To Wichita State fans, freshman Jamarius Burton may have looked like an entirely different player in the last two weeks.
Burton has taken command of Wichita State’s offense and has started to flourish as a point guard, even earning freshman of the week honors in the American Athletic Conference. In the last three games, he’s posted a 5.7 assist-to-turnover ratio (17 assists, three turnovers) and hit 50 percent of his select few three-pointers.
Winners of three straight, Wichita State (11-11, 4-6 AAC) is eying a season-long winning streak on Saturday when last-place Tulane (4-17, 0-9) heads to Koch Arena for a 7 p.m. tip broadcast on ESPNU.
Burton’s improved play has WSU’s offense humming along, which has been a pleasant surprise to some, but not to those who know the 18-year-old from Charlotte, N.C., best.
“What you guys are seeing now is what he’s always been capable of doing,” said Kimberly Seward, Burton’s mother. “He’s basically getting back to how he typically plays. He was trying so hard not to make mistakes and thinking entirely too hard, instead of just playing the game of basketball like he knows how.”
Considering Burton is the first true freshman to start at point guard in coach Gregg Marshall’s tenure at WSU, it’s not surprising adversity has come his way.
It might be different if Burton was surrounded by veterans; instead, he was tasked with the responsibility of directing one of the most inexperienced teams in college basketball. At times, it’s been overwhelming.
He came in as a reluctant shooter and it didn’t take long for defenses to leave him unguarded on the perimeter to clog up driving lanes. He put so much pressure on himself not to make a mistake that he started throwing passes just to complete them, instead of with an assist in mind.
“Jamarius hates to lose, period,” said Kimera Seward, his sister. “He truly is a student of the game. He has a will and a love and a passion for it. He respects the game so much that he is going to do whatever he needs to do to get it right.”
Burton calls his mother after every game for what usually becomes a 30-minute breakdown of what he could have done to impact winning more. She challenged Burton to work on his shot so he could start making defenses pay for sagging off. In the past month, Burton has spent extra time every day in the gym working on a shooting machine that tracks his accuracy.
It hasn’t been a surprise to his family that after shooting just 10 threes (with two makes) in his first 18 games, Burton has made four of nine three-pointers in the last two weeks.
“You’re definitely seeing an increase in confidence,” Kimberly Seward said. “He’s starting to see that the game isn’t as hard as he thought it would be.”
“I feel like I’m out there thinking less and making plays more,” Burton said. “I know if I take care of the basketball, control the tempo and make sure we’re getting great shots, then that gives us a pretty good chance of winning.”
Those conversations mean so much to Burton because he learned how to play basketball from the women in his family. His mother played at Alabama A&M, while his two older sisters, Kimera and Destani, both played in college on scholarship. Two of his aunts played college basketball.
When Burton was growing up, it was almost a nightly ritual for the family to head to the local YMCA to play 3-on-3. And on the court, there were no family bonds.
“Nobody wanted to lose, so it was always physical,” Kimberly Seward said. “The rule was it doesn’t matter if I’m your mom, I’m just another player when I’m on the court. We just went at it.”
“It really was like no mercy,” Kimera Seward added. “We would take it easy on (Burton) when he was younger. But when he started growing and getting stronger, all bets were off.”
Those games have stuck with Burton to this day. He still uses a spin move to the left that was the same move his mother used to terrorize him with during those pick-up games.
“Now he kills everybody with that move,” said Kimberly Seward, beaming with pride. “That move is unstoppable.”
In retrospect, Burton felt like he was prepared for matching up with upperclassmen in the AAC by the year he actually spent without touching a basketball.
Two summers ago, Burton tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. It not only cost him his junior season in high school, but also his 17U season in the summer, which is the most important session in recruiting.
“That was one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to face,” Burton said. “But through that year sitting out, it allowed me to grow as a person and as a player.”
Burton was diligent in his rehabilitation work, completing therapy work three times a day. He was able to watch games from a different perspective. He watched more film and YouTube clips of his favorite NBA players. He picked the mind of his coaches.
In the end, Burton returned his senior year at Independence High and led the team to a 31-1 record and a win in the North Carolina Class 4A state championship game. He averaged 16.4 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 2.2 steals and was most valuable player of the state title game.
“Jamarius is a true throwback, as a person and as a basketball player,” said Mike Felder, who coached Burton at Independence. “He’s just a mature kid. The teachers loved him. The staff loved him. His peers loved him. I think what we saw in that year away from the game was him grow as a leader and that’s why he’s been so successful ever since.”
Felder isn’t surprised to hear Burton is becoming an emerging voice in WSU’s huddles. He’s becoming more and more confident by the game and morphing into the point guard WSU needs.
It reminds Felder of a conversation he had with Burton before his senior season. Burton had always been tough on his younger brother Amonti, who was one year younger than him. Felder mentioned to him that he didn’t think being overly demanding of Amonti was the best way to bring out the best in him.
Burton listened, adapted and then prevailed.
“I told him you’re going to have to learn a different way because he really looks up to you as a ball player,” Felder said. “I saw Jamarius shed a tear and I knew right then how much he cared about his brother. From that moment on, Jamarius grew as a person, as a teammate and as a leader. When he came back over break and watched his brother practice, Jamarius was about to shed a tear again. That right there showed me just how far Jamarius has come in his leadership.”
Tulane at Wichita State
Records: TU 4-17, 0-9 AAC; WSU 11-11, 4-6
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Koch Arena (10,506), Wichita
Radio: KEYN, 103.7-FM