the attributes of the modern NBA wing. But an important attribute was missing that led to this summer landing in Oklahoma City.
No, not shooting. That certainly wasn’t missing when Burks came off the bench firing on April 27, 2018. Playing for Utah, Burks scored 11 key points off the bench to help eliminate the Thunder in Game 6 of the Western Conference first round, including a monster 3-pointer in the fourth quarter that had the yellow-clad Vivint Smart Home Arena crowd rocking in Salt Lake City.
For one of the few times in Burks’ NBA career, his body didn’t fail him.
"It’s a blessing I got through the season healthy," Burks said after the Jazz’s season ended in the second round against Houston in 2018.
Burks, who agreed to a contract in free agency with the Thunder on Monday, can help Oklahoma City this season if he continues to show he’s past the health issues that have hindered his professional progress.
Burks was picked 12th overall out of the University of Colorado by the Jazz in the 2011 NBA Draft. Since then, his body has never allowed him to reach his potential.
While Burks has strung together back-to-back 64-game seasons, he played just 100 games total from 2014 to 2017. He was on his way to the best season of his career in 2014-15 before it ended after 27 games due to a shoulder injury. That started a string of injuries which would derail prime development years.
In 2015, Burks suffered a fractured left ankle and had surgery on a fractured left fibula that forced him to miss 50 games. In 2016, Burks returned and played 42 games but underwent arthroscopic surgery to "debride" his left ankle, or remove damaged tissue that was impeding his health.
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By the time Burks was able to piece together more than a half season of games in 2017, the Jazz had drafted Donovan Mitchell, who immediately turned into a star on the wing. Role player Royce O’Neale leaped Burks in the rotation. Burks was battling with former Thunder player Thabo Sefolosha for sparse wing minutes.
In his final full season in Utah in 2017-18, Burks was only ninth in minutes played, slotting in behind journeymen such as Jonas Jerebko and Rodney Hood. Burks bounced between Utah, Cleveland and Sacramento last season.
In regard to Burks, the free agency market played in the Thunder’s favor. Wing shooters such as Wesley Matthews and Troy Daniels settled into minimum deals, which is what Burks will earn despite skills which could help him outproduce the value of his contract, a la Nerlens Noel a season ago for the Thunder.
Burks has shown the ability to operate as a pick-and-roll ballhandler, which will come in handy in second units in which him, Paul George and Dennis Schroder can be interchangeable initiators of offense. A career 35.5 percent 3-point shooter, Burks is even better from the corners, where he daggered the Thunder twice in that elimination game in 2018.
"Shooting" often gets narrowly defined as 3-pointers, but shot creation and finishing fill the description as well. At 6-foot-6, 215 pounds, Burks has the height, length and strength to get his own shot and drive. Within a week of being traded from Utah to Cleveland in November, Burks polished off a road win against Brooklyn with a drive and dunk with 3.2 seconds left.
"That's his game. He attacks the basket," former Cleveland Cavaliers coach Larry Drew said after Burks’s game-winner. "Because he's so athletic, he can maneuver to the basket and get a shot off. We were going to get the last shot. He just made a really good move with the basketball."
Burks couldn’t do that without finally being 100 percent. That’s the Thunder’s hope, on a discount.