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.”
NBA Daily: Lessons From The 2018 NBA Draft
After a wild 2018 NBA Draft, here are four lessons and storylines worth watching over the next few years.
Now that the dust has settled on an unpredictable NBA Draft — what exactly have we learned? In amongst the unrelenting rumors, refused workouts and surprise reaches, there are a few key takeaways from Brooklyn. Of course, some of these are one-off instances, but others are definitely part of modern-day draft patterns. While draft night may sometimes seem like complete chaos or chance, each scenario on this rundown has been boiling over for weeks. Between passing on a talented prospect to letting an injured one slide, here are four important lessons from the 2018 NBA Draft.
Luka Dončić… Not The No. 1?
For months and months, it appeared as if Luka Dončić was poised to become the No. 1 overall pick in this draft. Even today, it’s hard to believe that somebody with Dončić’s age and resume wasn’t the top selection. In 2017-18 alone, the Slovenian took home EuroLeague MVP and Finals MVP plus ACB MVP, with championships in both leagues to boot — but here we are. Dončić averaged 14.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.1 steals over just 25 minutes per game, quickly transforming into the most well-rounded overseas prospect of all-time. But as impressive as Dončić was throughout the spring, the potential ceilings of both DeAndre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III eventually won out.
At 7-foot-1, Ayton’s 20.1 points, 11.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game were undeniably worthy of a top selection too, pairing well alongside Devin Booker and Josh Jackson for the foreseeable future. While the jury is still out on Bagley III — his defense needs some major fine-tuning — he won’t take key touches away from De’Aaron Fox either. More or less, nobody wants to be the organization to miss on such a franchise-altering pick. The Suns, Kings and even the Hawks may eventually regret passing on Dončić, but when general managers’ entire careers can depend on making the right choice at the right time, it’s not difficult to understand why the top of the draft unfolded as it did.
Playing Hard To Get Doesn’t Always Work Out…
As draft boards began to take shape, there was one particularly interesting situation sitting at No. 4 overall. Jaren Jackson Jr., solidly leading the second tier of prospects, was looking like a lock at the Memphis Grizzlies’ pick — but with one major caveat: Jackson Jr. reportedly didn’t work out or give his medical information to the franchise. After he was drafted, Jackson Jr. called those rumors “a tad out of context” — but, obviously, those are some massive red flags. Either way, Memphis went with their gut and selected the talented forward anyway.
But beyond all that, Memphis absolutely made the right move by sticking to their guns. Putting a modern three-point shooting, defensive-minded athlete next to Marc Gasol should prove to be an absolute nightmare for years to come. Naturally, Jackson Jr. will get plenty of easy looks from the stellar Mike Conley Jr. too — so if the draftee was once apprehensive, surely that will pass soon. Still, it reflects on a larger NBA pattern, wherein which prospective athletes sensibly look to mold their own path out of college. With players trying to control their draft narratives more than ever, it’s reassuring to see that some franchises will take their target first and then figure out the rest.
We may never know Jackson Jr.’s full thought process behind not working out for the Grizzlies, but there’s a great chance that the former Spartan was made for Memphis’ tough brand of basketball — and we should all be glad we’ll get to see it.
…But Injuries Will Lead To A Slide
Michael Porter Jr. — what a year for him, huh?
After missing out on much of his only collegiate season due to back surgery, Porter Jr. promised that he was feeling better than ever. But over the last month, scouts and front offices were treated to canceled workouts and hazy uncertainty. And, at the end of the day, it probably scared a handful of franchises away from the talented scorer. Just this week, the Kings heavily considered Porter Jr. at No. 2 overall — but even with that sudden unlikelihood passing by, few thought he’d drop out of the top ten altogether. Outside of the guaranteed money that Porter Jr. will miss out on, redshirting his rookie year may also be on the table as well.
The inherent upside with Porter Jr. is obvious, but — similarly to the Dončić issue — it’s tough to ask franchise officials to stake their livelihood on the prospect’s health. If Porter Jr.’s lingering issues stay with him and he never reaches his mountain of potential, that’s a tough pill to swallow. The 19-year-old would fall all the way down to No. 14, where the Denver Nuggets gladly scooped him up. During the combine in May, Porter Jr. called himself the best player in the draft — but it’s now up to him to prove them all wrong.
The Mysterious Men Nearly Miss Out
Let’s rewind to early April. Villanova had been just crowned NCAA champions for the second time in three years, the NBA playoffs were soundly on the horizon and mock drafts had begun to consistently pour out. Early on, there were two athletic big men that looked like shoo-ins as first-rounders: Robert Williams and Mitchell Robinson. Despite their undercooked skill-sets, both players pulled out of the combine and then waited for the hype to build — except, well, it didn’t. Williams, who was typically projected in the early teens, slipped out of the lottery entirely, only to be rescued by the Boston Celtics at No. 27. Williams is a booming, powerful prospect, but he could’ve really benefited from competing against the other top prospects in May.
Although he’s now landed in an ideal situation with Brad Stevens, Al Horford and a process-driven Celtics squad, Williams likely cost himself a whole load of money over the last 30-plus days as well.
In Robinson’s case, many believed his floor was the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 25 — rumors swirling that the 7-foot-1 center even received a promise from the illustrious franchise. Instead, Robinson dropped to the New York Knicks at No. 36 overall. Robinson had originally committed to Western Kentucky in July of 2017 before dropping out to prepare for the draft. After skipping the combine last month, Robinson indeed exhibited the potential to be both a steady shot-blocker and three-point maker during his individual evaluations. But with little to go off of but high school highlight reels and small session workout tapes, he understandably fell.
Sometimes the hype is impossible to ignore, but not participating in the combine and staying as mysterious as possible hurt these ultra-talented prospects.
While the 2018 NBA Draft wasn’t quite the trade-heavy, drama-laden extravaganza much of the world expected, there are plenty of narratives to reflect upon. At the end of the day, the ink is barely dry on this year’s festivities and it’ll be some time before there’s any indication of these successes or failures. Still, there are lessons to be learned from every draft, workout or injury process and these are four conversations worth considering as the NBA quickly rolls into the summer league season.
NBA Daily: The Losers of the NBA Draft
Shane Rhodes breaks down the losers of the 2018 NBA Draft.
The 2018 NBA Draft season has come to a close. And, while the actual draft wasn’t the fireworks show that it could have been, there was still plenty of surprises, both good and bad.
While Basketball Insiders’ Simon Hannig discussed the winners of the draft, not everyone was so fortunate. And, while the draft can come down to chance, some teams were worse off than others.
Let’s take a look at some of the bigger losers from draft night
Talk about heartbreak.
Mikal Bridges was going home. The Philadelphia 76ers selected the Villanova standout with the No. 10 pick. Bridges did an entire press conference, talking about what it was like to be staying in Philadelphia. His mother, Tyneeha Rivers, is even the Global VP of Human Resources for Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, the company that owns the team. It was perfect.
And then it wasn’t.
Mikal Bridges just did an entire press conference talking about staying in Philly. He was traded as it ended. He had no idea.
— Dan Wetzel (@DanWetzel) June 22, 2018
It’s hard to not feel bad for Bridges, who was dropped into a dream scenario and then had it all ripped away. Going to the Phoenix Suns, an organization heading in a new direction, to play alongside plenty of young, high upside talent, including No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton as well as former lottery picks Josh Jackson and Devin Booker, isn’t the worst thing in the world for the rookie forward. Bridges could even flourish in Phoenix.
But it certainly won’t compare to playing under the bright lights in Philadelphia alongside Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid come next April and for years to come.
Michael Porter Jr.
One year ago, Michael Porter Jr. was a top three draft prospect projected to go as high as No. 1 overall. However, with rumors of questionable medicals swirling throughout the draft process, he dropped all the way to the Denver Nuggets at No. 14 overall.
While Porter will certainly welcome the chip on his shoulder, the lost earnings will definitely hurt him and his pocket. Porter is missing out on millions on his first NBA contract. Plus, the sheer amount of teams that balked at his medicals doesn’t bode well for his long-term future in the NBA.
It isn’t all bad for Porter; Denver has a young, talented roster and was one win away from a postseason birth last year. They can afford to be patient with Porter’s back, should he need to miss some time, as well. Standing 6-foot-11, 211 pounds and with a smooth jumper, Porter still has a great chance to be a star in this league.
Still, it was an inauspicious beginning to what, hopefully, is a long NBA career.
This could apply to the Sacramento Kings roster as well as their fanbase.
The Kings got “their guy” in No. 2 overall pick Marvin Bagley III. And, while Bagley is still an amazing talent, the pick just seems like more of the same for the Kings, who have a glut of bigs — Willie-Cauley Stein, Harry Giles III, Skal Labissiere, Kostas Koufos — on the roster and a distinct lack of high-quality guard or wing depth.
In steps Luka Dončić, the 19-year-old Slovenian phenom. With the Suns taking Ayton with the top pick, the Kings had their chance to shore up their backcourt for the foreseeable future alongside De’Aaron Fox and move another step closer to relevancy.
And they whiffed.
Dončić could very well end up as the best player in the class. While he isn’t the most athletic, Dončić is exactly where the NBA is going; he is a multipositional defender and playmaker that can shoot the three. Meanwhile, Bagley, who is a questionable fit in the modern game, will be hardpressed to find playing time early on in his Kings tenure. Even worse, with their hearts set on Bagley, the Kings likely could have traded down a la the Atlanta Hawks and picked up another asset for their troubles.
While it’s much too early to call it either way, this is a pick that could come back to haunt Sacramento down the line.
It was not a great night for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Cavaliers missed out on one point-guard prospect, Trae Young, and another, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, flat out said he didn’t want to play for the franchise. And, even though they got a guard they liked in Alabama’s Collin Sexton, the Cavaliers are still in the unenviable position of dealing with LeBron James’ third iteration of The Decision.
Sexton’s selection doesn’t exactly help them retain James’ services either.
Since acquiring the pick from the Boston Celtics in the Kyrie Irving trade last summer, it had been speculated as to whether Cleveland would use the pick or trade it to get James help. With the team opting for the former, it’s difficult to imagine the Cavaliers getting any significant help for James, in free agency or otherwise, which could push him closer to leaving than he already may be. Meanwhile, Sexton, who dominated the ball during his time at Alabama, isn’t exactly the best fit alongside James in the event that he stays.
Either way, there appears to be a bumpy road ahead for the Cavaliers.
Troy Brown Jr. is a great pickup for the Washington Wizards. That still doesn’t mean he wasn’t a reach.
Brown is a twitchy wing that can defend multiple positions. But there were multiple wings that Washington could have taken ahead of Brown (e.g., Lonnie Walker II) that would have made this a better pick. Brown struggled as a shooter during his lone season at Oregon — he shot just 29.1 percent from three and has some iffy mechanics — and is a strange fit on the Wizards roster that already has a surplus of wing depth in John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre.
With the team looking to move Marcin Gortat, a big would have been a better fit for Washington at 15. Or, if management was deadset on Brown, dropping back a few spots would have made more sense.
Brown certainly has the talent to make an impact, but it’s hard to like a pick that may not crack the rotation in year one, according to the Wizards own General Manager.
The Toronto Raptors took a big step earlier this offseason, moving on from Dwane Casey and placing Nick Nurse at the helm in early June.
But, with zero picks in a loaded draft, the Raptors have to be considered losers.
There were plenty of difference makers available up-and-down the draft board, but the Raptors didn’t end up with any of them. While management could improve the team via trade or free agency come July, they still feature the same roster that got manhandled in the Eastern Conference Semifinals by James and the Cavaliers and that isn’t good.
Not everyone can come out a winner in a crapshoot like the NBA Draft. Still, some teams found themselves worse off than others when all was said and done. Luckily, those teams still have a chance to improve themselves with free agency right around the corner.
NBA Daily: The Winners Of The NBA Draft
Simon Hannig breaks down the winners from Thursday’s 2018 NBA Draft.
The 2018 NBA Draft has come and gone, and although many teams have improved coming out of this loaded draft, five teams seemed to have walked away as the biggest winners.
The Phoenix Suns Got Their Guy
The Suns made a couple of splashes in the draft, selecting DeAndre Ayton with the first overall pick.
The Suns then drafted Zhaire Smith, but later traded his rights to the Philadelphia 76ers for Mikal Bridges.
In the second round of the draft, Phoenix selected Frenchman Elie Okobo and George King from Colorado, each of whom should be able to contribute right away. Ayton should be the starting center come opening night and Bridges could also start for the team immediately. If not, Bridges will be a valuable weapon coming off the bench for a team who is trying to win games and get back into the playoffs.
Does Mo Bamba Have The (Orlando) Magic?
The Orlando Magic got a stud in Mo Bamba, whom they surprisingly selected with the sixth overall pick in the draft. They later drafted Melvin Frazier in the second round. It was a bit surprising that the Tulane product lasted that long, but the Magic benefitted.
Orlando got a player who can contribute right away and could compete for a starting job. Frazier is a great rebounder and defender and could change the team’s defense all by himself. The club now has two young core pieces they can build around in Jonathan Isaac and Bamba and a young contributor in Frazier.
Although the team’s offense will likely be work in progress, they can be very scary on the defensive end.
Now, we’ll all wait to see if Bamba, the New York product, can carry the Magic back to respectability.
Atlanta Hawks Will Let It Fly
After drafting Luka Doncic with the third overall pick, the Hawks ended up sending him to Dallas in exchange for Trae Young and a future protected first round pick. The pick is top-five protected the next two years, top-three protected in 2021 and 2022 and unprotected in 2023, according to Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson.
With their second first round pick, the Hawks took sharpshooter Kevin Huerter from Maryland and, with the 30th overall pick, selected Omari Spellman from Villanova.
Atlanta appears to building themselves in the way of the Warriors, getting sharpshooters in Young and Huerter. It is no surprise they are doing this as their current general manager, Travis Schlenk, worked with Golden State before taking the job with the Hawks.
The Rich Got Richer In Boston
The Celtics once again got a steal in the draft, as they were the beneficiaries as it relates to Robert Williams from Texas A&M. He is an athletic big man who plays great defense and rebounds the ball very well. Williams has lottery talent but ended up falling to the Celtics, who selected him with the 27th pick of the draft.
Williams averaged 2.5 blocks per game at Texas and should also be able to provide second chance opportunities for the team. Williams, as he averaged three offensive rebounds per game in college.
Luka Doncic Found A Good Home
The Dallas Mavericks walked away from the 2018 NBA Draft with two foundational pieces in tow, Dennis Smith Jr. and Luka Doncic. Their other moves were also tremendous, as they drafted Jalen Brunson from Villanova, acquired Ray Spalding from Louisville in a trade with the Sixers and drafted Kostas Antetokounmpo (Giannis’ younger brother) with the last piece in the draft.
For Mark Cuban, it may take time to develop the pieces, but if things could go well, the Mavs might have some productive years ahead.
Doncic was thought to be one of, if not the best player available in the draft, so getting him at the expense of a protected future first round pick seems like a fair trade. Depending on how ready he is to contribute at the NBA level, the sky could be the limit.
Of course, every year, there are surprises. Some good, and some bad. However, walking away from the 2018 NBA Draft, these five teams all appear to have improved themselves immensely.