Alec Burks is Special

The first time I saw Alec Burks play during his freshman year at Colorado I remember thinking, “How’d he end up in Boulder?” My next thought veered towards a sense of foreboding catastrophe. We don’t get players like this. He was bound to get terribly injured somewhere along the way, keeping Colorado a basketball afterthought and ruining what appeared to be a promising professional career. I lived with this fear every time I watched Burks on the basketball court. Which, sadly, took away the joy that comes with watching such an unbelievably talented player apply his craft.

In the midst of all this negative thought, however, I observed him with an acute eye. How could you not? He was regularly the best player on the floor.

Boulder, Colorado is not a college basketball hotbed. This is not news. The best player in school history, Chauncey Billups, left early for the NBA fourteen years ago. Since that time, the program has worn its badge of mediocrity with honor. The only Buffaloes player drafted in the time between Billups and Burks is loafing, erratic big man, David Harrison, who’s greatest claim to fame is his involvement in the now-infamous, “Malice in the Palace” where he was charged with one count of assault and battery. In 2008, not coincidentally his final year in the league, he was suspended five games by the Pacers for violating the league’s anti-drug policy. Colorado’s lone NCAA Tournament appearance without Billups was a first round blowout at the hands of Tom Izzo and Michigan State in 2003 — an admittedly tough draw for a team that had successfully upset half of the year’s Final Four in Kansas and Texas during the regular season. Other than that, Colorado Men’s Basketball in the modern era has known little success. Which is why watching Alec Burks produced such fits and starts of trepidation and excitement.

Throughout this past season there were times when it looked as if Burks wasn’t necessarily ready for the next level. Though he never put together a particularly bad game, if he had given a little more effort a time or two, Colorado would’ve walked away with a few more victories. And when it comes to NCAA Tournament selection, those games proved to be the difference.

  • November 16, 2010: Colorado had this early road game circled on its schedule as a benchmark to see where their program stood in the national landscape. The Buffaloes lost, 83-74, after Georgia gave up a seventeen-point lead and missed sixteen free-throws. Burks played a team-high 35 minutes. He also took a team-high fourteen shots, converting only five. It was a ghastly shooting performance from Colorado’s best player in a game the Buffs could’ve easily stolen. Not to mention, a victory here would have been a signature road win for their NCAA Tournament résumé.
  • November 20, 2010: After soundly defeating them in Boulder the year before, Colorado loses in overtime to the University of San Francisco, 83-81. The Dons were relevant in college basketball once. When Bill Russell and K.C. Jones were playing, that is. Burks was fantastic statistically in this game. His performance from the free-throw line was not. Shooting 5-for-10 is quite costly in a contest that goes to overtime. And when March came around, this wasn’t the what the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee needed to see.
  • December 22, 2010: Colorado went into the Las Vegas Classic a very underwhelming 7-4 overall. The New Mexico Lobos seemed to be just what the doctor ordered. Alec Burks had one of his better shooting nights of the season, however the Buffaloes lost, 89-76. If you’re looking for a culprit, look no further than the glass. CU was outrebounded, 35-23. Burks, a typically heady rebounder, didn’t help that cause as he only pulled down a single board against the Lobos.

Now, this isn’t necessarily a referendum on Burks’ prospects in the NBA. It is merely a cautionary tale. If Alec Burks had produced a little more effort in any one of the three previously mentioned games (there are other examples), Colorado makes the NCAA Tournament with ease. And in my mind, that is what separates the lottery from the rest of the field; the true lottery picks don’t allow their teams to lose such winnable games when it’s clear they could have done better. Alec could have done better in some of those situations. For the game’s elite, willing your team to victory in the face of inferior competition isn’t a some-of-the-time thing. It’s an all the time thing.

As such, Burks is not a savior. (Especially when he’s paired with a relatively unknown Enes Kanter.) His temperament is that of a leader by example. He appears to genuinely enjoy the company of his teammates and coaches. He approaches practice in much the same way he does each and every game — with professionalism and class. Eminently coachable, there was never a time when he seemed discouraged by input from anyone on the Colorado staff. However, he most certainly is not the type to call for a team huddle in the middle of crunch-time. That said, he isn’t one to shy away from the moment. From the 3:20 mark forward is when Alec Burks took over the Texas game. Watch the video from start to finish to appreciate Burks’ whole body of work.

Burks led Colorado to a stunning come-from-behind victory over the fifth-ranked Longhorns, finishing the night with 33-points, 10-rebounds, and four assists. It was the breakout game of his career — and when I finally came to the conclusion that his time at Colorado was coming to an end. His final output could have been even more impressive had he not gone 12-for-20 from the free-throw line and 1-for-6 from distance.

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About J.R.
I have been watching basketball for over twenty years. I like to think I've learned a thing or two in that time. Truth is, I've learned just one thing: I love this game.

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