The Utah Jazz do not need to add a third star to their roster (BetNow Sportsbook has them as +5000 favorites in the West); they already have one locked up for three seasons on an astronomically affordable contract. Sure, the Jazz have two bonafide star players in Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and Rookie of the Year runner-up Donovan Mitchell. But who can be their third star, you ask? None other than 23-year old Aussie Dante Exum. After being in the league for four years, and playing roughly two complete seasons, Exum is poised to break out.
Claiming he is the Jazz’s third star is definitely jumping the gun right this second, but Exum has all the pieces to take this Utah roster to the next level. Let’s start with his elite size. Standing at 6-foot-6, with a wingspan of 6-foot-9, Exum possesses plenty of length to wreak havoc defensively. His quick first step, superior acceleration, and top-level speed, all showcased in-game, put him among the fastest players in the league. When you combine his size, length, and agility, he is certainly an anomaly.
Exum has had a career riddled with injuries. He played in all 82 games his rookie season, but went on to tear his ACL playing for the Australian national team the summer before his sophomore season, causing him to miss the entire year. His third season in the league showed promise, but we saw a more hesitant Exum coming off his knee surgery.
Going into his fourth season, Exum came down awkwardly on his shoulder during a preseason game, causing him to miss the first 68 games of the year. What Exum did during the final 24 games of the season, 10 of them being playoff games, paints a perfect picture of how he will be the third star the Jazz need. The sample may be small, but it showed the type of player Exum has worked so hard to become, and how the ceiling for his improvement is still sky-high.
The first thing to highlight is Exum’s development on the defensive end of the court. This is where he has the ability to make the biggest difference, and he proved it already during the playoffs while guarding the 2017-2018 MVP James Harden.
During that series, Exum guarded Harden for 53 possessions. During those possessions, the only positive you could pull from Harden’s game was eight assists. He shot an abysmal 21.4 percent from the field, gave up four turnovers, and didn’t connect once from beyond the arc. Harden drew four shooting fouls, but anyone watching the game would agree that some of those calls were questionable.
During Game 2 of that series, Exum guarded Harden for 22 possessions, forcing one turnover against one assist, and didn’t give up a single field goal, forcing Harden to go 0-for-7 from the field. The Jazz went on to win that game, their only victory of that series. Keep in mind, this was elite defense against arguably the best offensive player in the league. Imagine having that for an entire season.
Another thing to note regarding Exum’s ability to defend: During the last 14 games of the season, only 11 players in the league posted a better defensive rating. When you factor in Exum’s STL% and BLK%, that list goes down to two. He was putting up defensive numbers this solid after having sat out nearly the entire season. And again, an entire off-season of preparation will do wonders to help a healthy Exum start the season in peak shape.
Let’s turn the focus to his offensive game. While there are obvious weaknesses that still need to be resolved, like his spot-up shooting and reckless turnovers, his athleticism has allowed him to become a legitimate threat driving to the rim. Within five feet of the rim, Exum shot 57.7 percent. Of those made field goals, 70 percent were unassisted — just him driving to the basket. Exum can sometimes play too quickly causing erratic turnovers, but through his final 14 games last year, season his assist-to-turnover ratio was an impressive 2.15. When you track what he did on drives alone, the ratio goes up to 2.66, and that’s with teams planning on him solely driving.
If Exum can add even an inkling of a pull-up game, he’ll become a nightmare to plan for. If coaches give him too much space, he’ll drain the shot. When defenders start playing tighter, his elite speed will blow right past them. His improved assist-to-turnover ratio proves that he is seeing the floor much better. With as impressive as his defensive game is, his ceiling to improve offensively is tremendous.
Lastly, let’s take a look at his splits year-by-year, using per-36-minute figures:
2014-15 (rookie): 7.8 points, 2.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists
2016-17: 12.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists
2017-18: 17.5 points, 6.6 assists, 4 rebounds
Keep in mind that he sat out an entire season after his rookie campaign due to an ACL tear, so his sophomore season he was continuing to recover and get a feel for the game again. Those third-year numbers were only the last 14 games of the season, as he was coming off a shoulder injury sustained in the preseason. What really sticks out here is that despite having two severe injuries that couldn’t have come at worse times, he showed colossal leaps of improvement. Once this guy gets well-founded consistency in the league, there is no telling what he can accomplish.
The young-Aussie did many things during the 2017-2018 campaign that could be considered “star-worthy,” but let’s highlight two of the most polarizing.
The first was during an early April game against the Los Angeles Clippers. Both teams were in the thick of the playoff race and every win mattered. Early in the second quarter, Lou Williams ran a pick-and-roll with 7-foot-3 mountain Boban Marjanovic. He dished him the ball at the top of the free-throw line and there was quite literally a clear lane to the basket. Boban lunged forward for what would be a presumably simple dunk but was met at the rim by 6-foot-6 Dante Exum at full extension. Not only was the block remarkable, but the fact that Boban has a wingspan of over 12 inches (!) larger than Exum’s makes it almost other-worldly.
The second happened late on the road in a Game 2 playoff match against the Houston Rockets. The Jazz were up seven points with about a minute left. Exum dribbled the ball from baseline to wing guarded closely by Trevor Ariza. He crossed him up, slashed quickly down the left side of the court, and hammered it hard over PJ Tucker at the rim. Not only did this get the entire Jazz bench to stand up, it all but sealed a crucial game two.
Dante Exum is certainly an interesting case study. He was a highly-touted recruit from Australia, complete with physical gifts not had by many. He showed promise before being riddled with injuries. But what he did in the final games of the 2017-2018 season confirmed one thing: He is Utah’s third star.
Interested betting on the Utah team? – Don’t miss out on reading our guide about sports betting in Utah first!
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