Alec Burks exceeding Knicks’ wildest expectations
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DALLAS — The only mistake Knicks president Leon Rose made during November’s free agency was not giving Alec Burks a two-year deal.
With his savvy, cool, fourth-quarter shotmaking, Burks is emerging as an NBA Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Ironically, his biggest competition, Jordan Clarkson, plays for the same Jazz outfit where Burks spent 7½ seasons, much of it under the radar.
The Knicks signed Burks as a bench scorer and he’s exceeded their wildest expectations in pulling out some games in the final period with his feathery shot.
Burks, 29, will be a free agent this August after signing a modest one-year, $6 million pact. There’s no reason Rose won’t go to great lengths to retain him.
To assure it, the Knicks, $60 million under the cap, probably will have to offer a little more than the full mid-level exception ($9.7 million) to outbid the competition.
The never-nervous Burks is shooting 40.8 percent from 3-point range compared to Clarkson’s 34.9 percent. Burks’ defensive rating (103.9) is also better than Clarkson’s (107.4).
Tom Thibodeau is now comfortable closing with Burks, who scored 14 fourth-quarter points (21 overall) Wednesday in New Orleans to seal the Knicks’ fourth straight win.
Burks made 3 of 4 3-pointers, including an early dagger with 8:11 left that jacked the lead to 11. It set off an on-court celebration as players mobbed Burks when the Pelicans called a timeout. It showed how much his mates like his unassuming demeanor.
“I think it’s the approach the coach takes earlier in the season, the fourth quarter is different than the other three quarters,’’ Burks said ahead of the Knicks facing the Mavericks on Friday in Dallas. “You got to bring your A-game because it’s going to be a physical quarter because everyone is trying to get the win. I’m trying to help my team any way I can.’’
Those close to Burks say he’s a quiet guy who prefers not to do interviews — especially in the pandemic Zoom setting. As such, his terrific works goes overshadowed by bigger names such as Julius Randle, RJ Barrett and Derrick Rose.
But Burks is fine with not being in the headlines as long as his teammates respect his contributions.
“I don’t care — I’m not in this to be most popular,’’ said Burks, who is averaging 12.6 points in 25.8 minutes per game. “I love the game, love helping my teammates. I just want to do what I can to help my team win and get a win out there and make it to the playoffs. I couldn’t care less about getting notoriety for it.’’
In truth, Burks was not the highest name on the Knicks’ list during free agency. But the Knicks have strong Jazz ties now in the Leon Rose Era. Longtime Jazz scouting director Walter Perrin is now the Knicks’ assistant GM and former Utah assistant Johnnie Bryant was named to Thibodeau’s coaching staff.
With Utah, Perrin drafted Burks No. 12 in 2011. Bryant has encouraged Thibodeau to try Burks at point guard on occasion because he did decent work there at times with the Jazz.
“I have no preference,’’ Burks said. “Wherever my coach wants me at that time or on that play. I play either, or.’’
In an indication Burks will want to re-sign if contract offers are similar, Burks praised Thibodeau for getting the best out of him.
Burks played last season for Golden State and Philadelphia and did well enough, averaging 15.0 points. The Sixers made no attempt to re-sign him.
“He just puts everyone in position at their strong points,’’ Burks said of Thibodeau. “Everybody plays off each other. That’s where we have an even playing field. He knows my strong suits and what I do well.. … That’s why it’s working.’’
Thibodeau is swept away by Burks’s clutch play, saying he’s “got great poise — the poise under pressure is huge.’’
“The game’s not too big, he doesn’t get rattled,’’ Thibodeau said. “And he just plays at the same speed and he makes great reads on a defense.’’
They were modest moves at the time, but exercising the $4.2 million team option for starting shooting guard Reggie Bullock and inking his backup, Burks, for $6 million have made Rose look a little like the Oakland A’s Billy “Moneyball’’ Beane. The Knicks have the lowest payroll in the league — $1.5 million under the cap.
“The two guys are invaluable to us,’’ Thibodeau said. “They both star in their roles. With Reggie, we get the catch-and-shoot game and we get great defense. With Alec, it’s not only his 3 but more importantly his ability to go off the dribble. I like the versatility of both guys. They’re veteran leaders, they’re both very positive leaders for our young guys. And I think that’s helped a lot with the growth of the team, particularly for our young players.’’
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