You wouldn’t know it from the way he plays, but Deonte Burton is shy. The soft-spoken 19-year-old nervously laughs when asked about his thunderous dunk against Samford (“I just jumped”). Ask him about the role Buzz Williams wants him to play and you’ll get an automated, one-sentence response about working as hard as he can in the minutes he’s earning. The chiseled 6-foot-4 wing shrugs his shoulders bashfully before responding to a question about where he’s made the most improvement from a year ago (“my conditioning, for sure”), when he was bullying his way into the paint and racking up numbers for Vincent as a high school senior.
But the freshman is breaking out of his shell. He’s more active on the sidelines cheering from the bench, his defense has improved dramatically and he’s not afraid to admit his mistakes to Williams, something he wouldn’t have dared to do in October.
“He is starting to figure it out,” Williams told Paint Touches after Marquette’s 66-56 win over DePaul on Saturday. “He’s much more vocal. He’s not near as glazed over, like, ‘There’s so much going on I don’t know.’ He’s turning, and there’s a little bit of a ground swell. And he knows it, our team knows it. He needs to begin…to become more consistent, but he’s starting to figure it out.”
Burton began his freshman year as Marquette’s biggest question mark, by no fault of his own. At 6-foot-4 the Milwaukee native had the height of a shooting guard, the length of a small forward and the build (230 pounds) of a power forward. As Williams cemented his talented frontcourt in the lineup and gave the keys to the car to Derrick Wilson and Jake Thomas in the backcourt, Burton remained as the odd man out because he lacked a true position.
He still doesn’t have a real position – he’s played as the 2, 3 and 4 this season and still refers to himself as “undefined” when asked about the position he plays. Being the odd man out has had its benefits, as Williams is able to interchange the sizes of his lineups around Burton.
He played 13 minutes against DePaul, seeing time at three different positions in both a guard-oriented lineup (with him playing “power forward”) and in a taller lineup, where he roamed the perimeter and played 15 feet in. He filled the box score with two points, one rebound, two assists, two blocks and three steals in the win, in part because of the positions he played and the lineups he moved around in.
“I think that’s what you want for all kids, is that they can do a variety of things and have a great deal of versatility, playing multiple positions. And I think that’s kind of what Deonte is,” assistant Brad Autry told Paint Touches. “In my vernacular he’s just a really good basketball player. Is he a 3? Is he a 4? A 5? I don’t know, but he can do a lot of different things with the ball and he can do a lot of different things defensively.
Versatility is fine, and it’s something Williams preaches annually. But this year’s team theme – at least as it pertains to the media – is “earning” what you receive. In a blowout loss to Ohio State Williams said his team hadn’t earned the right to make shots. Davante Gardner hadn’t earned a starting job and freshman Jajuan Johnson hasn’t earned the right to play yet.
When he arrived on campus in the summer, Williams’ message to his versatile freshman was simple: never stop working.
“He was telling me just go my hardest and get my motor to keep going,” Burton told Paint Touches, “because my motor sometimes doesn’t go as fast as it should.”
With his conditioning improved and his understanding of Marquette’s offense improved, Burton has kept that motor going, averaging 6.4 points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 0.8 blocks in nearly 15 minutes per game. He’s beginning to be too good to leave out of the rotation, as his minutes have increased to 18.3 per game in his last eight contests and he’s usually the second man off the bench after Gardner.
“His instincts are Lazar Hayward-like. Just has really good instincts. ‘What’s happening next?’ He’s really good at that,” Williams said. And sometimes I think that leads to his turnovers because he’s thinking this is what’s happening next, and when that doesn’t happen next it kind of jams him up. I think he’s a really good player.”
Those instincts, at first, got him intro trouble defensively. At times Burton seemed out of sorts and guessed more often than he reacted. The freshman who admitted his biggest struggle has been the constant speed of the collegiate game – “I didn’t anticipate the game being as fast as it is – has lacked focus at times and gets caught watching instead of reacting. But as Williams put it, that “glazed-over” look is fading, and the results have been promising.
Part of that, both Williams and Autry admitted, was Burton’s refocus, rededication and maturity to improving after Christmas break.
In the second half of Saturday’s game, Burton “squatted” while attempting to close out on Blue Demons’ leading scorer Cleveland Melvin, who finished with a team-high 22 points and five 3-pointers in the loss. Instead of contesting the shot, Burton went low, allowing Melvin a clean look at the basket. And as Williams substituted him out – Burton didn’t play the final 14 minutes – it was the freshman who spoke first, owning up to his mistake.
“When you’re able to admit mistakes it allows you to be coached,” Williams said, “and I think when you can be coached coming out of Christmas after your first semester of college it changes your trajectory.”
Added Autry: “He’s really starting to turn a corner in terms of his sustained intensity. That’s the hardest transition for kids to make from high school or from junior college, is that every possession is really important. At this level, if you don’t do things right, people take advantage of it and you can’t make up that ground. And I think he’s really turned a corner here in the last three weeks. I can see it in his mentality, I can see it in his overall intensity towards practice and I think he’s going to continue to move forward.”
With his defense improving, his steal and block rates both among the best on the team and a solid 46.3 field goal percentage (it’s up to 50 percent in his last 11 games), Burton’s efficiency is rapidly increasing. Williams even noted that as of Saturday, Burton was the third most efficient player he had ever coached, according to a formula he and assistant Jamie McNeilly created to pertain to what Williams sees as most efficient.
Burton’s dedication and focus has earned him the right to play valuable and significant minutes. Still the shy kid at heart who seems to love every minute he’s on the court, Burton admitted that focusing
“When you want to do something you tend to do it fairly well. It’s been easier because Buzz gets on you when you don’t go hard,” Burton said. “I just try to play each possession. I don’t think about the minutes I play or what I’m doing. I’m just trying to play as hard as I can.”
When Williams recruited Burton two years ago, the pair never talked about basketball. Not once. So the day that Burton gave his commitment to Marquette in front of the Vincent coaching staff, his mother, Barbara, and Williams, his new coach spoke about basketball for a change.
“I told Deonte…that I thought because of his spirit and who he was, that he would end up being the best player I ever coached. And I didn’t say that for recruiting speak. I believe in people, I don’t believe in talent. And I believe that if you can be Jimmy Butler in who you are, eventually you’ll work so hard that you’ll become talented,” Williams said. “And Deonte is talented. But his spirit, his intellect – really smart kid, really bright, has a vocabulary a little ahead of typical kids his age – if we can keep the right voices in his head, which I think we can – he has a really small circle – I think he’s going to be really good.”