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NBA Daily: Trey Burke On G-League, Embracing Second Chances

Trey Burke talked to Basketball Insiders about falling out of the NBA last summer, reigniting his passions and embracing his second opportunity.

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At the age of 24, Trey Burke crashed out of the NBA after another disappointing season with the Washington Wizards. Burke, a former top ten draft pick in 2013, had gone from starting and earning 30-plus minutes per game as a rookie to out of the rotation entirely in four years. With his career suddenly in jeopardy, Burke evaluated his options before joining up with the G-League’s Westchester Knicks, all in hopes of making it back to the NBA sooner rather than later.

Competing within the New York Knicks’ organization would ideally offer him the most long-term upside — but, more than anything, Burke just relished the freedom to redefine himself, his game and his ultimate goals as a professional basketball player.

“It was a path I chose, I had offers coming into this season, but I think I wanted to recreate myself,” Burke told Basketball Insiders. “[And] show what I can do on a consistent basis, night in, night out, with consistent minutes, so that’s why I chose that route.”

In retrospect, that decision may be the one that saved his NBA career. The G-League allowed Burke to exhibit his explosive scoring abilities while leading an offense on a nightly basis. Over 26 games, Burke averaged 26.6 points, 3.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists, even shooting 41.8 percent from three-point range as an added bonus. With Westchester perched at the top of the G-League, Burke was named Player of the Month in December, firmly positioning himself as a strong candidate for an NBA contract.

Needless to say, Burke’s stint in the G-League can be considered nothing less than a massive success. But while many look to the developmental arena as a second chance, the majority of players like Burke end up spending the rest of their career waiting for a call that never comes. Burke, on the other hand, says he knew the NBA would not be far away if he stayed focused and drove his team forward throughout the season.

“I always knew it would be quick as long as I did what I needed to do. As long as I prepared and approached the game every day like I did, I knew it would happen, it was just a matter of time and being patient.

“At the end of the day, it’s about winning — I knew winning was going to help that a lot. I think we were the best team in the G-League when I got called up, so I just made sure I was doing my part and I knew it would come after that.”

On Jan. 14, the New York Knicks signed Burke to a deal for the remainder of the season. Although his on-court minutes have frequently seesawed, Burke has made good on his new opportunity by posting double-digit scoring totals on three separate occasions already. During a 12-point loss to the Denver Nuggets last month, Burke had all of his potential-laden tools on full display and tallied 18 points and 11 assists with zero turnovers.

Of course, Burke is no stranger to dominating in single-game spurts — but his issue was always a matter of consistency. As a rookie, Burke averaged 12.8 points and 5.7 assists for the Utah Jazz, but every subsequent season saw those numbers fall. Today, Burke is a changed player and he’s no longer focused on filling up the box score. When discussing what it would take to get back to his previous level of individual success, Burke downplayed the importance of statistics.

“Obviously, it’s about opportunity. Then again, [the numbers] aren’t my goal. I know what type of player I can be in this league, so I just need to be ready when my number is called,” Burke said. “The biggest thing for me now is winning, I think everybody knows my strengths as far as scoring the ball, creating and making plays. But in your fifth year in the NBA, you want to go far in the playoffs, you want to experience that part of the season.

“I only got to experience that last year with Washington, but I wasn’t part of the rotation. It’ll be fun to get to the playoffs and I believe that we can do it with the talent on this team.”

Naturally, Burke spoke about those postseason goals before the unfortunate injury to franchise cornerstone Kristaps Porzingis this week. The All-Star’s torn ACL will almost certainly end their playoff hopes in 2017-18, but the Knicks may now consider playing both Burke and rookie Frank Ntilikina in larger doses to end the year, as reported by ESPN’s Ian Begley.

Considering that this once-promising prospect lost his spot in the rotation to Brandon Jennings and then only featured in three postseason blowouts with the Wizards last season, the early returns on Burke in New York have been encouraging. But as Burke compares the new and old versions of himself, he sees nothing but positive change.

“[The biggest difference is] maturity — I think maturity on and off the court, confidence as well. Trey Burke now knows what he can do, regardless of what other people say or think,” Burke told Basketball Insiders. “Confidence is 80, 90 percent of the game, that’s the mental part, so just knowing what you can do, staying to your strengths and doing what you can do to help the team win.”

The Knicks currently sit in 11th place in the Eastern Conference at 23-32 and, without Porzingis, the franchise will likely turn their gaze toward the future. If Burke is a good fit with Ntilikina and Knicks’ youth moment moving forward, then New York must decide if the talented scorer is a piece worth locking down long-term. But those answers will only come with consistent minutes, something that Burke hasn’t been given quite yet. Still, Burke isn’t hung up on the fluctuating playing time or what his destiny might hold next — he just wants to win.

“Winning is going to take care of everything else. I believe that if I continue to do my part, my role for this team will continue to grow,” Burke said. “So I’m not really focused on [minutes], my focus is on helping this team win. As a point guard, it’s like the quarterback position, you’re orchestrating everything when you’re out there. So, as long as we’re winning, then I feel like my role will continue to grow.”

For a player that had plummeted from the league without the promise of a return, it’s not difficult to understand why Burke has adopted a new perspective on the NBA and his place in it. In fact, Burke is just happy to be here at all. For a moment, it even looked as if the light within Burke had been extinguished for good. Following that second frustrating season with the Wizards, Burke had to choose between potentially losing NBA basketball forever or taking the road less traveled — thankfully, he picked the latter.

“I think it’s about belief, faith — faith in my lord and savior, Jesus Christ, and playing for something higher than myself. Because like you said, [coming through the G-League] is not easy to do, that’s very rare. But I never gave up, I never stopped — I continued to approach each day like I really wanted it.

“I had lost the passion for basketball in these last couple years. But this summer, I looked myself in the mirror and rededicated my life, my approach changed and I’m playing for something higher and something bigger now — and it’s showing.”

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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