No one who watched Northwestern in the 2019-20 season would argue that Veronica Burton was anything but a darn good basketball player. She averaged 11.6 points, 5.1 assists and an out-of-this world 3.3 steals per game, rightfully earning the distinctions of the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year and the “Backcourt Burglar” inside Welsh-Ryan Arena.
But this year she isn’t just good. She’s off to an incredible start.
“Her basketball IQ is right there with anybody I’ve ever been around,” Joe McKeown said postgame. “She knows what all five people are doing on our team and [on] the other team. It’s a special gift.”
From start to finish, Burton balled out, ending the night with a career-high 27 points on 9-for-17 shooting and three made triples, two of which were step backs. This type of performance from Burton would have been more surprising a year ago, when she scored over 20 points only five times in 30 games, hanging her hat more on defense. While she’s certainly still a terror on that end (her 4.7 steals per game would make Gary Payton blush), her scoring output has ascended to new heights in 2020-21, as she’s topped 20 points in all three of NU’s games this season.
When asked about her scoring dominance, Burton gave the answer you’d expect from an unselfish teammate like herself. She praised her teammates for putting her in good positions, particularly co-star guard Lindsey Pulliam.
“Lindsey Pulliam is an amazing player. You have to respect her, you have to guard her,” Burton said. “That’s a big reason why I’m getting more opportunities and why other people on this team are getting more opportunities, because you really have to keep an eye on Lindsey.”
She’s 100 percent correct in saying that Pulliam’s gravity makes life easier for her. Thursday night in West Lafayette, she routinely burned the Boilermakers by rejecting pick and rolls and driving to her “weak” left hand. Watch these plays and you’ll see Pulliam’s defender reluctant to help on the drive, giving Burton a one-on-one with the dropping big, a matchup she’s almost guaranteed to win given her finishing touch and understanding of body positioning.
Veronica Burton (@Veronicaab22) is a great left-side finisher and it showed again tonight. The touch, ball handling skill and body positioning she displays on all of these shots is savant level stuff. pic.twitter.com/3RQHLiV7KV— Daniel Olinger (Resident of Brunson Archipelago) (@dan_olinger) December 18, 2020
As a sophomore, she’d already shown off her ambidexterity driving the rim. It was a point of emphasis for her heading into the 2019-20 season after struggling to use her left as a freshman, Burton told Inside NU back in May. Now she’s got so many tools her in kit that she oscillates between embarrassing defenders with her Statue of Liberty lefty scoop or a sweet inside hand finish with her right.
While her shooting was not a negative in the prior season, improvement would have been welcome as she shot 32.7 percent from deep on 3.6 attempts per game, according to Her Hoop Stats. That percentage has skyrocketed to a blistering 58.3 on 4.0 attempts per game, good for 96th percentile nationally, albeit in a small sample size of three games. She looks more confident and more aggressive in her three-point shot, hunting out opportunities rather than accepting them when they come.
“I think right now she’s looking for her shot more, and I think she is much more aggressive offensively,” McKeown said.
Take this play early in the second quarter. Pulliam finds Burton out of the high post open on the wing, forcing Purdue’s Janelle Grant to react swiftly in an attempt to run Burton off her spot. Grant succeeds in her desired deterrence, as Burton is forced to put the ball on the floor. However, instead of swinging this ball to her teammates along the perimeter, Burton hits Grant with a nasty side dribble plus step back combo and drains this demoralizing three in her face.
Burton’s 58.6 percent three-point mark will likely drop as the season progresses, but she not only looks like an improved shooter, but one with the confidence and swagger to take high difficultly shots that strain defenses to their limit.
Some might think this an overreaction to one great game. It’s true that this was the best performance of Burton’s career, but what she’s done to the start of this pandemic-altered season has quite literally never been done before.
Here’s the full list of players to average over 20 points per game, over 5 assists per game and have a steal rate greater than five percent in Her Hoops Stats’ database, which goes back to the 2015-16 season.
Again, we’re only three games in, but Burton’s historic start should not be taken for granted. Ask about any stat of her’s, and the numbers are pristine.
Free throws? She’s a perfect 15-for-15 from the charity stripe.
Assist-to-Turnover ratio? Try 4.85-to-1, i.e. what peak Chris Paul did in 2008.
Two-point field goal percentage? Give her 64.0 percent on 8.3 attempts per game (read: that’s absurd). Forget 50-40-90, Veronica has her eyes set on 60-50-100 shooting splits this season.
The only possible thing one could ding her for is slight uptick in personal fouls, which doesn’t matter too much, and a decrease in total rebounds, which is nothing to panic about for a point guard who wasn’t relied on for rebounding coming into the season.
Smart money would say she’ll come back to earth eventually (or at least back into this universe seeing as she’s currently on the celestial plane). Good news is that she’s surrounded by a more than capable supporting cast.
Pulliam’s numbers are down, but her presence alone makes the offense better. Jordan Hamilton added her usual scoring punch and nearly matched Veronica with her four steals. Sydney Wood hit double figures in scoring for the third straight game. Courtney Shaw continued to deter shots at the rim and threaten opponents with her length and athleticism. Sophomore Laya Hartman even got in on the action with a made three late in the first half that helped the ‘Cats pull away.
After experiencing a red hot start like Burton has, one could see a player growing upset if they were to transition out of the primary scoring role as the season progressed. That’s not a worry when it comes to Burton.
“I think whatever role I’m put in to be successful on this team and for allowing our team to get as many wins as possible, I’ll be comfortable with [that] and I’ll take whatever I’m given,” the junior guard said postgame. “ My teammates and coaches have been really encouraging and really supportive, and I’m just motivated. I think we’re hungry, and whatever role I need to do, that’s what I’ll do.”
Needless to say, if Burton keeps doing what she’s been doing thus far, a repeat title is well within reach for the defending Big Ten champs.