You could say Bradford Burgess has a rare condition among college basketball players. Let’s call it “shooters’ guilt”.
“I get kind of nervous. Sometimes when I’m shooting, I feel like I’m shooting too much,” Burgess said recently. “But whatever’s best for the team is what I have to do.”
It’s that last part that makes this interesting. It’s where Burgess’ previous comfort zone and his new reality collide. What’s best for the team this year, according to VCU Head Coach Shaka Smart, is an aggressive, shot-hungry Burgess.
“We’re going to need him to step up from a leadership standpoint and we’re going to need him to be a little bit selfish from a shot-selection standpoint,” Smart said.
Burgess’ unselfish game has been both delightful and occasionally infuriating for Ram fans. One of the hallmarks of VCU’s recent success has been Burgess’ natural ability to mesh within the confines of a star-dominated landscape. Players like Eric Maynor, Larry Sanders and Jamie Skeen could be The Guy, while Burgess was content to work the ball around to find the best look. Meanwhile, he’d pick up a steal here, a couple of rebounds there and block the occasional shot.
Teams need guys like that, guys who don’t have to get a certain number of shots to be involved in the game. The Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls were a perfect example. Two stars, 10 role players, six championships. Great things happen when there are players willing to operate outside the limelight.
Shaka Smart has made it abundantly clear that those days are over for Burgess. Four of VCU’s top five scorers – save Burgess – from last year are gone, via graduation. In all, Smart will be looking for ways to replace 61 percent of VCU’s scoring from 2010-11. That begins with Burgess, the soft-spoken hometown kid.
Burgess was teammates at Benedictine High School with Ed Davis, who would star for the North Carolina in college and is now with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors. At VCU, he’s served as an understudy to a pair of NBA players and last season’s quartet of seniors. Burgess hasn’t be The Guy on a basketball team for a long time.
Over the course of his career, Burgess had shown flashes of star quality. He pumped in 30 points at Drexel two years ago and 26 at UAB last season. Burgess could always make clutch shots. As a freshman, he floored Richmond with a late, go-ahead 3-pointer. Later that season, he propelled the Rams to an overtime win over James Madison with a game-tying triple. The trend continued throughout his career and earned him the nickname “Big Shot Brad”.
Burgess’ on-court persona is cool, calm, even-keeled. It’s one of the reasons he’s so composed in the face of adversity
“You never see him get overhyped if he makes a big play and if he makes a bad play you never see him put his head down,” said sophomore Rob Brandenberg. “I think that’s one thing I learned from him and a lot of my teammates learned from him. Because basketball’s a game of mistakes, but you have to be able to recover and go on to the next play.”
For most of his career, Burgess hadn’t shown an inclination to take over games on a regular basis. If the Rams needed him to score one game, he’d be there, but he’d often fade into the background the next. That was until the postseason last year. For nine straight games, three in the CAA Tournament and six during VCU’s remarkable Final Four run, Burgess was simply magnificent. No longer content to play second fiddle, Burgess took it upon himself to make a difference, and he did.
Burgess was not a member of the CAA’s all-league teams, but you could certainly argue that he was one of the best players in last year’s NCAA Tournament. It wasn’t just scoring, Burgess was better in virtually every statistical category. In nine games, he averaged 16.0 points, 7.2 rebounds, more than two assists and shot 49 percent from the floor. He also hit 55 percent of his 3-pointers (23-of-42).
“It was just a mentality, trying to be active on every play, not taking any plays off,” Burgess said. “Times during the season, it showed when guys were taking some plays off, but in the CAA and NCAA Tournament, nobody was taking plays off. Everybody was active, asserting themselves on offense and defense.”
That, and more, is expected this season as Smart looks to integrate six freshmen into the mix. His starting lineup for the Rams’ exhibition win over California (Pa.) included Burgess, who averaged 14.3 points per game last season, and four players that averaged a combined 13.4 points in 2010-11.
Scoring won’t be the only area Burgess will be expected to be more prominent. As the lone senior on this year’s team, his role in the locker room has also changed. Burgess can be deferential on the court, but that trait is even more pronounced off it. Brandenberg calls Burgess “laid back”. Smart believes Burgess’ leadership abilities will be as important as his ability to dominate a box score.
“I expect him to lead us every time we take the floor, be the most vocal person on our team. Organize our team,” Smart said. “I expect him to be really aggressive. He’s got to be aggressive on every play. We’re not going to make every shot, but he’s a guy that needs to be on the attack all the time, and if he is, he’ll score his fair share of buckets.”
And he won’t have to feel bad about it.