ATLANTA — It’s difficult to watch Michigan point guard Trey Burke and not think of somebody else.
That’s a compliment. Burke, the Associated Press National Player of the Year and a possible NBA lottery pick if he leaves Michigan after his sophomore season, brings back memories of past and present point guards close to his 6-foot-1 stature.
Burke plays with the passion of two-time NBA champion Isiah Thomas. He has court vision similar to that of Steve Nash, as Burke led the Big Ten with 6.6 assists to go along with his 18.8 points. Burke leads like Chris Paul and he can get to the basket with a fearlessness that resembles Allen Iverson.
Part of the reason Burke has become college basketball’s best player is that he studies top point guards — Paul, Rajon Rondo, Tony Parker — and can emulate them while crafting a skillset that is dazzlingly unique.
"When you watch those guys, they’re more than just great point guards out there on the court," Burke said. "They’re actual leaders and the coach on the court. You want to model yourself after guys like that because you have your teammates’ respect.
"Instead of criticizing them in negative ways, you can go up to them and tell them what you see or tell them what you feel like you need to do so it can be done."
Paul, the 6-foot, 175-pound point guard for the Los Angeles Clippers, is perhaps the most appropriate comparison. Although Paul seems to be on his way to a Hall of Fame career and Burke’s pro career hasn’t yet started, it’s not an impossible leap to make.
Like many expect Burke to do, Paul jumped to the NBA after his sophomore season at Wake Forest. Their stats in their second college seasons are similar, but the most obvious similarity doesn’t show up in statistics.
In a recent Sports Illustrated article, Paul discussed his preference to get his teammates involved before beginning to look for his shot later in the game. Burke exhibits the same tactics — even though he shoots more often than Paul — along with a desire to win that transcends his personality.
On Thursday, hours before Burke won the AP award, Michigan coach John Beilein said Burke plays with the maturity and leadership capabilities of a fifth-year senior.
"It’s probably unfair to compare anyone to (Paul)," Beilein said. "... But there are certainly many similarities. They can hit the in-between jump shot, he has a great pace to game. Paul has worked so hard at his game and he’s elevated it like the way we hope Trey can one day. This young man’s got a fire in his belly to be the best player he can be and make his team win.
"I have a sense that if you check Chris Paul, he’s probably got that same fire."
Perhaps that is best exhibited in Burke’s defensive improvement. Even though he wasn’t highly recruited after winning the Mr. Basketball award as the top high school player in Ohio, Burke has always been a scorer. He offers a complete offensive game with his passing abilities.
Burke put in time during the offseason cultivating a physique that would allow him to play more physically and more aggressively. The result has been a slight jump in fouls but a major jump in steals, from 31 to 59. For what it’s worth, he’s blocked more shots, too.
"Assistant coaches, specifically Bacari (Alexander), he got on me a lot this offseason about raising my level of intensity on the defensive end," Burke said. "I definitely think that was an improvement in my game, as well as improving my lower-body strength. That’s allowed me to anticipate better and get more steals."