The Northwestern Wildcats have forged a clear identity for themselves in recent seasons, with head coach Joe McKeown preaching a defense-first approach that creates as much havoc as possible for opponents while taking care of the basketball on the Wildcats’ own possessions.
It’s perfect, then, that Northwestern’s senior leader is a defensive-minded point guard. 5-foot-9 Veronica Burton has reinvigorated the Wildcat program and, in a Big Ten conference full of high-octane scorers, she’s controlling games on the defensive side of the basketball.
Originally from Netwon, Mass., Burton is the heart and soul of Northwestern women’s basketball. As she goes, so go the Wildcats; Northwestern had its best-ever season under McKeown when Burton was handed the keys to the team as a sophomore, and she’s earned a set of hardware that very few players can match. Let’s dive into some of Burton’s numbers to see just how much she means to Northwestern.
Honors and statistics
Any sort of commentary on Burton likely includes her biggest accomplishment thus far: back-to-back Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Awards in her sophomore (2019-20 and junior (2020-21) seasons. Burton amassed 196 steals in 55 games played (3.56 per game) during that time period, and she’s led the Big Ten in total thefts in each of her three seasons as a Wildcat.
Burton received All-Big Ten honors following her junior season, and was named to the preseason All-Big Ten Team as a senior by both conference coaches and media. She’s also on preseason watch lists for the Wooden Award and Wade Trophy, as well as the Nancy Lieberman Award, which goes to the nation’s top point guard.
How she helps the Wildcats
It would, frankly, be easier to discuss how Burton doesn’t help the Wildcats.
Starting with the obvious: Burton is an incredibly pesky and disruptive defensive payer, which fits perfectly into how the Wildcats like to defend as a team. In her first three seasons at Northwestern, the Wildcats recorded steal rates of 11.8 percent (31st in Division I, per Her Hoop Stats), 14 percent (seventh) and 12.6 percent (20th). Burton is the head of that snake; her work at the point of attack is relentless, and even when a steal isn’t recorded, there’s something to be said for not allowing opponents to settle into their halfcourt offenses and forcing them to play faster than they want to.
Steals, of course, don’t just mean empty possessions for opponents — they often reward defenses with easy opportunities in transition. This is where Burton’s value to the Wildcats is most evident. While the Big Ten is full of teams that field high-scoring offenses, Northwestern is not quite as dynamic on that side of the ball, so it must rely on its defense to generate points on the other end of the court. The Wildcats’ deficiencies in the halfcourt have become perhaps even more glaring after losing go-to scorer Lindsey Pulliam to graduation, which in turn makes Burton’s contributions even more valuable.
— Northwestern Women’s Basketball (@nuwbball) October 7, 2021
Last season, Veronica Burton led the nation in steals per game and total steals on the year. This year, the best defender in the country is back and ready to pick up where she left off. This lock down defender is #LockedN. #gocats pic.twitter.com/Icj6ZK5hSZ
That’s not to say Burton is a one-dimensional player. She’s increased her scoring output every season, averaging 16.2 points per game as a junior and 19.3 points eight games into her senior campaign. She’s knocked down 42.1 percent of her 3-point shots as a senior, and Synergy Sports puts her in the 96th percentile of pick and roll ball handler scoring (1.188 points per possession).
What does this mean for Burton’s status as a WNBA draft prospect? It’s been clear for quite some time that she’s a force on defense, and she has enough size at the point guard position to quell any worries about that part of her game translating to the next level. If she can drag Northwestern to a competitive finish as its primary offensive option, too, she should get an extended look from WNBA scouts.
Watch her play
The Wildcats will be enjoying life at home for nearly the entire month of December, finishing up their non-conference schedule during the lengthy homestand before Big Ten play begins in earnest on New Year’s Eve.
Of particular interest for Northwestern is a Dec. 21 matchup against the Oregon Ducks. A young and talented team, Oregon’s size up front will present a challenge for Northwestern. Burton’s activity on defense will be key for the Wildcats in their mission to disrupt Oregon frontcourt players Sedona Prince and Nyara Sabally. The game is scheduled for a 9 p.m. ET tip and will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network.
All statistics and team records for the 2021-22 season are current through Dec. 3, 2021.