DALLAS — Deonte Burton took the scenic route to reach this, his first full season in the NBA.
Burton, 25, who played his final two collegiate seasons at Iowa State and averaged 15.1 points and 6.2 rebounds over 35 starts as a senior in 2016-17, spent his first year as a professional with Minnesota’s summer league team and in South Korea.
Before last season, however, Oklahoma City inked the ex-Cyclone to a two-way contract, meaning he could spend a maximum of 45 days in the NBA with the Thunder. The rest of his time would be spent with their neighboring G-League affiliate, the OKC Blue.
Burton averaged 2.6 points per game in 32 appearances with the Thunder. With the Blue, he averaged 16.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.0 block over 24 contests.
But now that he’s on a regular contract with Oklahoma City, his G-League days appear to be over.
“Well, technically this is my first year with the Thunder because last year I was up and down a lot, so I didn’t really get to experience the fullness of a season. I was really in two seasons at one time,” Burton said. “It was different. This season will be like kind of my rookie season. I’m going to be up full time. It’s a new experience.”
Some players might have scoffed at playing mostly in the G-League as a rookie, but he feels his time with the Blue afforded him invaluable playing experience, lessons which should manifest this season with the Thunder.
Burton has scored one point in three games.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
“Just learning how to be more fluid, learning how to adapt. That was the biggest thing for me, just adapting to all the different things that came to me,” he said.
The Thunder squad he played for 32 times last season and the current incarnation are markedly different. Face of the franchise Russell Westbrook is now in Houston and Paul George is with the Los Angeles Clippers, both departing in blockbuster trades.
Chris Paul is new to OKC after coming over from the Rockets in the Westbrook trade, but Burton isn’t fazed by the mostly new group he now sees in the locker room.
“It’s basketball. It’s a business, so people move, things change,” he said. “It happens. You just have to be prepared for whatever comes.”
One holdover from last season is fellow ex-Cyclone Abdel Nader, also a teammate at ISU. Nader started his career in Boston after being a second-round pick of the Celtics, spent considerable time in the G-League before being traded to OKC in July 2018, reuniting the former teammates.
“Yeah, it’s amazing,” Nader said of sharing a locker room with Burton again. “Not a lot of guys can say that they played with their brother in college and now have their brother on this team. It just makes things a lot easier.”
Seeing Nader every day rekindles all the positive memories Burton maintains from his two seasons as a Cyclone.
“I look back and I’m happy. I’m happy with how everything ended and started,” Burton said. “It was a fulfilling experience to be a Cyclone. They have the best fans really. It was amazing.”
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
Despite playing only 32 games in the NBA last season, Burton already has made a strong first impression on Thunder head coach Billy Donovan.
“He’s extremely versatile because he’s a unique player. You would look at him as being an undersized wing or a forward, but he plays a lot bigger than his size,” Donovan said. “I think he’s a fearless player and he really, really competes. I think there’s things that he knows physically and from a strength standpoint that he can get into the game.
“I think he’s a team guy. He’s about the team, he’s about the guys in the locker room. He wants to help any way that he can. I think he’s another guy that will continue to get better and improve the more and more he’s playing.”
And even though he and Donovan haven’t known each other all that long, the relationship between the two is rock solid, one built on mutual respect, one where Burton knows exactly what Donovan expects from him in practice and in games, expectations he not only delivers on but exceeds on a regular basis.
“I like the honesty,” Burton said. “He’s a very honest person. He gives it to you straight. That’s the thing that I admire about him the most.”
Ask Burton what his biggest asset will be for the Thunder this season and he offers up one simple answer.
“Energy. I’m going to bring energy and effort consistently,” he said. “Every time I step on the floor, you will notice Deonte Burton to be a hard worker. That’s what I want to be known for — to be the hardest worker on the floor.”