Courier sports writer
What a difference a year makes.
It’s hard to believe that Carter Burns was merely a role player last season, performing in the shadow of his higher-scoring teammates.
Sure, Burns played well enough to garner honorable mention status from the CIML Metro Conference, but his game, at least scoring-wise, wasn’t on the same level as some of his fellow Bulldogs. Burns only averaged about five points a game, five points below Ottumwa’s third-leading scorer and about 12 points behind its top scorer, Faith Pope.
Of course, Burns was just a freshman at the time, it probably wouldn’t be fair to expect his scoring output to be the equal of his older and more experienced teammates. But now that Pope, who led Ottumwa — and the entire CIML Metro league — with 16.6 points a game last year, has transferred to Mount Pleasant and the Bulldogs other leading scorers — Ben Kramer and Erik Thorgaard — have graduated, Burns has assumed the role as the team’s most prolific scorer.
“He works so hard at his game and he wants so badly to be really, really good,” coach Chris Gravett said.
Because of his unselfishness, the coach said sometimes Burns doesn’t take open shots. Gravett, however, said his 6-foot-6 post player was much more aggressive in the Bulldogs’ 63-61 overtime victory over Des Moines East Tuesday. Burns cemented his status as Ottumwa’s go-to guy in the game, scoring a season-high 31 points against the Scarlets.
Burns’ game is a frustrating riddle for opposing defenses. How should they defend him? They can clog up the lane to prevent him from scoring inside, but then Burns will happily knock down mid-range jumpers all night long or, until the opposing defense allows him more room to navigate inside.
Even if defenses are able to force Burns out beyond the 3-point line — a place that is outside the comfort zone of most big men — he’s comfortable handling the ball (sometimes he even takes it upcourt) and, if you give him a little room, he will bury a 3-pointer in your face.
If Burns is allowed to post up, he will score at will. When defenses prevent him from getting touches on offense, Burns gets his points off rebounds. When defenders guard him too tight, he blows by them for a layup or, if the situation is right, a rare dunk.
So what are opposing defenses to do? Foul him? Also a bad idea — Burns makes more than 80 percent of his shots from the foul line. Yes, figuring out how to stop Burns is a riddle that even Bilbo Baggins would have trouble solving.
Burns is second in the CIML Metro Conference in scoring, averaging about 20 points a game. In addition, he has taken on the role of lead rebounder that was previously filled by Pope. He ranks fourth in the Metro Conference with eight rebounds per game.
Burns’ prodigious scoring nights and consistent rebounding haven’t been enough to garner Ottumwa many victories, as the Bulldogs continue to try to come up with a formula capable of producing wins on a regular basis. The boys have dealt with the growing pains that are a natural part of being a young team filled with players who entered the season with little or no varsity experience. Burns’ play, however, has kept Ottumwa competitive and lately, thanks to some help from his teammates, the Bulldogs appear to have turned a corner.
Kyle Keck, Brok Hopwood, Andrew Altfillisch and Austin Walker have all proven themselves to be capable of complementing Burns’ game with important intangibles of their own.
“Our guys are getting better at getting him the ball,” Gravett said. “If teams are double-teaming Carter inside, than it’s going to open things up for everyone else.”
As the Bulldogs enter Christmas Break, one thing is clear: Ottumwa’s big man will have a central role in how the rest of the season plays out.