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SportsMonday Column: The Pistons needed to draft Trey Burke

Adam Glanzman/Daily
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By Everett Cook, Daily Sports Writer
Published January 19, 2014

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — It all felt right because it was, from the fans to the introduction to the performance.

The pregame scene was perfect — Trey Burke smiling, signing autographs and shouting “Go Blue” to the hundreds of fans who got to the Palace of Auburn Hills more than two hours before the game started. He said that being back in Detroit made him feel like he was playing for Michigan again, like he was about to go on the court to play VCU in the second round of the 2013 NCAA Tournament.

Everything was in place, except for the jersey he was wearing.

The NBA’s Pistons had a chance to make this scene play out 41 times a year, a chance to draft Burke and make sure the state’s prodigal son didn’t begin his pro career somewhere else, but they passed. They let one of the best players in Michigan basketball history — its first Player of the Year since 1966 and its only Naismith Award Winner — slide down to the Minnesota Timberwolves, who then traded him to the Utah Jazz for the 14th pick.

The selection felt like a surprise to most, but it wasn’t for Burke and his family.

“I found out the night before that (Pistons General Manager) Joe Dumars didn’t want him,” said Benji Burke, Trey’s father and agent, in an interview with the Daily on Friday. “From what I heard the night before, they didn’t want to have a rookie running the team. They wanted to win now. Minnesota didn’t have any interest at all, they just did it because they wanted the picks that the Jazz had. I just really think that Joe Dumars didn’t want to wait two or three years for Trey to mature.”

For many reasons — actually, for every reason — passing on Burke is looking like a bigger mistake for the Pistons every time the young point guard plays. It couldn’t have been clearer on Friday night, when Burke and the Jazz played the Pistons in the Palace.

There seemed to be more maize and blue in the stands than Pistons jerseys. Burke’s introduction as Utah’s starting point guard drew louder cheers than any player from the Pistons got, as did his made baskets on the floor. He was torching their home team, but Pistons fans didn’t care.

This is a team that’s currently 26th out of 30 teams in NBA attendance. Recently, Detroit has been trying to bring in big artists to play at halftime, hoping that if people didn’t want to come for the basketball, they would come from the music. December brought Flo Rida. Friday brought the Temptations.

You don’t think having Burke play here every night could have helped those attendance numbers? The Pistons’ announced crowd on Friday was more than 4,000 more than their season average. Not all of that should be attributed to Burke, but try finding another game this year where hordes of fans get to the games early to try and watch the shootaround.

And yes, winning takes precedence above all else in the NBA. Draft choices shouldn’t be made based purely off of fans’ preferences and feel-good stories.

And yet, Burke is clearly more than just a hometown kid that the fans love. He’s second in the NBA in points (13.7) and assists (5.7) among all rookies and was the Western Conference Rookie of the Month in December, even though he’s on a team that had won just 13 games going into Friday’s matchup against the Pistons.

On Friday, he scored 20 points and had a career-high 12 assists despite a slow start fueled by nerves and jitters. The rookie the Pistons drafted over Burke, guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, finished with five points and one assist. The Jazz blew the Pistons out of the water, 110-89.

Benji said that Trey was initially “a little hurt” that the Pistons passed on him, but that feeling passed pretty quickly when he realized the situation in Utah. The Jazz are a young, talented team without expectations to win right away — he has a chance to grow without initial pressure. Plus, his apartment in Utah is a mile from the stadium and provides a great view of the mountains from the massive windows in his bedroom.

“It came across my mind, obviously with (the Pistons) having the eighth pick,” Trey said Friday. “I kinda thought they would take me, but they didn’t. Life moved on. I’m up here and I feel like I’m in a good position. Having a lot of fun.”

When Trey was entering his freshman year at Michigan, Benji told him he had to make it his team from the first open gym on. He couldn’t wait until October to become a leader.

After that open gym, an assistant coach called Benji and told him that’s exactly what Trey did. Senior captain Stu Douglass finished the session and told the coaches, “That kid has to start at the ‘1.’ ”

The Pistons have all the talent in the world, All-Stars rubbing elbows with All-Stars, but there’s a lack of cohesiveness. It’s almost like they’ve never really practiced together before.

Something, like a player who at age 18 convinced a senior that he should be running the show, is missing.

Cook can be reached at evcook@umich.edu and on Twitter @everettcook