Since well before he stepped foot on his first NBA court, the concept of Dante Exum has been a more popular topic of conversation than the player himself.
A wild card by any definition as he entered the league with little beyond glorified high school competition under his belt, Exum was in many ways the opposite of his dart throw pre-draft projections as a rookie. The relentless attacker who penetrated defenses at will in Australia was nowhere to be found, replaced by a tentative and conservative player who mostly looked intimidated by NBA size and contact. Flashes of immense future offensive potential were tantalizing, but also so rare that wondering if they could ever become the norm was justified. On the flip side, though, Exum’s defensive performance blew away all realistic expectations and established what many assumed was a concrete baseline.
But then, after cooking and eating Marcus Smart for three quarters in his only Summer League performance and throwing an eager Jazz fan base into a small-sample frenzy of excitement, Exum tore his ACL in international play. Fire, meet water.
True to form, though, even the devastating injury seemed to add to the intrigue and mystery surrounding the 6’6 point guard. Utah’s point guard situation was the worst in the league in his absence, and many were quick to connect those dots even though, in reality, at least a few of the issues at hand were things Exum had struggled with as a rookie as well. A year spent bulking up and honing the all-important mental side of the game left the door open, and as they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder.
But as he prepares for his first regular season NBA action in 18 months, his return to the court this preseason has represented a quick shift: Suddenly, with a number of Jazz primaries nursing injuries or seeing limited action, the real Dante Exum is firmly in the spotlight.
“There is a lot to evaluate with Dante, kind of independent of the group,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said.
While there are very good reasons to limit exposure and temper expectations for most players in the preseason, Exum is the opposite. Figuring out where (and what) he is on the court is a top priority.
Exum has seen a solid minutes load for the preseason, many with a clear mandate from Snyder to strut his stuff. It’s a trial by fire, with a little additional heat provided by another unexpected injury twist.
“When we looked at this year, with Alec [Burks] and Rodney [Hood] and Gordon [Hayward] and Joe Johnson, you envisioned Dante possibly playing some at the two. [But] Dante’s basically exclusively playing at the two right now,” Snyder said. “And that’s not a reflection on what he’s done at the point, it’s just that we have depth at that position, and we have less at the wing right now.
“The consistent thing that he’s doing, and what we’ve seen that’s a positive, is he’s been guarding multiple positions. I think he’s got the size and the strength to guard two-guards in this league.”
Three of the four guys Snyder mentioned have been limited or absent altogether this fall, thrusting Exum into another new situation. He’s spent time alongside each of Utah’s other three point guards and checked the likes of Devin Booker. J.J. Redick and C.J. McCollum while showcasing all the same speed and length that made him an asset defensively. There’s surely preseason and sample context at play, but lineups featuring Exum alongside summer addition George Hill have outscored opponents by over 10 points per-100-possessions, according to NBAwowy.com. And Exum himself has done well offensively, shooting over 47 percent from the field while assisting on over 21 percent of Utah’s baskets (through five games).
Comfort and feel are tougher to quantify, but there are positive signs here as well – regardless of which ostensible position Exum’s been playing. More time is needed to know for sure, but it seems he’s well on his way to eliminating any lingering concerns about his knee after the Jazz were extremely careful with his rehab process. He’s tested it on several occasions at game speed with no ill effects. Conditioning is a work in progress – another stated reason why Snyder has given Exum so much opportunity – but both the player and coach have noted improvements in that area. Exum says he’s doing newer things in the training room that he “never did in my first year.”
On an even more encouraging note, his willingness to take that knee (and the rest of himself) into the heart of the defense might already be higher than at any point during his fully healthy rookie year.
In glimpses, Exum’s vision has been next level. He has the size to see over most defenders, with good instincts and strong use of space as a pocket passer in pick-and-rolls. The issue to this point has been elsewhere offensively: Until Exum proves he can consistently score for himself, especially in the two-man game, teams are going to play him for that pass and put a cap on his success. His finishing near the basket remains the largest hurdle, but the outlines of some solid strides here are becoming visible.
There have been bumps in the road, learning opportunities and teachable moments. Snyder has developed a reputation for using brief benchings to send a message, and Exum got that treatment early in the third quarter of Monday’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers.
“He took me off for something I didn’t do in the third,” Exum said.
He’s not the first to see these kind of consequences.
“It’s a love-hate relationship, where he’s continued to come at me when I need it,” Exum said.
“Of course I’m mad about being taken out,” he added with a laugh. “No, but I realize why he’s doing it, and that’s what I have got to kind of get in the mindset of: ‘How do I not get taken out?’”
As he looks to transition quickly from concept to reality, these are the breaks. It’s strange to say after a quick and successful rebuild that netted several talented known quantities up and down the roster, but Exum’s development could still be the largest domino yet to fall in evaluating the franchise’s eventual ceiling with this core. The Jazz have established a solid baseline sure to improve here and there as guys enter their primes; a true leap from Exum to his upper outcome range would make them a perennial title contender.
There are a ton of hurdles still on the track between now and then, and some could prove too high to clear. Some will be simple, others grueling. He won’t be rushed along with Hill in place at the point, but he won’t be babied either. Exum knows the challenges ahead, and so do those helping mold him.
“It’s going to be a process with him,” Snyder said. “There’s times he’s not going to like me. I think he knows we’re going to push him, and he’s committed. That’s the most important thing. I’m going to coach him hard, and he’s playing hard. He’s doing everything that he can do, and we’re just going to keep pushing him and he’s going to keep pushing himself. And he’s going to keep getting better.”
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