Noie: Elijah Burns earns Notre Dame hoops rotation role

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

{child_flags:featured}Nothing easy for ND’s EB

{child_byline}By Tom Noie

South Bend Tribune{/child_byline}

Bad body language beckoned as a buddy if Notre Dame senior power forward Elijah Burns was all about Elijah Burns and didn’t embrace the big basketball picture.

But he did. Still does. Becoming a main rotation guy just doesn’t happen because he’s an old guy. Guys in the program are guaranteed nothing. It takes time. Patience. Hard work. Struggles. Then, maybe, success.

Touted last fall by coach Mike Brey as the sixth man on a veteran Irish team that entered the year ranked No. 14 in the country, Burns saw his role and his minutes fade almost from the start. Maybe it was the quick jumper he took early in a possession during the opener at DePaul. The one that caused Brey to react like he wanted to boot Burns into Lake Michigan. Maybe it was the deeper the Irish dived in the Atlantic Coast Conference standings, the less Burns offered ways to help salvage the season.

Whatever the case, whatever role Burns might have envisioned for himself last season never materialized. By season’s end, his availability, like most of the Irish year, had been derailed by injury. Lingering knee pain cost Burns five of the final six games. He finished having averaged 2.3 points and 2.3 rebounds in 10.6 minutes. His 308 total minutes ranked 10th on the 12-man roster.

Looking at the Irish roster this year, many wondered if Burns might be tempted to hit the rest button like so many college basketball players do. Break free from a tough situation and seek smoother sailing at another new school. Forget the frustration and start fresh.

Want to play more? Do more? Be counted on more? Burns worked to answer those questions the only way he knew — he rolled up his sleeves and worked. Not someplace else. At Notre Dame.

“That’s who I’ve always been since I was younger,” he said. “You’ve just got to work hard to get what you want. You’re going to struggle, but the greatest successes come from struggling.”

Nothing about Burns’ mindset changed after Notre Dame lost a plethora of power forwards. Bonzie Colson graduated. Martinas Geben graduated. Austin Torres, a fifth-year graduate student, exhausted his eligibility. Those were three dudes invaluable to the program. In the locker room. On the practice court. On the final stats sheet in games. The three averaged a combined 33.3 points and 20.4 rebounds a game last season. That’s some serious production out the door.

Burns could have taken a hard look at the depleted Irish roster and gone soft. Like, bingo, time for him to finally play more. Brey had no choice. He HAD to play him, right?

Wrong.

Burns looked at who left in May and thought something entirely different. Thought something that too few college basketball players think about when it comes to depth charts and roster spots and playing time.

Was it finally his time? Not quite. Not unless he earned it. All of it. Just give him a chance. What he’d do with it was up to him.

“When I looked at who we were losing, I didn’t look at being a main guy,” he said. “I looked at it like I’ve got to work hard. If I work hard, everything I want to do here will happen.”

A new role

Burns may have finally cracked that glass ceiling between struggle and success. In the spring, he had an honest conversation with Brey about his role. His future. His plans with the Irish. Brey laid it out clearly. As much as Burns didn’t play his first three years (he sat out his freshman season after ankle surgery late in his senior year of high school), he was part of the plans in 2018-19. When summer practices rolled around in June, Burns would be in a white (starter’s) jersey from Day One. He would get the opportunity to deliver.

Through June and July and into August, he’s gotten the opportunity. He’s delivered.

Sunday’s practice saw Burns as one of the biggest surprises. Perhaps the biggest surprise. Not the veteran guys with more game experience. Not the freshmen with the potential. It was a big day for Burns. In the way he played. The way he talked. The way he led. The way he carried himself on the court.

Like he belongs. At last.

“Coach told me that this is what I’m going to be able to do,” Burns said. “To see it come to fruition is amazing. It’s a testament to him believing in me and my hard work.”

That hard work carried through to the team’s seven-day foreign tour of the Bahamas. When Notre Dame opened its three-game exhibition schedule Wednesday against IBA Elite in Nassau, a guy who made one start in three years was in the starting lineup. Not necessarily because Burns does one thing really well. He’s still not a prolific scorer or a relentless rebounder. But that’s OK. He sets solid (and legal) screens to free others for open shots. He calls out a specific set he believes the Irish should run. He competes.

When Burns is on the floor, the Irish move it better, score it better, rebound it better. Play better.

“He just helps us flow,” Brey said. “Elijah’s been solid. He knows who he is. He’s going to be a key for us.”

This season could be different for Burns because the Irish are different. They’re more talented on the perimeter. They have more guys who can make more shots. Guys that other teams have to get away from the rim and guard. When Notre Dame floods the floor with that many shooters, it opens an inviting interior for Burns. Last year, that lane often was too crowded and closed down. No room to roam. Or work. Or score.

Now when the floor is so spaced, the 6-foot-8, 237-pound Burns can be at his best as he screens and rolls and waits for a guard to drive it hard, make the defense commit and collapse, then drops it to him for an easy bucket. He had two dunks Sunday; he might not have had two dunks in his first three seasons. He’s no longer so lost among the long and lanky bodies of other power forwards because they’re out guarding shooters.

“He brings a tremendous amount of energy flying around, setting screens, rebounding the hell out of the ball,” said fellow power forward John Mooney. “We’re definitely going to need him and need that all year.”

Perhaps what Burns does best is communicate. His baritone voice is often heard. On offense. On defense. In huddles. He’s not afraid to speak up and have his say when someone needs to have a say. Junior guard T.J. Gibbs and guard Rex Pflueger, the team’s lone fourth-year senior, are the obvious leaders. But Burns is right there with them. He’s a natural.

“I have to be more demonstrative with my voice and leading the team the best way I can,” Burns said. “I’ve just got to be a leader. Right now, it’s my time.”

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A new season may bring a new role for Notre Dame senior power forward Elijah Burns.