When Eric Paschall returned to the Warriors’ locker room following his 34-point outburst against Portland early this month, Alec Burks was waiting for him.
Paschall — the No. 41 pick in June’s NBA Draft — hadn’t even scored that many points in a college game. “Keep shooting,” Burks said. “Keep being aggressive, keep playing confidently. They can’t guard you, so just keep doing what you’re doing.”
After injuries derailed a promising start to his career, Burks — a former lottery pick — received little interest during free agency this summer. He has since become a mentor for a young team in transition, reviving his career and making a case to be part of Golden State’s future plans.
At 28, Burks is the oldest available player on a Warriors roster with eight players age 23 or younger. His no-drama, low-maintainance personality and light-touch advice have accelerated the development of Golden State’s potential long-term building blocks, and he’s proven a steadying influence for a lineup that, collectively, on some nights, can’t equal his number of years in the NBA.
He’s gone from a likely sixth man to a nightly starter, averaging 14.9 points and 4.4 rebounds — both career highs if they hold — and is fourth on the team in assists, playing 27.6 minutes per game.
“To have a guy like that, who’s been through a lot, it’s very valuable,” Paschall said. “He doesn’t mind talking about it and giving all the young guys knowledge.”
Picked 12th in the 2011 NBA Draft by Utah — one spot behind Thompson — it took Burks two years to find a rhythm, but he had a breakout season in 2013-14, doubling his scoring output to 14 points per night, and averaging 2.7 assists and 3.3 rebounds. He signed a four-year, $42-million extension that offseason.
Over the next three years, he underwent three surgeries, and played in just 100 games.
After trades to Cleveland and then Sacramento, where he barely played, Burks had averaged 9.5 points, 1.7 assists and 3.0 rebounds for his seven-year career, and had but two options in free agency: Golden State and Oklahoma City.
Burks verbally agreed to sign with the Thunder, but was allowed to back out of the deal to find a more competitive situation following the departures of Paul George and Russell Westbrook.
While the Thunder were stocked with wings, Burks would more likely get heavy rotation minutes with the Warriors, who were in need of wing depth with Thompson recovering from an ACL tear, and the departures of Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.
He signed for the veteran’s minimum with Golden State, who at that point looked to still have at least some semblance of a contending team, with a healthy Russell, Curry and Draymond Green.
While a litany of injuries have turned what was a fringe playoff team into a likely lottery-bound one, Burks has relished the opportunity to buoy the confidence of the team’s youngsters.
“It’s the kind of human being that you are that leads to becoming a mentor and a leader for the younger players,” said head coach Steve Kerr. “I just think Alec is naturally a steadying force, because of who he is.”
Burks has facilitated, but has also taken over at times, driving to the rim and getting fouled to slow the game down when the younger players get out of sorts. He’s coached up teammates on the sideline and in the locker room, even while recovering from his own training camp ankle injury.
Given his past, Burks has held himself up as an example for what not to do with injuries, a particularly prescient topic on a team that, currently, has only eight healthy players available.
“If they ask for advice, I’ll give it to them, but in my experience, experience is the best teacher,” Burks said. “I’ve seen everything in the NBA. Nothing surprises me.”
Having seen younger wings take over what was to be his role in Utah, Burks has encouraged Paschall, Jordan Poole and Ky Bowman to take advantage, talking them up on the sideline and, in Bowman’s case, needling him during a game of 2-on-2 as Burks recovered from his ankle injury.
While Paschall has developed into a legitimate scorer — averaging 16.8 points — and Bowman, currently on a two-way contract, is forcing Golden State’s hand with 8.2 points and 2.4 assists per night, Burks, too, has taken advantage.
“Knowing it’s a heck of an opportunity for all the young guys, he’s kept giving us confidence, kept talking to us to go out there and play confident,” Paschall said.
Added Kerr: “We’re lucky to have him.”