The last calendar year has produced a lot of change for Wizards guard Trey Burke and even more could be in store this summer with the potential of his first free agency as an NBA player. Part of the change Burke has already endured has been good. Part of it has been what few professional athletes would welcome: a significant decrease in playing time.
After winning the Naismith Award as the country's best college player at the University of Michigan, and after leading them to a spot in the NCAA championship game, Burke was the ninth overall pick in 2013. Now four years after being drafted by the Utah Jazz, Burke is a role player for the Wizards, earning 12.6 minutes per game. Once the star, he is now the backup, a complementary piece.
All of that is a lot to process and there are several ways of looking at it. Burke chooses to focus on the positives and take a glass half-full perspective.
"We’re in a really good position right now as far as playoff standings. I feel like me never being in the playoffs, that’s a stage that I’m looking forward to," Burke said.
Burke is aware of his contract status, of course. But playing on a winning team has helped keep his mind off of what lies ahead. The Jazz fell short of the playoffs in each of the three seasons he spent there. This is new territory for Burke and he is excited about it.
"I try not to consciously think of [my contract]," Burke said. "Obviously, it’s hard to but just going throughout the season, it’s good to be on a winning team. It’s good to be on a team that is going to give me a chance to play come April. That’s all you can ask for, really."
It wasn't easy, nor was it immediate that Burke took this approach. He was dealt to the Wizards on July 7, 2016 for a 2021 second round pick. Getting traded out of Utah was not necessarily the worst thing, as he was given a fresh start elsewhere. But that fresh start happened to be in a place where one of the NBA's best point guards calls home.
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The Wizards have John Wall, who just made his fourth consecutive All-Star game. If playing time was Burke's priority, this wasn't the place he would find it.
"It was a little process [coming to terms with the trade]. When I got traded, I did want to play right away," Burke explained. "But this league is a business and you learn the politics side and the business side when you go through something like that. For me, I had to be patient to get into a situation and get an opportunity where I was going to be able to show who I really was. Here, I’m still obviously getting limited minutes, but when I’m out there I think I’m producing at a pretty good level. I’m just helping this team win when those guys go out of the game. That’s how I look at it, man."
Burke, it turns out, has formed a productive relationship with Wall. Not only do they get along off the court, with Wall referring to Burke as his "little brother," but Burke has embraced playing behind a superstar at his position.
"It’s been great. With me being in a contract year, as a player you can either pout about not getting the type of minutes you want, or you can look at it as an opportunity. You’re playing behind one of the best point guards in the world right now. You get an opportunity to see how he approaches the game each and every day. For me, that’s how I look at it," Burke said.
"I take this year as a learning year for me. I don’t want to look at it in the aspect of I’m not getting the minutes I want to get. The opportunity is going to present itself. I’ve just gotta be prepared, be willing and able to watch him every day and see what he’s doing out there on the court and see the game from a different perspective. I think that’s what I’ve been doing."
Burke is still a young player himself. At 24, he's closer in age to the rookies than some of the veterans. Of the rookies, Tomas Satoransky is older than Burke and Sheldon McClellan is just a month younger.
Though he's 24, Burke has already seen the expectations for his career adjusted. When he entered the league as a lottery pick, big things were predicted for him. Now he's focused on finding longevity in what is arguably the most exclusive league in professional sports. There are just 450 roster spots in the NBA, compared to 690 in the NHL, 750 in MLB and 1,696 in the NFL.
Burke wants to have one for himself for as long as he can.
"I know that I plan on having a long career in this league," he said.
"Trey’s 24 years old," head coach Scott Brooks said. "He has a lot to learn and he still has years to get better. You have to have that mentality. If you don’t, you’re going to be out of the league pretty quick. He has a lot of basketball in him and he’s still in a stage of his career where he should get better. The minutes are not ever going to be high volume minutes here because the guy in front of him is really good, but his minutes are important. He has to continue to challenge himself to be a good player when he gets those six or seven minutes when he’s on the floor."
There will be plenty of time for Burke to ponder his future. For now, he's happy to be along for the ride with the Wizards, who at the All-Star break are on pace to have their best season as a franchise since 1978-79. This level of winning is new for the Wizards and it's new for Burke, too.
"I just had to be patient to get an opportunity where the fun was back into it. I think here in Washington, that’s what it’s feeling like. We’re all having fun on and off the court. Everybody is happy when you win," he said.
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