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Dante Exum’s Transition From Concept to Constant

Dante Exum’s potential is sky high and it’s time for him to begin slowly realizing it, writes Ben Dowsett.

Ben Dowsett

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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.

danteexum_insideonly1True 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.”

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA

NBA AM: Nicolas Batum Is Helping The Hornets Get Organized

Dwight Howard has predictably struggled with scoring efficiency, but Nicolas Batum’s return is already helping.

Buddy Grizzard

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With the Charlotte Hornets below .500 and presently out of the playoff picture almost a quarter of the way into the season, it’s not too early to start looking at what has gone wrong. While Dwight Howard has, predictably, been an inefficient contributor on offense, the loss of Nicolas Batum for much of the early season was a major setback. With Batum averaging 13.5 points and 4.5 assists in his first four appearances since his return, can he be the catalyst to help Charlotte turn its season around?

Batum scored 16 with five rebounds and six assists in his first appearance of the season in a loss to the Cavaliers. Hornets coach Steve Clifford said it’s been a struggle to ease Batum back into the rotation due to his eagerness to be on the court.

“When he feels good, I just leave him out there,” said Clifford after Wednesday’s shootaround. “We just have to be careful because the first night, he gets going in the games and he wants to play more.”

Clifford added that Charlotte’s condensed schedule, featuring seven games in 11 days, has complicated efforts to bring Batum along slowly.

“He just needed to play some,” said Clifford. “I think once we get through this stretch he’ll be good. He eats up minutes anyway.”

Batum working his way back into the rotation could help the Hornets address one of the early issues, which has been the incorporation of Howard into the offense. Batum gives Charlotte another proficient pick and roll ball handler in addition to Kemba Walker, and he should help put Howard in better positions to score.

“It’s a lot different being out there with Nic,” said Walker. “He just takes so much pressure off a lot of us. It’s really good to have him back. He just makes the game easy for a lot of us.”

Three Hornets have executed over 20 pick and rolls as the roll man this season. Cody Zeller has scored 1.14 points per 100 possessions on 22 such possessions. Frank Kaminsky has scored 1.15 per 100 on 33 possessions as a roll man. This scoring efficiency for both players ranks just above the league average.

For Howard, in 24 possessions as a roll man, he’s scored .75 per 100, which ranks in the eighth percentile. In other words, Howard ranks in the bottom 10 percent of the league in pick and roll scoring efficiency. Just as Howard was unable to establish a consistent pick and roll partnership in Atlanta last season with point guard Dennis Schroder, Howard’s possessions as a roll man in Charlotte account for only nine percent of his total possessions.

By contrast, Howard has used 95 possessions this season in post isolation, which accounts for more than a third of his total possessions (35 percent). He’s scoring a ghastly .66 per 100 possessions, which ranks in the 15th percentile league-wide. Of the 17 players who have used at least 50 post-up possessions this season, Howard ranks dead last in scoring efficiency.

Despite these struggles, Clifford said Batum’s re-integration into the lineup has already resulted in more opportunities for Howard, both from direct and indirect assists.

“Since Nic came back now he’s getting the ball a lot more,” said Clifford. “That’s how Nic plays. It’s not only directly from Nic, but Nic will see how he’s playing and touch the ball to somebody else so they can get it to him.”

Clifford sounds relieved to have Batum back in the rotation, almost as if he’s an assistant coach on the floor.

“Certainly [it helps] our efficiency and organization on both ends of the floor,” said Clifford. “It’s the very nature of how he plays.”

With the Hornets just outside the playoff picture in the East, Batum’s return should help stabilize the team in its quest for the postseason. Batum wasn’t available to help ease Howard’s integration in the early part of the season. But now that he’s back, according to Clifford, he’s already been a huge asset to the team’s cohesion.

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NBA

Life After Philadelphia is Just Fine For Turner

Evan Turner goes 1-on-1 with Basketball Insiders to explain how life in Philadelphia shaped the rest of his career.

Dennis Chambers

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Once upon a time, Evan Turner was the second overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft, and the next man in line to save the Philadelphia 76ers.

After finishing his junior year at Ohio State University, Turner declared for the draft and eventually was taken directly after John Wall by the Sixers. Turner joined a team that won just 27 games the year before, but had more than a few promising young pieces.

Andre Iguodala, a former Sixers top-10 pick in his own right, was the oldest of the core bunch, at just 27. After him, the likes of Jrue Holiday, Lou Williams, Thaddeus Young, and Spencer Hawes were all under the age of 24. All in all, adding a No. 2 pick to that mix looked to set up the Sixers for years to come.

For the most part, the beginning of Turner’s career was successful. After making the playoffs his rookie season and losing in the first round to the Miami HEAT four games to one, the Sixers pushed the Boston Celtics to seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals during the 2011-12 season.

Turner started 12 of those 13 playoff games during his second season, averaging 11.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.5 points per game.

Just as Turner seemed to be coming into his own, though, the tides in Philadelphia began to turn, and turn quickly.

His third year in the league, and first year as a full-time starter, came and went for Turner. He posted decent numbers. His 13.6 points per game were second only to Holiday. He was third on the team in assists and sixth in rebounds. In the midst of his fourth season, while averaging a career-high 17.4 points, Turner was traded to the Indiana Pacers.

Newly hired president of basketball operations, Sam Hinkie, had a plan in place that didn’t include Turner. It didn’t include Holiday either, as he was shipped off during the 2013 draft for Nerlens Noel and future first-round pick.

Just as the Sixers were becoming “his” team, Turner was sent packing to a new zip code. In his mind, he never got a fair shake at trying to the be the guy he was drafted to be in Philadelphia.

“I don’t think I really ever had a chance to shoulder it, to tell you the truth,” Turner told Basketball Insiders. “I didn’t start my first two years, but numbers wise I thought I did well. Nobody averaged more than 13 or 14. We were a great unit. My third year, my first year starting, I thought I did pretty well for a first-year starter. We missed the playoffs, which is always tough. Within the next year, it got blown up.”

Turner reiterated that in his mind, he wasn’t allowed the leash to become a franchise guy. But it wasn’t all for naught in Philadelphia.

“Honest opinion, I don’t think I ever fully got the chance,” Turner said. “But I got the chance to do a lot of great things. Learn how to win, learn how to defend, learn how to prepare.”

Since leaving Philly, Turner’s role in the NBA has shifted from a potential franchise player to a serviceable role man on a playoff caliber team.

Last summer, Turner inked a four-year, $70 million deal with the Portland Trail Blazers after his stint with Indiana, and then two years with the Boston Celtics. Beyond the years in Philly, Turner’s life in the Association has been kind to him.

“It’s been fine,” Turner said. “On the up and up, I was fortunate to make the playoffs every year since leaving Philly. I made the playoffs two out of three, or three out of the four years that I was here. It’s cool, it’s a blessing. Healthy, stable, and living the dream.”

On Wednesday night, Turner returned to Philadelphia and the Wells Fargo Center to square off against his old team. Nowadays, this version of the Sixers is much different than the one he left behind. A process that nearly began with jettisoning Turner to the Pacers feels near completion, and the energy Turner once felt on the court in a Sixers uniform is returning in full force.

When walking around the building, this time as a visitor, Turner takes appreciation in seeing some old faces. The guys “behind the scenes” as he put it, always are welcoming. Brett Brown, Turner’s former coach, never fails to show him love, and the arena in South Philly, Turner says, is always a great reminder of where he came from.

Turner thinks the process that was kicked off with getting rid of him and his core teammates is promising, though.

“It’s turning around,” Turner said.  “Just off the first eye glance, I know Coach Brown can coach his butt off. Even the fact that they’re getting up a real practice facility says a lot. Obviously on the court, the energy. You see on tv before, it’s more sold out. When you see the Sixers sometimes it would be a joke, in regards to how many games they lost, or whatever. But now it’s kind of like you’re going to see some great highlights, you’re watching a lot of energy from the crowd and things. I’m happy for them. It seems like it’s trending in the right direction.”

It wasn’t always rainbows and sunshine for Turner in Philadelphia; he would be reminded of that as he was greeted with boo’s from the crowd when he checked into the game for the first time Wednesday night. The city of brotherly love has a reputation that doesn’t necessarily precede its name.

“Much is given, much is expected,” he said. “One thing is, when you get kind of labeled as whatever, you kind of get tagged for the most critical stuff. I saw how sometimes Iguodala would get blamed for everything, and then I kind of moved into that. I went from the cute little kid, to moving into that responsibility. Then MCW (Michael Carter-Williams) went from that position. It’s just kind of, you know, part of the game.”

The harshness of the city, and Turner’s situation particularly, helped guide him through his career after Philadelphia. In Turner’s words, “The only way to go from here, in a certain sense, is up.”

Portland’s sixth man has lived a long, lucrative life in the NBA, even if it didn’t go exactly how it was initially planned to. Turner was quick to point out that any time he heard someone complain during his travels around the league, at least they weren’t facing the wrath of Philadelphia.

“Going into new situations, people are like, ‘Hey they do this or they do that,’ and I’m like are y’all serious,” Turner said with a smile. “Go to Philly and see what they’ll do to y’all.”

Maybe his time spent in Philadelphia didn’t turn out the way fans had hoped, but Turner found out quickly there was a spot for him in the league as a former second overall pick, and that his career has gone just the way it was supposed to.

“I’m a firm believer in everything is supposed to happen how it’s supposed to happen,” Turner said. “Regardless of which, it’s a blessing.”

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Mock Drafts

NBA AM: The First 2018 NBA Mock Draft

With College Basketball getting underway and things starting to get interesting in the standings of the NBA, what better time to drop a 2018 Mock Draft than on Thanksgiving.

Steve Kyler

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The Thanksgiving 2018 NBA Mock Draft

With College Basketball getting underway and things starting to get interesting in the standings of the NBA, what better time to drop a 2018 Mock Draft than on Thanksgiving.

So with that in mind here is my first Mock Draft of the 2018 Season, look for more of these are we march on (and hopefully you like the new Mock Draft table design.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this summer.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the current standings.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick only conveys if the Bucks pick lands between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the standings today would convey.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Ricky Rubio trade this summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves first round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors first round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets first round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.

Check out our Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects http://www.basketballinsiders.com/top-100-nba-draft-prospects/

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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