Given some perspective, the freshman season of Jamarius Burton for the Wichita State men’s basketball team becomes even more impressive.
Even without the context, Burton’s debut campaign stands out: He made 28 starts (most by a WSU freshman in a decade), broke the WSU freshman assists record with 126, and averaged 6.0 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists in 24.0 minutes per game last season.
Unprecedented opportunity to play right away was available after unprecedented roster turnover at WSU, but Burton, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound bulldozer, made it easy to forget he was an unranked prospect coming off a major knee injury who was also a late signee in the spring of 2018.
Burton’s biggest blemish? His shooting. He shot just 39% from the field and 26% on three-pointers. So it’s obvious what Burton spent his summer doing.
“This offseason I focused primarily on my jump shot,” Burton said. “Just getting in the gym and getting up those reps and building up my confidence.
“Whenever you get a year under your belt, you know the offense better. Now it’s just about getting better and finding your spots on the floor where you feel like you can be successful.”
It didn’t take long for defenses to catch on to Burton’s struggles with his jumper last season. When Burton dribbled up top, some opponents practically begged Burton to pull the trigger on a jump shot. They sent their defenders diving under screens set as deep as the free-throw line and sometimes left him all together.
When WSU ran its motion offense and Burton passed and cut through, his defender wouldn’t always follow him to the corner, instead planting two feet in the lane to clog driving lanes for WSU. After all, Burton made just 30% of his two-point jumpers, per Hoop-Math.com, a perfectly acceptable outcome for a defense to allow.
With this in mind, Burton was motivated this summer to make 500 jump shots every day. He refined his shooting stroke and spent more time than ever on a shooting gun to turn it into muscle memory.
“Last year because we were all so new, so spent a lot of the summer on team stuff and getting to know the system and each other,” Burton said. “This summer I was able to do a lot more individual work. I was able to use the team that I wasn’t able to use last year and really focus on improving my feel. I think it’s going to pay off.”
This season Burton wants to punish defenders who choose to go under ball screens on him.
But there is another path to success that doesn’t have him pulling up for endless 15-footers to beat the defense. Burton reached his peak as a scorer when he went in attack mode coming off a ball screen. If the defender went under the screen, Burton used the space provided to build up steam, plow his way to the lane and use his bigger frame to play bully ball and create space for a shorter jumper.
“I feel like if I make an improvement on (pull-up jumpers), then that will start to open things up for me and my teammates,” Burton said.
If the defender went over the screen and trailed, Burton showed a good knack for attacking the back-pedaling big man and popping up for an uncontested 8-footer at the spot of his choosing.
But Burton’s recipe for continued success is replicating the aggression he displayed as a freshman. Per Hoop-Math.com, 43% of his total shots came at the rim. Although 25% of those attempts were blocked, Burton drew a foul rate of 38.5% (77 free throws to 200 field-goal attempts) that was best among WSU’s regulars and in the 90th percentile nationally.
KenPom shows that in the 21 games WSU played last season against its top-100 competition, Burton’s foul rate rose to 41.1% and he cashed in on 79.5% of his free throws.
WSU coach Gregg Marshall has mentioned this month how Burton looks leaner, more explosive and even stronger. If that is true, then maybe WSU will get a few more instances of Burton turning the corner on a pick and roll and exploding down the lane for a slam dunk like he did against Cincinnati in the AAC tournament.
Even without a reliable jumper in his arsenal, Burton proved effective initiating WSU’s offense, especially when it switched to the ball-screen offense that sparked its 14-4 close to the season. He’s still a work-in-progress spotting the rolling center down the lane, but Burton proved to be ahead of schedule in picking out shooters on the perimeter.
According to Synergy, WSU scored 1.16 points per possession on shots created by a pass made by Burton out of the pick and roll. That ranked the freshman in the 84th percentile in the country, while Burton’s 26.3% assist rate also ranked him in the top 150.
Throw in his physical brand of defense and Burton has cemented himself as a crucial piece for Wichita State.
He’ll likely cede some of his point-guard duties to freshmen Grant Sherfield and Noah Fernandes this season, but if Burton truly has added a consistent jumper, then that should allow him to stay on the floor and play minutes at small forward on top of making him an even more dangerous weapon in the pick and roll.
“I can do it all,” Burton said. “Whatever the team needs, I’m ready to do it.”