Former Michigan player talks about his development as a professional in the National Basketball Association. Rod Beard, The Detroit News
New York — In his present, Trey Burke is never too far removed from his past. It’s a virtual footrace; every time the past tries to catch up, the present moves two steps ahead.
Burke would like to keep it that way.
Even as he finished his postgame interviews after the New York Knicks lost to the Pistons last week at Madison Square Garden, Burke was planning to go watch the second half of Michigan’s Final Four matchup with Loyola-Chicago — with Wolverines and Knicks teammate Tim Hardaway Jr.
Five years removed from their trip to the Final Four at Michigan, the two are back together, arriving from quite different destinations: Hardaway a big-time free agent on a four-year deal for $71 million, and Burke a call-up from the development league in January.
Burke was the national player of the year on the 2013 team, taken ninth overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves and traded to the Utah Jazz. He spent three seasons in Salt Lake City before being dealt to the Washington Wizards in July 2016. He floundered in his one season there, averaging just five points in 12.3 minutes.
After beginning the season with the Knicks’ Gatorade League affiliate in Westchester, N.Y., Burke is living in the present of a career renaissance, reinventing himself and carving out a temporary starting role in New York.
In creating some distance in the race with his past, he could have bristled at the idea of going to the development league, which was on the precipice of being out of the NBA altogether, but he took it as a way to catapult himself back to relevance.
“It was a humbling experience, but at the same time, I knew I was going to be able to play consistent minutes to show what I could do night in and night out, with 25-30 minutes,” Burke said. “I knew the opportunity would present itself. My biggest thing was being ready when the day came.”
What’s different in Trey Burke 2.0? Everything.
At 25, he’s approaching this chance in the NBA differently, looking to solidify his weaknesses, staying in the practice gym longer and taking things more seriously than the first trip.
“He’s taking it in more of a professional way than before,” Burke’s father, Benji, told The Detroit News. “He felt that he should be in the league (before) and he didn’t do the little things that he needed to do to be successful; he kind of leveled off.”
That changed in his stint with the Westchester Knicks. In 26 games, he was third in the league at 26.6 points, added 5.3 assists and hit 42 percent on 3-pointers. His breakout game was a 43-point performance against the Delaware 87ers in November, leading to his January call-up to New York.
Burke hasn’t disappointed, posting solid numbers in his 32 games, including an eye-popping stat line, with a career-high 42 points and 12 assists on March 26 against the Charlotte Hornets. On March 31 against the Pistons, he showed how much he’s progressed as a point guard, with 18 points and tied his career-best mark with 15 assists — many of those to Michael Beasley, who had 32 points.
“It goes to show that he is a real point guard,” Beasley said. “He’s not really out there looking for any one thing — his shot, my shot or anyone else’s shot. He’s just playing the game and going with the flow.”
Things didn’t come that easily for Burke in New York. Last summer, he was looking for an NBA lifeline and was searching for a team that needed a point guard. The Knicks became his unlikely choice, even after they had drafted point guard Frank Ntilikina in the first round.
Things got tighter for Burke at the trade deadline, when the Knicks acquired another point guard, Emmanuel Mudiay, creating more of a logjam at the position. Still, he was undaunted.
From the time when he considered his options in the summer, there were better opportunities around the league, in smaller markets, where he had a better chance to make the roster.
Burke chose New York — not randomly or because of the roster construction.
There was a different calling.
“I told him you can’t choose where you go. He said, ‘Dad, just trust me. He just had a sign that God was telling him to go to New York and just being obedient to the messages he was getting,” Benji Burke said. “I told him to call (new Knicks general manager) Scott Perry directly, not text. Scott was real with him and he told him what he could and could not do.
“He told Trey there were no spots, and the best he could do was get his G-League rights and he would have to go through the G-League and we’ll see what happens from there.”
Still, Burke thought that was his best opportunity to get back in the NBA. Burke reached out to his past connections and found Perry, a former Michigan assistant.
“I knew that he would give me a fair opportunity to reinvent myself and come in and go through a process where I would have an opportunity to play consistent minutes at the highest level,” Burke said. “I always tell him I appreciate the opportunity and now that I’m here, I’m making him look good as well, because he brought me in.”
Besides a better spiritual base — which Benji said included leading prayer meetings with family members on Google Hangouts — he’s gotten into a more settled family situation, marrying his high school girlfriend and spending more time with their 3-year old son. They’re also expecting their second child.
While it’s readily accepted that players develop at different rates on the court, the key to Burke’s present is his belief in God and just figuring things out at age 25.
“I’m a different person. I’m married now and more mature and older. Through experience sometimes in this profession, you have to go through some of the trials and tribulations as a player to get to the point you want to get,” Burke said. “All those things are helping me out.
“My faith is off the wall right now, and people ask how I’m able to get back to this point and play as well as I’m playing.”
Whether Burke continues with the Knicks or another team isn’t his biggest concern; it’s just finding a way to stick in the NBA. His present stint is showing that he has the skill set to make it, but the lessons of the past aren’t far from his memory.
With so many point guards, whether the Knicks keep Burke isn’t a certainty and going back to Westchester isn’t his preferred option, either. But he’s shown that he’s more than just what he did in his first few years in the league.
“He’s back to himself, as far as having fun playing basketball, but his approach, what he’s learned, what works and what doesn’t, it’s taken a couple years,” Benji Burke said. “He went through the first couple years cruising through like he’s opposed to treating it as special as it is.
“Everybody can’t get there, and he was blessed to get to the NBA twice. The hunger and the way he’s playing now, you’re seeing the Trey Burke you saw as a sophomore at Michigan. This is what people expected him to be from the jump, coming into the league.”
The present Trey Burke still has a few steps to go, but still is ahead of the past.