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NBA Daily: The Mystery of Dante Exum

The Utah Jazz are going to be fantastic this season, but what would make their title hopes all the stronger is if the enigmatic Dante Exum finally puts it together.

Matt John

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The Utah Jazz have a lot going for them at the moment. Even though they already were one of the better teams in the Western Conference last season, the moves they’ve made in recent months have vaulted them to one of the better teams in the entire league.

In short, there’s so much to look forward to in Salt Lake this October: Mike Conley Jr. and Bojan Bogdanovic improving their spacing. Year Three of Donovan Mitchell. Rudy Gobert’s offensive progression. Those plotlines alone make the Jazz’ ceiling so exciting to think about. With all the excitement being stirred up, there’s one thread, in particular, that’s been swept under the rug — the return of Dante Exum.

Potential has always been the word associated with Exum. His physical tools — combined with the skills he possesses — makes it hard to not see what a blossoming future could hold. A 6-foot-6 point guard with long arms, a high vertical and lightning-quick speed almost seems like a prospect too good to be true. But it’s sad to say that through no fault of his own, Exum’s potential has basically been his one saving grace since arriving in the NBA.

Unlike say, Rodney Hood, who failed to put it together in Utah for reasons not entirely clear, Exum’s lack of production has come from an inability to stay on the court.

In the five years since he was drafted, Exum has missed one season entirely because of a torn ACL (2015-16), lost the majority of another thanks to a dislocated shoulder (2017-18) and then trudged through both and ankle sprain and a slightly torn patellar tendon (2018-2019) to boot. Because of all that, the conversation around Exum always comes down to what he could do, not what he has done.

That’s why it’s hard to make an argument in either direction for Exum. His extensive injury history makes it difficult to grasp what exactly to expect from him for this season. It also doesn’t help that, even when he was healthy, the 24-year-old’s production has been too inconsistent to make any type of definitive claim just yet.

When Utah gave him a three-year deal worth $27 million last summer, the organization demonstrated its faith in spite of both his poor luck and inconsistencies. To his credit, Exum had just come off of an impressive playoff performance against the Houston Rockets. Although 8.3 points on 53/17/43 splits don’t exactly set somebody toward superstardom, his tenacious defense on James Harden — which goes further in-depth here  — showed some much-needed progress.

Last season, he didn’t exactly reward their faith.

While starting out decently in October — 10 points on 42/31/73 splits — his awful November splits naturally led to a decrease in minutes. Exum’s play was so bad that there were games in which he barely saw any action on the floor. Over time, the Australian got his footing back and, by late-December, his production increased. From Christmas to Jan. 4, Exum averaged 13.4 points on 51/50/100 splits in 20.6 minutes.

But in what is now like an all-too-familiar cycle, Exum suffered a badly-timed ankle injury the very next game, ruining his promising stretch. Though he managed to make it back, a partially torn patellar tendon injury sidelined him for the rest of the season shortly after that. It was yet another tease of what Exum could have brought to an already deep rotation. If nothing else, Exum’s excellent defense on James Harden from yesteryear would’ve been useful when the Jazz and the Rockets had their rematch in April.

As of today, Exum’s defense is regarded as top-notch while his offense still remains raw. Advanced metrics actually back up both the former and the latter from the previous season alone.

Overall, the Jazz were a minus-2.2 with Exum on the floor. Even though their defense allowed 4.7 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor — behind only Raul Neto, Thabo Sefolosha and Joe Ingles — their offense scored 6.9 points less per 100 possessions with him as well, which was the worst among players in the rotation.

So then, how exactly do the Jazz utilize Exum in a way in which he won’t be a negative when he’s on the floor? Let’s take a look at the five five-man lineups containing Exum which were used the most.

– In 55 minutes, the lineup of Exum, Kyle Korver, Derrick Favors, Joe Ingles, and Jae Crowder had a net rating of plus-16.8
– In 34 minutes, the lineup of Exum, Jae Crowder, Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, and Royce O’Neale had a net rating of minus-10.4
– In 29 minutes, the lineup of Exum, Alec Burks, Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder, and Joe Ingles had a net rating of plus-14.6
– In 27 minutes, the lineup of Exum, Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder, Donovan Mitchell, and Royce O’Neale had a net rating of plus-8.7
– In 24 minutes, the lineup of Exum, Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder, Joe Ingles, and Royce O’Neale had a net rating of minus-13.7

Of the lineups that have a positive net rating, the first- and third-most used lineups with Exum have that positive net rating because of both their offensive and defensive ratings. The fourth-most used lineup is strong primarily because their defense is stifling despite its offense being pedestrian.

The conclusion to draw from this is that Exum becomes a net positive if he has more floor spacers around him — just as he did this past season with Ingles, Korver and Burks. Utah is going to miss Korver on that front, but by adding Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic and Jeff Green, all three of whom shot 36.4, 42.5, and 34.7 percent from three respectively, should help him out on paper.

Now, Utah’s success this season won’t depend nearly as much on Exum’s development as it did last season. Exum will be the designated backup point guard, one who can also give spot minutes for the wings. If the stretchy defender fails to take the next step up, it’s not the worst fate in the world. Ultimately, the Jazz will almost assuredly be an excellent team without him.

But if this is finally the year that Dante Exum makes good on all of his monumental potential, then Utah’s incredibly high ceiling will simply rise that much taller.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: 6 G League Players Deserving of NBA Call-Ups

With teams around the league signing players to 10-day contracts, Tristan Tucker takes a look at some of the G League players most deserving of a call-up.

Tristan Tucker

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With most teams in the NBA G-League bubble having around 10 games under their belts, fans are getting a clearer look at which teams have a legitimate shot at winning the G-League championship and which players are stepping up. Recently, the NBA saw a flurry of action after teams became eligible to sign players to 10-day contracts, with G-League players like Justin Patton, Brodric Thomas, Tyler Cook and Donta Hall getting new opportunities.

With that being said, let’s take a look at some of the top performers from the G-League that deserve NBA call-ups sooner rather than later.

Henry Ellenson, Raptors 805

Ellenson, drafted 18th overall by the Detroit Pistons in 2016, is one of the feature pieces on a 7-3 Raptors 905 team that has very real title aspirations. In just over 30 minutes a night, Ellenson is averaging 19.7 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game. One of the things that makes Ellenson so enticing as a prospect is the fact that, at 6-foot-10, he isn’t scared to unload the clip from downtown.

This season, the big man out of Marquette is shooting 37.5 percent from deep on eight attempts per night. For reference, one of the best shooters in the NBA in Duncan Robinson shoots at a 39.8 percent clip on nearly the same amount of attempts. For any team looking for immediate bench reinforcements with a refined offensive game, Ellenson is a great place to start.

Tyrone Wallace, Agua Caliente Clippers

Tyrone Wallace gets buckets. Wallace originally joined the Los Angeles Clippers on a two-way contract in the 2017-18 season, then a scrappy team that saw major contributions from Wallace and fellow two-way guard C.J. Williams en route to a 42-40 record. After averaging 9.7 points per game as an undrafted two-way contract rookie, Wallace was curiously left out to dry, bouncing around the NBA landscape before coming back to the Clippers’ G League affiliate.

This season, Wallace is averaging 18.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game and, while his three-point shooting could use some refinement, Wallace is bound to earn another call-up sooner or later.

Jordan Bell, Erie Bayhawks

Bell was a draft favorite for many after being acquired in the 2017 NBA Draft in the second round by the Golden State Warriors. Bell joined the Warriors as the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and it seemed as if he and Draymond Green were a frontcourt match made in heaven.

Ultimately, Bell’s stint with the Warriors and subsequent trip around the NBA didn’t work out, but the forward out of Oregon is proving that he deserves another shot. Look no further than the hilariously efficient rate at which he’s hit shots, 80.6 percent on just under 10 attempts, for proof of that.

Picking up his offensive game was always going to be integral for Bell to be a complete NBA player, something he’s done very well as of late while averaging 17.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. However, it’s still impressive to note that Bell is hitting such a high rate of shots and is averaging 2 blocks per game at just 6-foot-8 it isn’t like he’s reaching over everyone in the paint to hit these shots.

Myles Powell, Westchester Knicks

After entering the draft out of Seton Hall, Powell was a fan favorite for his scoring antics and many New York Knicks fans wanted to see Powell get a roster spot after he signed as an undrafted free agent. That ultimately didn’t happen, but Powell is tearing it up for Westchester.

One of the things that scared general managers from taking Powell was his efficiency and consistency, both of which he has improved in the G League. Powell scored 21 points per game as a senior in college but shot 39.8 percent from the floor and 30.6 from three on well over nine attempts per game. Adversely, Powell is averaging 17.1 points a night on a 43.2/46.4/82.4 shooting split in the G-League. After seeing such a vast improvement in such little time, it would only make sense for an NBA team to take a shot on Powell, he seems to have good intangibles and is clearly committed to improving himself.

Alize Johnson, Raptors 905

Basketball Insiders took a look at Johnson earlier this season — and he’s meeting expectations while being a key part of a winning 905 team. Johnson is averaging a very impressive 13.3 points and 12.8 rebounds while dishing out 3.6 assists per game. Recently, Johnson scored 22 points with 20 rebounds and 7 assists. He followed that up with 25 points, 14 rebounds and 8 assists

There’s no reason for Johnson not to get another NBA chance this season.

Justin Wright-Foreman, Erie Bayhawks

Wright-Foreman was drafted in the 2019 NBA Draft by the Utah Jazz, joining the team on a two-way contract. While the Jazz let him go, it’s easy to see that the 6-foot guard still has a future in the NBA after his showings in the G League bubble. Wright-Foreman had a legendary college career at Hofstra, breaking the school’s record for points in a game with 48 and scoring 27.1 points per game as a senior.

While Wright-Foreman’s box score production is somewhat hampered by the sheer amount of talent on the Bayhawks, his impact is still clear to see. The guard is averaging 11.6 points per game while shooting 40.4 percent from deep on over five attempts per game. If Wright-Foreman can improve his stamina he averages 14.5 points with one day of rest as opposed to 5.7 points on the second night of back-to-backs — he’ll have a bright future in the league.

It’s easy to be impressed with the sheer production fans see from players in the G-League on a daily basis and so many more players deserve opportunities than one article can name. One thing is certain though, NBA teams are re-tooling their rosters which will be sure to lead the way to more young players getting chances. Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders to keep up with all the latest news and rumors.

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NBA PM: What Brooklyn Needs At The Deadline

The Brooklyn Nets are rightfully among the favorites to win the NBA championship. Garrett Brooks takes a look at what the Nets need at the deadline to give themselves the best chance to win it all.

Garrett Brooks

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As they’ve acclimated to one another, the Brooklyn Nets are finding their groove on both ends of the floor recently. While that’s bad news for the rest of the NBA, there are still things the Nets need to address before making their eventual playoff run.

Winning regular-season games is one thing, winning playoff series is a whole different animal. We know the Nets have offensive firepower like few teams in the history of the NBA. Their big three of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving can carry them to regular-season success.

If they want to maximize their chances to win a title, though, they have more moves to make to fill out the roster.

Another Frontcourt Option

The Nets have to be pleased with what they’re getting from Jeff Green in small ball lineups at the five, as well as the recent emergence of Bruce Brown too. That’s going to be a trend for this team moving forward, as it should be.

Still, there’s a lack of depth on the roster in terms of capable defensive big men that needs to be addressed before an eventual run at an NBA Championship. This is especially true because of the teams they could face on their way to a title, such as the Milwaukee Bucks, Miami HEAT and Los Angeles Lakers. Simply put, beating those teams four out of seven games with a big man rotation consisting of DeAndre Jordan and Jeff Green is just highly unlikely.

Green is a great weapon to use at the five but is far too undersized to be counted on in any given playoff series. He’ll get picked on by opposing bigs with offensive skillsets if he’s asked to play all the minutes that Jordan isn’t on the floor. While Brown has been great in his own right, asking him to defend Nikola Jokic, Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol and beyond is just too big an ask.

Jordan is not the player he once was but is still a difference-maker in the right situation. Additionally, it would be ideal to add another big that has a different skill set than Jordan in order to increase the options head coach Steve Nash has with his lineups.

With a rim runner in Jordan and small ball fives in Green and Brown, the Nets need to target a versatile big man to add to the mix. Floor spacing would be ideal but isn’t necessary if they bring in someone that can make a big enough impact on the defensive end.

The ideal target will bring two key attributes to the team: The first is rim protection when called upon. The Nets don’t have a long list of strong perimeter defenders, so extra help at the rim would be much-needed. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a shot-blocker as it can also be a smart defender that mainly relies on successfully contesting shots under the rim.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, the center they target needs to be capable of switching on the defensive end. One way the Nets like to cover themselves defensively is by going switch-heavy for stretches. This allows them to play the passing lanes aggressively and often forces the opponent out of their offensive rhythm. The more capable their big men are when it comes to switching, the better this strategy will work.

Kevin Durant’s versatility on the defensive end allows the Nets to search for somebody that excels in defending multiple positions even if they may not be great as the last line of defense. Durant is a strong help defender and has the length to make things difficult at the rim. This ability is proven by the 1.8 blocks he averaged during the 2017-18 season with the Golden State Warriors.

Durant can be the help side defender when asked, but how often can he be asked to bang in the post defensively? The answer is not often.

It’s important that any addition to the frontcourt can hold their own in the post against players such as Joel Embiid or Bam Adebayo. But the harsh reality is that the Nets likely won’t have the luxury to be picky with the type of big man they add. It’ll be hard to find a player that can defend most bigs and switch on most positions throughout a game.

Given their lack of assets remaining, the Nets will need to target what they can afford on the market.

Names to keep an eye on: Thaddeus Young, Chicago Bulls; JaVale McGee, Cleveland Cavaliers; P.J. Tucker, Houston Rockets.

Depth At The Point Guard Position

With James Harden leading the way as the point guard and Kyrie Irving very capable of handling the offensive load as well, this is an easy need to overlook. Unfortunately, the Nets can’t afford to do that as the trade deadline approaches. If they can’t acquire a traditional point guard for depth, they’ll need to address it on the buyout market.

After Harden, Irving and Durant, the Nets’ core rotation does very little in terms of playmaking. In fact, DeAndre Jordan ranks next among players in the rotation for assists per game. The big three can certainly carry the load when it comes to getting players involved, but the Nets could use another veteran that’ll get their offense good looks.

Most notably, this type of move would aid them in finishing the regular season without riding their stars too hard – which they’ve already done. That versatility would be a great asset to Nash and his coaching staff in both the regular season and playoffs.

That’s without mentioning the always-existent possibility of injury or potentially-required quarantine. It’s always best to have depth and options, and that’s truer than ever in the current NBA landscape. The ideal addition would be a natural distributor capable of knocking down an open shot and holding his own on the defensive end of the floor.

That may seem like a tough sell, but it’s certainly a skill set that will be available for the right price. The Nets would do well in targeting a player that is underperforming due to circumstance. It’s fair to assume a lot of players would benefit from playing in the kind of environment the Nets are currently constructing.

Names to keep an eye on: Austin Rivers, New York Knicks; Quinn Cook, Free Agent; George Hill, Oklahoma City Thunder.

If the Nets can address these two needs they’ll be as well-rounded as any team. The added versatility and flexibility would make them that much stronger come the playoffs. While they’re finding some excellent, wonderful regular season successes, the postseason is a different beast – and the Nets, plus a rookie head coach, will need to learn how to adapt on-the-fly.

General manager Sean Marks is never truly done molding his rosters – and Spencer Dinwiddie may even be available, according to Ian Begley of SNY – so what the Nets run with today certainly isn’t final.

We know what the big three are capable of – now it’s time for the roster to be rounded out for their best chance to succeed.

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Bruce Brown Thriving As Nets’ Small Ball Center

Brooklyn has thrived with Bruce Brown playing minutes as a small ball center – and what started out as an experiment may just change the Nets’ championship aspirations for the better.

Ariel Pacheco

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The Brooklyn Nets’ trade for James Harden has proven to be worth it so far. However, their depth and size were seriously hurt as a result of the deal – so the Nets have been forced to get creative with the limited options they have. 

Enter: Bruce Brown.

Standing at a meager 6-foot-4, Brown may be the Nets’ best option at center against certain matchups. DeAndre Jordan, the starting center now that Jarrett Allen is in Cleveland, has seen his defensive capabilities decline rather drastically since his time in Lob City. He is still an elite alley-oop threat but has some lapses with effort levels. Reggie Perry is a rookie who was the 57th overall pick isn’t ready for a heavy load of minutes just yet. Nic Claxton has shown promise but has played in just two games due to injury. 

In a win against the Golden State Warriors on Feb. 13, Brown started at center with Jordan out to injury. He finished the game with 18 points and 7 rebounds. It wasn’t the first time this season Brown spent time at the center position, but it was reflective of his ever-changing role on this Nets team. 

Brown arrived this past offseason and came thought as more of a point guard. Now that the Nets have three of the best playmakers in the NBA, his role has shifted. He is practically never counted on to initiate the offense – instead, he has become the guy who does the dirty work. Think of him as the Nets’ version of Draymond Green. 

Now the small ball option at center, Brown’s strengths have been accentuated. Offensively, he has become a screen-setter and roll man, thus forming chemistry with James Harden, and has played his way into a crucial part of the rotation. Brown’s minutes at the beginning of the season were sporadic and included four DNP’s. Now he’s an invaluable piece to the Nets’ puzzle. 

When teams trap or double James Harden or Kyrie Irving, Brown is often the outlet. He catches the ball in the middle of the floor, turns and has options available to him. Able to attack the basket or make the right pass to an open guy, Brown’s decision-making has been a positive for Brooklyn. 

Defensively, Brown is one of the few Nets players who is a consistent positive on that end. He can guard multiple positions due to his strength and often defends the opposing team’s best players. While his height will never allow for him to be a full-time center, being an option for coach Steve Nash to plug in for small ball lineups is a game-changer. 

“Bruce is remarkable, I mean, I believe he mostly played point guard last year and he’s playing – what do you want to call him our center?” Said Steve Nash, per Newsday. “He’s picking and rolling and finishing with two bigs in the lane. His willingness and ability to do that is remarkable.”

Really, that’s what has been most impressive. Brown is playing a role he has never been asked to do in the NBA and thriving. He scored a career-high 29 points against the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 23. That night, he straight-up shared minutes with Jordan, which speaks to his versatility. Wherever the Nets have needed him this season, Brown has been willing and able. 

Brown’s counting stats won’t jump off a stat sheet. He’s averaging just 7.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. He’s also shooting just 22.2 percent from the three-point line but he’s made a living around the basket. A look at his shot chart shows how little he operates from outside the restricted area – and due to the attention his superstar teammates garner, he usually gets open looks right near the rim.

 

He’s also often being guarded by opposing team’s big men. In a matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers, former defensive player of the year Marc Gasol guarded Brown to start the game. The role of the small ball center is not as rare as it used to be, but Bruce Brown may be the smallest guy in terms of height to fill the role. To wit, Draymond Green is 6-foot-6 and PJ Tucker is 6-foot-5. 

The Nets traded for Brown this past offseason in what looks to have been an absolute steal of a deal, giving up just Dzanan Musa and a second-round pick. Given that the inconsistent Musa is now playing overseas, it was a trade that is already providing dividends. 

But, at the end of the day, there are championship expectations in Brooklyn. While the Nets certainly have the star power to beat just about anybody, role-players who thrive in their role can often swing a game or a series come playoff time. So far, more so than nearly any other player outside of the big three, Brown’s ability to fit in wherever needed has changed the contender’s long-term outlook in a positive way.

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