OKC Thunder evaluation: Deonte Burton has risen quickly just to reach the NBA's ground floor

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Deonte Burton (30) shoots over New Orleans Pelicans center Jahlil Okafor, right rear, during the first half of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Tyler Kaufman)

Maybe the most impressive thing about the Thunder's Deonte Burton, who saw his two-way contract torn up in March for an actual NBA contract, is his arc.

Not the arc of his shot, but his basketball arc. Because this is a player who was not even playing half the game as a collegian until his senior year at Iowa State, where he averaged 15.1 points and 6.2 rebounds in 2016-17.

Next, undrafted and cut from Minnesota’s training camp roster, he went to Korea for a season before entering the Thunder fold.

A year ago, as a G-Leaguer, he averaged 16.9 points and 5 rebounds, yet more telling may have been the fact the Oklahoma City Blue were 20-4 when Burton was with them rather than with the Thunder. And, with the Thunder, though he never rang up big numbers, he was still must-see viewing.

Hamidou Diallo won the NBA Slam Dunk Contest but one guy capable of challenging him might be Burton, who stands 6-5 and is listed as a shooting guard, but could conceivably play or defend any position on the court.

In the preseason, Burton was fine with that possibility.

“I see myself playing wherever it gets me on the floor,” he said. “I don’t really care where I play, I just want to be on the floor.”

And, when asked during his exit interview where he saw himself, he said “the 4” which happens to be power forward in basketball’s old vocabulary.

Many times during the season it seemed a player like Burton might have been able to help OKC at the 2, 3 or 4 spots, yet playing under a two-way contract meant Burton could only be with the Thunder for 45 days over the length of the season before he could be shut down or signed to a full NBA contract.

The latter occurred on March 10, putting Burton squarely with the Thunder through the coming season and next.

He’s come a long way quickly and his limited time with the big team proved interesting.

In the 32 games in which he saw action, Burton averaged 2.6 points and 0.9 rebounds over 7.5 minutes of court time.

However, there was a spell in which he wasn’t just playing, but playing real minutes game after game. From Nov. 14 to Dec. 5, Burton appeared in all 10 games during the stretch and averaged 11.6 minutes, playing 21:15 in a five-point victory over Charlotte to a scant 3:09 in a stunning 28 point victory at Golden State.

In those 10 games, the Thunder went 8-2 and Burton averaged 4.4 points and 1.5 rebounds.

His biggest game, however, came during a different stretch, when after being inactive or not playing for 27 straight games, he appeared in seven straight, playing double digits in only two of them, but 26:04 in one of those two, a nine-point victory over Portland in which he scored 18 points.

Two days earlier was an interesting game for Burton, too. He didn’t score at all in a five-point victory at Houston, yet during the 9:33 he was on the court, the Thunder outscored the Rockets by 18 points.

Then, strangely, after emerging from two-way purgatory, he never again played so many minutes. The last eight games he saw action, playoffs included, he topped out at 3:31 of court time in Game 2 of the OKC-Portland series.

The Thunder toyed with wanting him in the big-team fold, then decided they did, before coach Billy Donovan appeared to be at a loss for how to use him.

It’s true that Burton does not bring wealth of big game or NBA experience into next season, but his athleticism is unquestioned. When he’s on the floor, the fans notice.

Burton, who shot 29.6 percent from beyond the 3-point arc last season (and 31.1 percent with the Blue), said he believes he’ll play in the NBA’s summer league and, through the offseason will be working on “a little bit of everything: my shot, defense; probably focus a lot more on defense this summer.”

Despite his clear athleticism, he was never a huge prospect. But now he has a place in the NBA and should receive a real opportunity to make the most of it.

For Deonte Burton, it’s wide open.

Editor's note: This is the 12th of a 13-part series evaluating Thunder personnel under contract heading into the 2019-20 season. Next: Andre Roberson, Tuesday.