Dec. 11, 2015
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - C.J. Burks didn't start Marshall's last basketball game, but he certainly finished.
The Herd's redshirt freshman guard has been a pleasant surprise for Coach Dan D'Antoni in a tough start to the 2015-16 season. The 6-foot-4 Burks has made three starts and is averaging 10.1 points per game.
And in Marshall's first win of the season - over visiting Eastern Illinois on Wednesday night - Burks came off the bench just 1:30 into the game and played the rest of the way, scoring 19 points to go with 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals.
Burks, a Martinsburg resident who was D'Antoni's first Herd recruit - a mid-May 2014 commitment - has had four double-figure scoring games, but also two scoreless outings and a three-point effort.
With Eastern Kentucky (7-3) visiting the Henderson Center on Saturday night, Burks is searching for consistency, and perhaps it will come now that he's established himself as a productive contributor after sitting out last season as an academic non-qualifier.
"I feel like I'm doing better and I'm really proud of myself right now, but there's a lot of work ahead," Burks said before a Herd practice earlier this week. "I've been staying to work on different things after practice that the coaches say I need to work on, and I think that helps me a lot in the games.
"When I was out last season, I learned that I'm good on the basketball court, but there were mental things I needed to work on that can help my game a lot and help me get out here and play on the next level. It was really hard being patient because since I left high school, I hadn't played in a game in nearly two years when this season started. I had to go out and get used to it again."
Ah, high school Ã¢â'¬Â¦ That's the only time Burks played more minutes in a game than the 39 he did in the win over Eastern Illinois. His final game as an All-State senior, Burks scored 17 points as Hedgesville fell to Hurricane in a triple-overtime semifinal of the 2014 Class AAA State Tournament at the Charleston Civic Center.
Burks played all 44 minutes in that ending to a season in which he averaged 21.9 points per game and shot a .609 percentage from the field, including an impressive .429 from three-point range. And if there were a silver lining to having to sit out - and not even practice with the Herd - in 2014-15, Burks found it.
"I think my shooting ability is the thing that's improved most since I've been here," said Burks, who turned 20 on Sunday. "Back in high school, I could shoot, but I took the ball to the basket a lot. I was more of a driver than shooter.
"Working on my own helped me a lot with the season off. I just got into the gym, shot a lot on my own, got on 'The Gun' (a contraption that rebounds balls and fires them back to a shooter) and got a lot of shots up."
Calvin Augusta Burks Jr. - named for his paternal grandfather -- was a 2013-14 Class AAA All-State first team pick along with sophomore guard Jon Elmore, the George Washington High grad and VMI transfer who will join the Herd soon. With Fairmont State transfer and former Logan High star Stevie Browning, D'Antoni will have a solid in-state threesome to rotate in the backcourt.
"C.J. has so much talent, that there are things he does that just add to the game," D'Antoni said. "He still has moments where he's not focused, and that's a freshman type of thing. He hasn't learned to maintain his energy at the highest level all the time, or alertness, but I think he's going to.
"He hasn't gotten there yet, but his abilities and his talent allow him to contribute to the game. If we're going to win in a big way, he has to understand he can't lose that focus, because what he builds, you can tear down. And we can't have a 50-50 situation.
"I think he'll grow into that. I like him a lot. He's a great kid and has a promising upside, but he's got work to do to get to that upside. He can't view it as this is my final package; we need him to keep improving, and I think he can be an important player in our program."
Burks also has made the transition from the patient style of play Hedgesville employed to the Herd's "organized chaos" based on pace, three-point shots and the pick-and-roll.
"It was a big adjustment, but I got used to it," Burks said. "In high school we played slow, but with Coach Dan we play fast and shoot threes whenever we need to shoot them. The other night, 39 minutes, it was a lot. I just had to push through my tiredness and not let anybody see I was tired. I was a little winded but I just pushed through it and didn't let anybody see I was tired."
Burks said he had plenty of offers from NCAA Division II schools - mostly in-state - and there were Division I schools who were interested but wanted him to go to prep school because he didn't qualify.
"I didn't want to go to prep school, and I visited here and liked it," he said. "I came here because I liked the coaching staff. I thought they'd help me a lot, an NBA coach (D'Antoni was an assistant for nine seasons) and a former NBA player (assistant coach Chris Duhon) were here. That entered into my decision, too."
He's one of the Herd's better defenders, as long as he doesn't pick up a couple of quick fouls, as he did in the first four minutes in Marshall's recent 107-84 loss at James Madison.
"I need to play smart and just don't gamble a lot," Burks said. "I need to put myself into my defensive position earlier so I won't have to rush over and try to make a play. I was recruited some for my ability on defense and I like to play defense, but you can always improve on defense, too."
Asked for a personal scouting report, Burks painted with a broad brush.
"I can shoot or get to the basket and I think I'm a really good defensive player," he said. "I like to hustle Ã¢â'¬Â¦ Playing hard. I like to dive on the floor get loose balls, get in for those hustle plays. I'm a scrappy player, getting into people."
What Burks likes most, however, is getting into games. He's back into that now.