By Preston Jones / UTSports.com
What constitutes a strong work ethic? It can be a challenge to measure, but the effort a student-athlete gives toward achieving goals by showing initiative through hustle and intensity in their respective sport certainly assists in calculating work ethic.
For sophomore wing Rae Burrell, her work ethic on the basketball court is defined in her ability to create defensive stops and initiate transition opportunities for the Lady Vols.
The Las Vegas, Nevada, native has formed beneficial habits that have led to her breakout second season under first-year head coach Kellie Harper.
Burrell has given Lady Vol Nation a glimpse into her spirited work ethic during the 2019-20 campaign. That energy, she said, was sparked by her parents, both of whom attended the University of Nevada. Her mother was a ferocious rebounder on the basketball court, averaging double-digit boards for a complete season, while her dad was a track and field All-American for the Wolf Pack.
Acknowledging her parents for their influence on her playing career, Burrell shows appreciation for her upbringing, crediting her father for instilling in her, from a young age, a mentality of ceaseless hard work.
“They definitely gave me my athletic ability, Burrell said of parents John and Ann Burrell. They’ve always taught me to go 100 percent with everything. My dad used to train me when I was younger,” Burrell recalled. “In elementary school, I literally would get up before school to go work out and then go to school after that.
“I’ve always been taught to give it your all and go hard every time.”
The Vegas native’s attraction to the prestigious Lady Vols program steered her cross-country travel to Knoxville.
“I just wanted to be part of the legacy, and then just the environment here is unmatched anywhere else,” Burrell said. “The fans and the program itself, everything that goes into it is for the student-athletes. I appreciate that, so I wanted to be a part of that.”
Specifically, Burrell admires Tennessee’s 2020 SEC Women’s Legend Candace Parker and desires to carry on the Lady Vol tradition.
As a freshman on Rocky Top last season, Burrell recorded 3.6 points and 2.8 rebounds per game, connecting on .317 of her shots from the field in just under 13 minutes of action per game. She certainly made the most of her time on the court, logging 88 rebounds and 13 assists, along with 10 blocks, seven steals and 44 made field goals last year.
One of the more efficient games of her freshman campaign came in her second career outing, as she posted a 10-point, eight-rebound effort in just 17 minutes against UNC Asheville.
As this season got underway, Burrell immediately showed signs of a player ready to make a vast leap from year one to year two.
The surging sophomore believes her dedication to the gym this offseason allowed her to make great strides during her second season.
“I was training a lot with my trainer back in Vegas. Then, just getting in the gym and getting up extra shots – more than before… I feel like I worked hard in the offseason.”
That work paid off, as Burrell has burst onto the scene this year.
Along with increasing her field goal percentage from last season by 11.4 percent, from .317 to .431, Burrell has improved her 3-point accuracy by 9.8 percent, from .219 to 317. She has made strides in terms of crashing the glass this season, collecting more rebounds through the season’s first 15 games (91), than in her entire freshman season (88).
All of the improvements seen from year one to year two have been with an increase of less than eight minutes per game. Coach Harper has been by Burrell’s side for the journey.
Burrell scored in double figures five times as a freshman and has already exceeded that total with nine such performances this year – four of which have come away from Thompson-Boling Arena.
In terms of what the biggest factor has been in her improvement this season, Burrell stated that it’s due, at least in part to the fact that Harper “really believes in me and really encourages me to play hard and do better, to get better for the team.”
Balance is a word that Coach Harper would use to describe the growth of Burrell’s game. “We have talked a lot about how she can continue to improve,” she said. “Rae has been working on finding a balance with being aggressive yet making good decisions with the ball.”
The Lady Vols have reaped the benefits of that aggressiveness this season, especially on the defensive end of the floor.
Burrell has garnered 18 steals this season, which is 11 more than all of last year. The sophomore has also accumulated 32 more rebounds than last year’s 88, with seven regular season match-ups still remaining.
Burrell has dished out 34 assists this season. She needed just six games this season to exceed her assist total from her freshman campaign. Burrell spoke on the importance of balance and sharing the ball, emphasizing, “We just try to get everybody involved and move the ball around. I feel like we do better as a team when the points are distributed.”
The Lady Vols have proven this to be accurate, with a 6-0 record when four players score in double figures.
Burrell has nearly tripled her scoring average from last year, which is good for third-highest on the team.
As the first player off the bench, Rae values her role as the sixth woman for the Lady Vols. She sees herself as a ‘do-it-all’ type of player and understands that her multifaceted skill set is invaluable for the success of the team.
The value of the first player off the bench cannot be overstated. Whether it be three-time NBA Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, or the WNBA’s latest winner of the Sixth Woman of the Year award, Dearica Hamby of Burrell’s hometown Las Vegas Aces. The spark provided by the sixth player is crucial toward a team’s momentum and overall success.
Burrell has solidified herself as a candidate for the SEC’s Sixth Woman of the Year award. If she brings home the accolade, it would be the first time a Lady Vol has won it since 2017.
In the Lady Vols’ 41-point handling of Arkansas-Pine Bluff in late November, Burrell’s defensive instincts were brought to light, as she recorded a career-high five steals. That effort marks the most steals by a Lady Vol in a game since Meme Jackson’s six on November 18, 2018.
Burrell describes herself as an “athletic, energetic and gritty” player who also focuses on bringing a selfless attitude to the court.
“My motivation is to do what I can for the team, think about the team and us as a whole, winning,” Burrell said.
This season, Burrell has shot at least 50 percent from the field in nine games, connecting on a combined 64 percent of her shot attempts in those contests. Her scoring has naturally followed suit. After scoring a season-high 14 points as a freshman last season, she has surpassed that point total on five occasions this year.
Burrell’s uptick in minutes has led to her setting single-game career highs in points (21), made field goals (10), rebounds (12), assists (four), blocks (three) and steals (five) this season.
Coach Harper views Burrell as player who thrives when pushing the tempo and playing with her naturally high motor.
“Rae plays hard and brings great energy to the court,” Harper detailed. “She is aggressive, plays downhill and attacks the boards on the offensive end. Her size and athleticism, combined with that high energy, gives us a terrific defensive threat…Rae’s role is crucial for our team. We need a spark off the bench. She helps our tempo by running the floor and being aggressive.”
Her best performance of the year came on the Lady Vols’ two-game December West Coast trip, when Burrell registered a near double-double with 21 points and 9 rebounds on 10-of-13 field goal shooting in a win against Portland State. The ten made field goals serve as her career high. It also marked the best shooting performance in 37 games in which a Lady Vol has attempted 10+ field goals.
The first double-double of Burrell’s young career occurred in a 10-point, 11-rebound showing that came with three assists against Stetson early this season.
In SEC action, Burrell compiled an impressive stat line of 16 points, six boards, three blocks and two steals in a hard-fought road match-up at Kentucky.
The “bundle of energy,” as Coach Harper calls Burrell, gives relentless energy to the Lady Vols, whether it be cleaning up a possession with a key rebound or attacking the basket on the offensive end.
Burrell, who Coach Harper considers to be exceptionally coachable, praised Harper’s approach to coaching.
“My favorite thing about Coach (Harper) is that she really cares about us and really believes in us. You can really feel that when she’s talking or coaching. It just makes you want to play hard for her,” Burrell said.
The defensive energy that Burrell brings has helped the Lady Vols in holding opponents to just 56.5 points per game. Coach Harper believes in Burrell’s potential, emphasizing throughout the season the importance of having a reliable sixth woman off the bench to provide energy to the rest of the team. She has reiterated her excitement in being able to continue assisting Burrell in becoming an even better player.
Burrell’s work ethic is contagious amongst her teammates and it starts with a simple, yet powerful principle taught to her at an early age: “Give it your all and go hard every time.”