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Aggressive Burgess is elevating VCU
When Bradford Burgess was 5 years old, he could dribble with both hands, a rarity in his YMCA youth basketball league.
But Keith Burgess, his father and coach, wouldn't let his son be a one-man team. He insisted he play team basketball and share the ball with his teammates, which upset the youngster.
“He had to play a role as a team member,” Keith Burgess said.
Just like Burgess did when he transferred his junior year to Benedictine High School in Richmond, Va., with star Ed Davis, but came off the bench so seniors could start on a team that won its first of back-to-back state championships that season.
And after being spurned by Atlantic Coast Conference schools and staying home in Richmond to play for VCU, Burgess started as a freshman and sophomore, but again had to be patient while deferring to older teammates Eric Maynor and Larry Sanders, both future NBA first-round draft picks.
But in this NCAA tournament, the methodical, easygoing Burgess is playing a different role, one in which he's finally starring. The 6-foot-6 junior guard scored the last of his game-high 26 points on a game-winning layup with 7.1 seconds left Friday night in VCU's 72-71 overtime victory against No. 10 seed Florida State in a semifinal of the Southwest Regional.
During 11th-seeded VCU's improbable journey from a criticized play-in game selection to making its first Elite Eight with a 27-11 record, Burgess has averaged team-bests of 17.5 points and 7.0 rebounds in the Rams' four victories.
Along the way, “Big Shot Brad,” as Bradford is known thanks to his knack for making clutch shots, has started to garner attention as a potential NBA prospect entering VCU's game Sunday against top-seeded Kansas (35-2).
“Coaches aren't supposed to play favorites, but I love him,” VCU second-year coach Shaka Smart said of Bradford. “I wouldn't trade him for anyone in the country. And, you know, the scary thing is I think the best is yet to come for Brad. He can be just increasingly better and better.”
Burgess' selflessness traces back to his loving upbringing in the Richmond area by his parents, Keith and Myla Burgess. His father is a machine operator for Philip Morris and operates a device that puts cigarettes in packs, while his mother is an elementary school principal.
Burgess was raised attending churches such as St. Philip's Episcopal and Spring Creek Baptist, served as a youth usher and was active in youth group. As a teenager, he was a leader in a community program that did service projects.
He fed the homeless, helped the elderly with chores and tutored children by reading to them.
“Bradford is such a caring person,” Myla Burgess said. “He never wants to hurt others or do anything to impede friendships.”
Even now, Burgess makes time for others. The day after beating Purdue in the NCAA tournament's third round, he and teammate David Hinton had just 15 minutes to grab lunch before practice started.
On the way to Extreme Pizza, they ran into an elderly woman whom Burgess knew from church. He ended up talking to her for so long that he and Hinton had to grab slices of pepperoni pizza to go to make it to practice on time.
“He's just a very friendly person,” said Hinton, who lives with Burgess.
Burgess is still that way on the court at times, but he's not nearly as passive as he was coming off the bench in high school. Back then, Davis tried to convince Burgess their team was better off with him shooting a deep three-pointer instead of making a pass to a teammate whose layup attempt would be blocked.
“Shoot the ball,” Davis recalled telling Burgess. “You've got to be more selfish.”
Legendary Virginia-based AAU coach Boo Williams first saw Burgess play four years ago when he went to watch Davis, the star of his AAU team, play for Benedictine High.
Williams was so intrigued by Burgess' headiness, defense and the length of his 6-foot-5 frame that he recruited him to not just play, but start for his AAU team.
“I just loved his game,” Williams said.
The summer that Burgess played for Williams, he guarded the opposition's best player because he had the versatility to defend both inside and on the perimeter. He was hesitant, though, when it came to offense.
Williams, however, encouraged him to be more aggressive offensively and to have faith in his shot.
“You need to shoot the ball,” Keith Burgess recalled Williams telling his son.
By the end of that summer, Burgess' offensive confidence had soared. He even had a few conversations with North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who signed Davis, now a rookie forward with the Toronto Raptors.
“You've made a lot of improvement,” Myla Burgess recalled Roy Williams telling his son. “You're one of the most improved high school players I've seen this year.”
Burgess started as a senior at Benedictine High and was an All-State selection as his team won its second-straight state championship. But even Roy Williams' testimonial and Boo Williams' politicking weren't enough to get him a scholarship in the ACC, a league he dreamed of playing in.
Penn State and Vanderbilt were interested, but Burgess ended up picking VCU over Richmond.
“He's a hell of a player,” said former VCU coach Anthony Grant, who recruited Burgess and is now coach of Alabama. “I felt like we were getting a steal when we got him.”
Burgess lived up to Grant's expectation of him being an impact player as a freshman, averaging 7.4 points during VCU's run to the NCAA tournament. Last season, with Maynor gone, he averaged three more points per game as the Rams won the College Basketball Invitational.
And with Sanders joining Maynor in the NBA after last season, Burgess was supposed to break out. He's had his moments this season, including a 25-point, eight-rebound performance in a victory against Wake Forest, but has also been disappointing at times.
During a team meeting, VCU senior point guard Joey Rodriguez called out Burgess for not playing as hard as he had earlier in the season, especially defensively. It came after the Rams watched video of their home blowout loss to George Mason in mid-February and Rodriguez saw a sequence in which Burgess dropped his head and lazily jogged backed on defense after a turnover.
But instead of responding to Rodriguez's criticism, Burgess internalized it.
“It motivated me because he was exactly right,” said Burgess, who is averaging 14.4 points and 6.2 rebounds this season. “I had been, I guess, losing focus during the mid-to-late part of the season.”
Reality really set in for Burgess early this month when he failed to make All-Conference in the Colonial Athletic Association, giving him even more motivation.
“I wanted just to try to play my best basketball in the postseason,” Burgess said.
Burgess seemingly is doing just that. Beyond his scoring and rebounding, he also leads his team in blocks and is the co-leader in steals during the NCAA tournament.
Yet the danger of Burgess being too passive still lurks. Even after his game-winner against Florida State, he said he felt like he was shooting too much in that game, despite making nine of his 15 shot attempts, which included a 6 of 7 effort on threes.
“I guess it's just my nature,” said Burgess, a Homeland Security major, who is interested in working someday for the Secret Service.
Smart, though, makes it a point to have Burgess heavily involved offensively. Every game, his goal is for him to take at least 12 shots.
“He's so unselfish, sometimes it's to a fault,” Smart said. “When he comes up short of that goal, it's not good for us.”
After Burgess' game-winning shot against Florida State, he received 147 text messages. One of them was from Davis, who proudly wrote, “Just keep moving. A couple more games like that and you're going to be off to the NBA Draft.”
For now, Burgess is focused on getting VCU to its first Final Four. It's a role he would love to play.
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