Deonte Burton knows all eyes will be upon him this season.
“It’s a big year for me and for us in general,” the Nevada Wolf Pack point guard said. “It’s definitely a big year.”
Burton will begin his junior season when the Wolf Pack hosts Oregon Tech in an exhibition game at Lawlor Events Center on Nov. 6 and travels to UC Irvine four days later to open the regular season. And he’s well aware that the junior season has a certain significance when it comes to Wolf Pack point guards lately.
The last two Pack point guards — Ramon Sessions and Armon Johnson — each abruptly left the team after their junior seasons for the National Basketball Association. Sessions, who played for Nevada from the 2004-05 season through 2006-07, is now with the Charlotte Bobcats in his sixth year in the NBA. Johnson, who played for the Pack from 2007-08 through 2009-10, was just recently released by the Orlando Magic.
“I know it’s been looked upon me that way with the NBA,” Burton said. “That’s exciting and all. But that’s not something I worry about right now. If it happens, I’ll deal with that when it comes. But I’m not looking at that right now. All I’m looking forward to is this season.”
The 21-year-old Burton deserves to be mentioned alongside Session and Johnson. All three, after all, were named Western Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year and all three started at point guard right away their first season and never gave up the job.
And Burton is on pace to be the best of them all.
He’s already scored more career points than Sessions (954-850) and if he just repeats what he did last year, when he scored 517 points, he’ll pass Johnson (1,441) and move into ninth place on the Wolf Pack’s career scoring list. And with 79 career steals, Burton will also likely pass both Sessions (113) and Johnson (83) as the best defensive player of the three.
Both Sessions (4.9 a game) and Johnson (4.4) have better career assists averages than Sessions (3.9) but Burton hasn’t had high-scoring teammates like his predecessors enjoyed such as Nick Fazekas (Sessions) and Luke Babbitt (Johnson).
Burton also already has something that both Sessions and Johnson didn’t accomplish — a Western Athletic Conference Payer of the Year award that he won last year when he led the Pack to a 28-7 record and led the team in scoring (14.8), assists (4.2), steals (38) and successful free throws (165).
“I think with Deonte you will see a very confident young man this year,” Wolf Pack coach David Carter said.
Burton, who came out of Centennial High in Compton, Calif., hit the ground running his freshman year when he averaged 13.7 points and 3.5 assists. It was a difficult year for everyone in Silver and Blue as the Pack finished 13-19 but Burton excelled despite being surrounded by fellow freshmen trying to learn the Division I game. Sessions and Johnson, in contrast, stepped into veteran, successful teams their freshmen year.
“He had a very good freshman year but after that year I told him, ‘If you want to be great in this game you have to improve every year,’” Carter said. “And he did that last year and I expect he will do that again this year. In this game, I told him, you can never just assume you’ve arrived. And he hasn’t done that.”
Burton had a outstanding sophomore year and emerged as the unquestioned leader of the Wolf Pack. His breakout game came last Dec. 2 when he scored 31 points and put the team on his back in a dramatic victory over Washington. That game started a three-game stretch that also included wins over Arizona State and Montana when he averaged 26.7 points a game.
The team, which finished 28-7, seemed to revolve around Burton in every way. The Pack was 8-2 when Burton scored 20 or more points, 9-1 when he had two or more steals, 12-2 when he had no more than one turnover, and 9-1 when he went to the free throw line eight or more times.
“For us to be good, he has to be good,” Carter said. “That doesn’t mean he has to score a lot of points for us to win. But he has to play well. That’s true of any point guard.”
Burton, though, probably wore down as the season progressed a year ago. Carter, it seems, rarely took him off the floor in big games and those increased minutes seemed to affect Burton’s performance, especially at the end of the year.
Over the last five games — two in the WAC Tournament and three in the National Invitation Tournament — Burton struggled. He averaged 12.2 points, 3.8 assists, just slightly below his season averages, but he shot just 31 % (15-of-48) from the field, 29 % (5-of-17) from 3-point range and committed three turnovers a game while averaging just under 37 minutes a game.
“I think he did get tired a little,” Carter said. “I have to do a better job of monitoring his minutes, especially early in the season. We probably rode his coattails a little too much.
“I think it hurt him more mentally than physically. He’s in great shape and can handle the work load. But I think he got a little tired and sloppy at times mentally. You saw him commit some fatigue fouls and when you are fatigued like that you tend not to be as aggressive defensively.”
Burton, who was named to the Pre-season All Mountain West team recently, showed against Washington that he can simply take over a game offensively if needed. But that’s not what he wants from his point guard night after night. Sessions, after all, only took an average of 7.6 shots a game in his career. Burton right now is at 10 a game (Johnson put up 11.6 shots a game).
“I want to be a little more crafty with the basketball this year, as far as ball handling and passing the ball,” Burton said. “That’s all I worked on this off-season. I ran everyday at my high school track and just worked on handling the ball.”
Carter was a pass-first point guard himself as a player at St. Mary’s in the late 1980s.
“His ability to take over a game offensively will always be there,” Carter said. “But I think you’ll see him improve in other areas. I don’t want him to feel the pressure of having to be the guy for us every night. You’ll see more playmaking from him this year. He’ll show more of the point guard skills you need to make his teammates better.”
Carter has no concerns that Burton will turn into a one-man gang, trying to impress NBA scouts on a nightly basis.
“He knows that’s there,” Carter said. “But I don’t think he’s looking at it that way. He knows he has to be out on the floor, involving his teammates and making us better as a team. Those things are very important for us and for his future.”