Notre Dame junior PF Elijah Burns takes different path to playing time

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

In today’s gotta-have-it-now world, one word has tumbled toward the four-letter variety when it comes time for prospects to choose a college basketball program.

Patience.

Many simply don’t want it. Feel they don’t need it. They seek major minutes from the jump. They want shots. Rebounds. Minutes. Opportunity. If that doesn’t knock early at one school, they're quick to close that door and open another somewhere else with the promise that it all will be different. Better. Now.

Then there’s Notre Dame junior power forward Elijah Burns, an old basketball soul in many regards. He just gets it. Especially when it comes to the process of finding his place in the program.

Arriving in 2015 from Blair (N.J.) Academy, the native of Troy, N.Y., knew he was going to be in it for the long haul. Even a longer haul. Having undergone microfracture ankle surgery late in his senior season of high school, Burns practiced and played in exhibition games in 2015-16, but he was not physically ready for the big-time college basketball grind. He didn’t move fast enough, didn’t think fast enough, didn’t adapt fast enough. Stuck behind veterans Zach Auguste, Bonzie Colson, Martinas Geben and Austin Torres on the power forward depth chart, Burns sat out that first season to heal his body and grow his game.

Burns needed it.

“When I first got here, I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin,” he said. “I was just new to college. Every step in life is huge, whether it’s on the court or off the court.

“Once you get comfortable with it, you’ve got to keep grinding and don’t become complacent.”

Once comfortable, Burns was ready to compete. Still, it was more of the same – sitting — the second time around last season. Colson emerged as a terrific talent while running off on steady streams of double doubles for points and rebounds. Burns still was learning to walk the college basketball walk. This is how you do it at this level. This is the energy level needed every single day. This is how you fit in to a free-flowing offense. This is how you play.

The more Burns worked, the less he wondered about playing time that simply never surfaced. Like, all year. Ready to take a big bite of big-time college basketball, Burns instead received a tiny taste. He played in 11 of 36 games. He logged 44 total minutes. He scored nine points and grabbed 10 rebounds. He racked up a truckload of DNP-CDs (did not play, coach’s decision).

Where did he fit? No one could say for sure, because he seldom was on the court long enough to show it.

But he couldn’t have been happier.

Seriously.

“I loved every minute of it,” Burns said of his first two seasons. “I’ve grown so much in these two years watching the guys ahead of me. It’s been great.”

As for the notion of wanting to play right away, Burns went a different route. He practiced patience, something that may pay off over the next three seasons.

“It’s what it’s about,” he said. “You come to college and everybody wants to play right away as a competitor. But growing up as a man, you’ve got to stay patient and when your time comes, you’ve got to produce.”

Making moves

Basketball media days seldom steal any headlines. Everybody is eager to get started, excited for the journey, anxious to see what the next six months have in store. Trotted out are the standard responses of just wanting to get better every day and blah, blah, blah.

Irish coach Mike Brey raised a few eyebrows during his 25-minute session late last week when he revealed that Burns had done enough barely 11 practices into this season to be considered the team’s sixth man. Aside from Colson, who seemingly gets every ball that bounces off the rim, no Irish had more rebounds through the first 11 practices than the 6-foot-8, 238-pound Burns.

Biding his time for the last two years, Burns grew to understand that the quickest way to get some of it was to get on the backboard.

“Last year, we didn’t rebound well as a team,” Burns said of an Irish squad that finished 13th in the Atlantic Coast Conference for rebounds per game (33.7) and 14th in rebounding margin (-1.8). “That’s been the focus of the coaching staff (and for) me as well to see where I can find my niche.”

When Notre Dame opened exhibition play Friday with a 40-point victory over Holy Cross, Burns was among the first reserves in the game. He scored six points with five rebounds in 24 minutes. All would have been career highs had this game counted.

He rebounded. He anchored the interior on defense. He moved the ball. He made shots, shots that he didn’t necessarily hunt in the offense but when the time was right, he took them. And made them.

“That’s who he’s been in practice,” Brey said. “He screens at the right time. He knocks the hell out people at the right time. He can rebound.”

And maybe most of all, he can talk. Quiet off the court, Burns makes his voice heard on it. Always has, all the way back to his AAU days.

Brey remembers watching Burns play for his Albany City Rocks team at the Peach Jam in North Augusta, S.C. His team was coming back onto the floor out of a timeout, Burns went to the point guard to make sure he understood where he needed to be in a certain set. Then to the shooting guard. The wing. Everyone.

Forget what Burns might have done in terms of getting a few buckets or rebounds or setting screens, Brey was most attracted – and intrigued – by his voice.

“I love how he talks,” he said.

It’s a voice that never was raised when he wasn’t playing. A voice that never wondered if he was going to get his turn. That same voice kept telling Burns to be patient. To keep working. To stay confident that his time would come. That communication, like making a shot or rebounding the ball, just comes naturally to Burns. He’s always done it. No reason to think he cannot continue to do it.

“Once I got to high school, my coach was always big on me talking and just carrying it over every day,” he said. “I just brought it here.”

Recently, Irish video coordinator Eric Atkins put together cut-ups of former power forward Ty Nash for Burns. The two native New Yorkers have similar games. Like with Burns, it was hard to see the one or two elements that were really good about Nash’s game. But Nash understood his role. He played it really well and was at his best as a fit-in, do-it guy.

So might be Burns. Maybe sooner than later.

“I’m going to get out there and play my game and it’s going to fit,” he said. “Everything will be all right when I get out there.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame junior power forward Elijah Burns needed two years to figure out where he fit in the Irish program. He may have found a rotation home just by being easy to play with. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)