DALLAS – Even for a couple of positive thinkers, there seemed little to be thankful for soon after Shane Larkin felt his ankle pop and Trey Burke crushed his finger.
A couple of eager, 21-year-old first-round point guards ready to storm into their NBA careers instead made forced pit stops onto the injured list. Larkin, the 18th pick out of Miami by the Dallas Mavericks, broke his right ankle as he planted for a dunk during a summer practice. Surgery was mandatory. Summer League ended before it started. Training camp? Preseason? Start of the regular season? Pipe dreams.
“At that point, the first reaction is to be negative,” Larkin said. “I worked so hard to get here and we have four point point guards on the roster and now I’m going to be at the back of the pack.”
The Utah Jazz traded up to nab Burke at No. 9 and planned all along for the national college player of the year to run their squad from the jump. In his third preseason game, Burke tried to make a pass off the pick-and-roll as he had thousands of times before, but this time the quick hand of an NBA defender got in the way and collided with his right index finger. Crack!
He would next check into an operating room.
“There was nothing I could do,” said Burke, the catalyst in Michigan’s run to the NCAA title game. “I was disappointed and frustrated, but I knew I had to keep my conditioning up and learn from the sideline. I didn’t know how long I was going to be out so it was disappointing for me because I really hadn’t had an injury like this since middle school.”
As their rookie campaigns reach Thanksgiving, the familiar foes from their AAU days — Burke from Columbus, Ohio, and Larkin from Cincinnati — are both thankful to be playing again. Each has had a slow start shooting and has played less instinctual than either would like, but that’s how it goes jumping stone-cold into a season in progress, robbed of so much practice time and game experience.
“I practiced four times and he threw me out there against Philly,” Larkin said, referring to Mavs coach Rick Carlisle.
Thrown into the fire
As complete a player as there was last season in college, Burke is four games into his NBA career and has started the last two. His first home start Tuesday, a desperately needed overtime win for the 2-14 Jazz over the Bulls, was one to remember: 14 points, four assists and six rebounds while making key plays. He logged a career-high 34 minutes.
“It all comes down to confidence really, not putting too much pressure on myself and going out there and just playing,” Burke said last week. “I know the sets, I know where guys are supposed to be. I know what works for us and what doesn’t, so I think it’s just about picking and choosing my spots, not putting too much pressure on myself and not forcing things.”
Slick and cat-quick, Larkin played in his sixth game Wednesday and it was his best yet with seven points, six assists and no turnovers while garnering clutch fourth-quarter minutes among the 17 he played. It took just two games for him to unseat fellow rookie Gal Mekel as the primary backup behind starting point guard Jose Calderon. Veteran Devin Harris (toe surgery) is expected to make his season debut some time before Christmas, adding more intrigue in the battle for minutes.
“It’s been tough,” the 5-foot-11 Larkin said last Friday after the Mavs held on to beat Burke and the Jazz in Dallas. “Just getting back into the rhythm of everything and making the correct reads off the pick-and-roll and just my whole overall game, it’s just not all the way back yet.
“Trey had an advantage of playing in Summer League and a little in preseason before he broke his finger. But he’s doing well out there. It’s just a matter of him getting back in his rhythm as well because he’s been out four or six weeks. So both of us just getting back to our rhythm and playing how we played in college — that’s why our teams drafted us.”
Just weeks after being drafted, the Mavs’ Summer League team was days removed from departing for Las Vegas. For the final five minutes of that July 12 practice, Mavs assistant coach Monte Mathis wanted to run one last full-speed, full-court drill. Larkin made a steal, went coast-to-coast, planted on his right foot to go up for a dunk as he has thousands of times before and — pop!
“I thought it was a really, really, really bad sprain because when it happened I heard the pop, but I got up and I walked to the training room and my ankle didn’t swell up,” Larkin said. “But then I put ice on it and after I took the ice off it just started swelling and then I knew something was wrong.
“They took me to the team doctor, got X-rays, got an MRI, found out it was broken, had surgery four days later. They said the force on my ankle was like a car crash.”
Burke had a tough introduction at Summer League in Orlando and also through his first couple of preseason games. In the first quarter of that third game on Oct. 12 against the Clippers, his right index got bent in a way it is not intended.
“At first I thought it was dislocated. I tried to pop it back in place and go back out and play,” Burke said. “But it didn’t feel right. I had an X-ray at halftime and you could see there was a break.”
Reduced to spectators following their surgeries, both players reverted back to being students, doing all they could to soak up their respective playbooks, learn the play calls and the tendencies and personalities of their new teammates while watching them grind out practice after practice.
“Honestly, you want to be out there with your teammates,” Burke said. “It was an unfortunate break, but It was just something where I had to see the game from a different perspective, find ways to learn from the sideline. I was on the bench, as then with Johnny [Lucas III] coming in here and showing me different things on the film; I was watching other good point guards, looking at their pace and things like that. I think that all helped me out and gave me a better understanding of how I want to play for this team and how I want to make plays for this team.”
Larkin would be watching practice when either Carlisle or an assistant coach would turn and point at him.
“Coach would throw a question at me like, ‘Hey rook, what do we do here?’ and I’d have to know the correct answer,” Larkin said. “That’s kind of the way they built trust in me because I knew what was going on.”
And now the rest of the season
Larkin’s minutes off the bench have been fairly steady, and at times have come in key situations. But he also got the pine treatment two games ago after some sloppy play and logged barely four minutes. Carlisle, though, clearly wants to utilize his change-of-pace quickness at both ends of the floor on a mostly veteran team that needs dashes of speed. Larkin is averaging 3.7 ppg and 2.2 apg in 12.6 mpg.
“I’ve started making some drives to the basket and my confidence is getting back,” Larkin said. “So it’s just a process of keep building every single game to get back to where I want to be and where coach wants me to be as a player.”
Burke, averaging 8.5 ppg, 3.0 apg and 3.5 rpg in 21.5 mpg (a figure likely to rise in a hurry), has the more daunting and less forgiving task, running a team in total rebuild and that was 1-11 when he was cleared to play. Still, Burke said he relishes the challenge.
“Honestly, it reminds me of my freshman year at Michigan. Obviously this is another level, this is the pros and the best players in the world, but I had to go right into Michigan and learn right away,” Burke said. “I had to jump right in, play that starting position and I had to learn quickly.
“I think with the vets on the this team are doing a good job of sheltering me, letting me know what’s right and what’s wrong. They trust me so with their trust that gives me more confidence out there.”
Fans will be seeing more of Burke and Larkin, two eager point guards who got an early lesson that good health in the NBA is always something for which to be thankful.