Trey Burke: What Is His NBA Ceiling?

Trey Burke (Credit: Adam Glanzman)

When kids start high school, adults of all kinds can’t wait to tell them how this is not middle school anymore. It is time to get serious. The dedicated students rise to the challenge. The same thing happens in college. This is not high school, the professors say. No more coasting. Again, the committed students do well.

Trey Burke was a dominant high school player but was told he was too small for the big, bad Big Ten. He was the National Player of the Year last season and led Michigan to the national championship game. Now there are doubts about how his game will translate to the pros. Yes, he will be a lottery pick in Thursday night’s NBA Draft; in fact, it’s hard to imagine him falling past the Pistons at No. 8. While hardly any expert thinks Burke will do poorly at the next level, opinions run the gamut as to his ceiling.

They don’t just give away those Player of the Year trophies: Burke shot 38 percent from deep with incredible range and posted a 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. At 6’1”, 187 pounds, there are comparisons to Chris Paul, one of Burke’s mentors and idols. But there are others who feel the best he can do is to reach the level of, say, Darren Collison or Derek Fisher, neither of whom have made an All Star team.

There are concerns about his one-on-one defense, particularly guarding against the pick-and-roll. Vantage, a scouting service, produces a stat called “defensive stay-in-front percentage,” and NBA Director of Scouting Ryan Blake told me Burke performed well by that metric. ESPN college basketball analyst John Gasaway says Burke’s season as a point guard can only be rivaled by what Ty Lawson did when he led North Carolina to a title in 2009. “It was a remarkable effort, and it was recorded in the best conference in the nation. Having great teammates helped his numbers along, certainly but at some point the metrics are so ostentatious that you have to succumb to the obvious.”

All of the potential lottery picks have gaudy numbers. Burke’s intangibles are elite as well. “The biggest thing he has that you can’t gauge is his heart, his competitive drive,” Blake said. “He wants it. He’s confident.” I can see the statistically-savvy readers smirking, but basketball is still a sport where the success of one is still partly dependent on the other four players on the court. The fact that Burke went 97-5 in his high school career matters. That he led Michigan to record heights matters.

Trey Burke media NBA Draft

I asked Dylan Burkhardt of to fill in the blank: Five years from now, Trey Burke is a _____. He choose “winner.” “He might not be an All Star but I’d be surprised if he’s not leading a winning team,” he told me.

The committed, dedicated, and yes, talented people tend to rise to the top. Burke heard doubts coming into college and he’s hearing them again. But he seems as good a bet as any to succeed, and star, in the NBA.

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