By the Numbers: Trey Burke vs. Nate Wolters

Dylan Burkhardt

woltersweb8s-web[1]Michigan 83, Penn State 66-16

Trey Burke versus Nate Wolters is the sort of guard match up that jumps off the page. Two of the top four most efficient players in the country, head-to-head in a game where defense is something of a footnote on the statistical resume of both teams.

The raw numbers are impressive by themselves. Burke averages 19.2 points, 6.7 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 2.0 turnovers per game. Wolters averages 22.7 points, 5.8 assists, 5.6 rebounds and 2.3 turnovers per game. The tempo free numbers are equally as impressive across the board; Burke and Wolters are two of the top three most efficient high usage players in Division I.

A comparison of routine statistics doesn’t do much to differentiate both players and emphasizes both players’ similarities. Burke averages a few more assists while Wolters is the better rebounder but after that the similarities are endless. Their 2-point, 3-point and effective field goal shooting percentages are all withing three percentage points. Steal percentage? Identical. Turnover rate? A tenth of a percentage difference.

Because both No. 3s are so similar statistically, we broke out Synergy Sports to examine both players’ offensive and defensive tendencies and abilities for a taste of what to expect on Thursday evening.

Distribution of Offense

Both Wolters and Burke dominate the ball in their respective offenses. Burke uses 29% of Michigan’s offensive possessions, Wolters uses 30.3% of South Dakota State’s.

Both players love the pick-and-roll and thrive in transition but there are some differences in their games. The following radar charts plot the percentage of offensive possessions used in four major play types – pick and roll shots, isolation shots, transition shots and spot-up attempts – followed by the efficiency in each scenario.


The notable difference is that Wolters uses significantly more isolation possessions. Michigan rarely utilizes Burke in pure isolation situations, opting more often to use him in ball screen scenarios. To his credit, Wolters is very effective in isolation situations – much more than Burke – and gives head coach Scott Nagy the reason to call his number time and again.

While Wolters may be the better isolation player, Burke is the better transition player. You can see that Burke takes more shots in transition and converts more effectively but those numbers are magnified when including assists. The following chart compares points per possession plus assists for all offense, transition offense and half court offense.

Overall PP(P+A) Rank A/TO
Burke 1.454 97% 4
Wolters 1.416 96% 2.3
Burke 1.547 89% 6.1
Wolters 1.328 62% 2.2
Burke 1.424 97% 3.5
Wolters 1.434 97% 2.4

Burke’s numbers in transition are lethal, especially his 6.1:1 assist to turnover ratio, and it becomes clear that Wolters isn’t nearly as effective in a full court scenario as Burke although he matches him in the half court.

Jump Shooting

Both players are great jump shooters. Burke has a 55% eFG% on jumpers compared to Wolters’ 57% eFG%. Both No. 3s are impressive shooters off the dribble, with Burke scoring 1.053 points per off the dribble shot (92nd percentile) and Wolters scoring 1.162 points per off the dribble shot (96th percentile). The jump shot is a major component for each players but Burke is slightly more reliant as 67% of his field goal attempts are jumpers compared to Wolters’s 55%. Here’s a look at the distribution and effectiveness of short jumpers, long twos and threes of each player.



Burke takes far more long jump twos than Wolters whereas Wolters usually manages to either step all the way behind the 3-point line or get to the rim. That could be because Burke has to play against the likes of Wisconsin and Michigan State over the course of the season but the difference is clear.

Burke is more effective with the short jump shooter inside of 17 feet but Wolters is able to get to the rim without settling for jumpres. Wolters scores .926 PPP on runners and 1.28 PPP on shots at the basket compared to Burke’s .73 PPP on runners and 1.058 PPP on shots at the rim.


Because Wolters utilizes so many pure isolation sets, it felt like it would be worthwhile to examine his tendencies.


Wolters prefers to go left but is more effective going right. Sample size could be a concern but we are dealing with 137 isolation possessions which isn’t necessarily a small sample size.


The tendencies here are also fairly pronounced, when driving to the right side Wolters is able to get to the basket more often than not. When driving to the left, he usually settles for a pull-up or a runner.


Wolters is always effective when he gets all the way to the rim, averaging over 1.2 points per possession to both directions. But when going to the left he’s more comfortable with the pull-up compared to the runner when going to the right.

Burke is not nearly as ambidextrous in isolation situations, he’s much more effective driving to the left.


The key here is that Burke is able to get to the basket significantly more often when going to his left and of course he’s more effective when he gets to the rim.


Burke almost never uses his runner when going to the left (but he’s made both attempts) but he’s also significantly more effective with the pull-up jump shot when driving to the left.


Can either player stop their counterpart? Will they even guard each other? Those are probably questions burning holes in their coaches’ minds but the answer only adds to the intrigue for fans that want to watch a good game.

Neither team is great defensively and both teams need their star player to carry the offense for 40 minutes. While both players might be the most well equipped on their respective teams to stop the other, can they justify expending that much energy on the defensive end of the floor?

Burke is the better defender in pick-and-roll ball handler and isolation situations by a significant margin:

Individual Defensive PPP by Play Type

P&R Ball Handler Percentile Isolation Percentile
Burke 0.714 51% 0.585 73%
Wolters 0.890 21% 0.727 49%

Conventional wisdom would say that both coaches would try to hide their best offensive players defensively by matching them with another complementary option. The trouble is neither coach has a defensive weapon in his arsenal particularly comfortable defending ball screens.

Burke and Wolters have both defended 91 possessions which ended in a ball screen this season. Michigan’s next options are Tim Hardaway Jr. (27) and Nik Stauskas (23) but neither player grades out more favorably than Burke. Brayden Carlson looks like a choice for Jackrabbit coach Scott Nagy. Carlson and seldom used reserve Jake Bittle grade out as the top SDSU ball screen defenders.

Bottom Line

These are arguably the two best offensive guards going head-to-head in the NCAA tournament, it doesn’t get much better than that. Both players are complete offensive players that have the shooters and finishers surrounding them to truly enable their games.

Given the similarities of their numbers, almost across the board, the edge has to go to Burke because Michigan has played the far more strenuous schedule. However, both players are projected to be selected in the NBA Draft this year and will be ready to embrace the challenge of facing off head-to-head in front of countless NBA scouts.

Data via Synergy Sports and Ken Pomeroy. Kudos to Luke Winn for inspiration on the radar charts.

  • Rich

    I’m going to take slight issue with your conclusion. Given that both Wolters and Burke are playing at a high level, and that Wolters’ rebounds/points/assists line is, basically, unparalleled in D-1 over the past two years, I would argue that both players are near what you might call the ‘upper bound’ for what point guards can do within the flow of the game.

    Saying, ‘the numbers are about the same, so advantage Burke’ sets up, basically, an insuperable and arbitrary obstacle for Wolters. It raises the question of how many additional points, assists and rebounds would be necessary to tilt the decision in favor of Wolters. It further raises the question of whether those numbers would be achievable in D-1 basketball, within the flow of the game. Certainly, SDSU would not be a better team if the goal was to pad Wolters’ stat line, night after night.

    • Rich

      Full disclosure: I am a SDSU fan, and have been watching Wolters for 4 years now. IMO, he wouldn’t have been this good playing for a Big “Ten” team, because he wouldn’t have started 4 years in the B1G

      • Phil

        It is entirely possible Wolters would have similar stat lines playing in the B1G, but isn’t it more likely his numbers would not look as good? I know nothing about SDSU’s competition level, but my guess is Wolters didn’t have to face players like Aaron Craft and Victor Oladipo twice each this season. They are arguably the two best on-ball defenders in the entire NCAA and both were put on Trey. I would take a wild guess that Trey probably faced significantly better defenders than Wolters in nearly every game during the conference season. Again, I don’t know much about SDSU’s competition level, this is simply a guess. San Fransisco, Fresno State, CSU Bakersfield, Boise State, Wyoming, Nevada, New Mexico – I don’t know anything about these teams but my guess is they do not stack up to the level of competition Trey faced in the B1G. Aside from New Mexico, those teams seem like teams we would schedule as cupcakes before the B1G season starts out.

        In a perfect world, we’d be able to switch point guards for a couple games and see if Trey could put up video game numbers against weaker competition and see if Wolters could compete in the B1G’s tougher competition. The fun thing is we will get to see them face each other tomorrow night!

        • Rich

          “isn’t it more likely his numbers would not look as good” — True, but I don’t think you’re looking at, say, a linear regression where if you were to say Michigan’s schedule was oh, 20% harder than SDSU’s that Wolters’ numbers would dip 20%.

          Concomitantly, I don’t think Burke would put up ‘video game’ numbers playing for SDSU. It’s still a team game, and Burke is still a team player. Regardless of the quality of opponent, there are still only so many possessions and scoring opportunities per game.

          It’ll be an interesting game for sure. I’m not going to be so bold as to pick an SDSU upset, but I believe Nate will improve his draft stock.

    • Fair… I think my point is that there’s something more impressive of achieving the same level of efficiency in the best conference in Division I to the 23rd best conference.

      Didn’t mean it as a knock on Wolters. After being wowed by Burke’s efficient play all season it is a bit crazy to see someone with such similar numbers.

  • UM Hoops Fan

    Great write up, tons of great content. Thanks.

    However, I disagree that “both teams need their star player to carry the offense for 40 minutes.” And herein lies Michigan’s big advantage. Does anyone think that if you took away Burke and Wolters, Michigan wouldn’t have a huge advantage over SDSU? The last thing we want is for this to turn into a Burke vs. Wolters one-on-one battle. I do not want to see Trey guard Wolters and conserve himself on defense for a second. Whoever guards Wolters must be fully dedicated to that task all game.
    Stauskas is great off the pick and roll. Timmy has been good getting to the basket, and should be able to do so against the 200th defense in the country. We will be able to score against these guys without overly depending on Trey.

    • Michigan’s 2-5 options are better than SDSU’s; no doubt. And SDSU’s are pretty good. But when Michigan is playing its best it is still usually Trey Burke that’s setting up Stauskas for threes, Robinson for dunks, etc. I don’t mean that Burke needs to go 1-on-1 for 40 minutes and score 35 points – he’s rarely done that. He needs to play the way he’s capable of and go for 20 points and 10 assists.

      • UM Hoops Fan

        I agree with this to an extent. And I don’t mean to minimize how vital Trey is to our offense. But I think we’ll be better off if Trey gets the ball out of his hands when that’s the right play.

        Trey’s line vs. Pitt – 17 pts, 6 assts
        vs. KSU – 10 pts, 4 assts
        vs NCSt – 18 pts, 11 assts

        Quick quiz – who was the preseason NIT MVP? Answer: Tim Hardaway JR.

        We can beat good teams if Trey doesn’t dominate the ball of offense. We can’t beat good teams if we play lousy defense on the perimeter.

  • John

    If Wolters had player to go up against players like craft and other tough defensive big10 guards I don’t think his numbers would be even close to what he has now. Now that’s not to discredit him at all, he’s a good player, but I don’t think that issue was stressed enough.