Don’t Sleep on Dante Exum’s Comeback

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Dante Exum, Utah Jazz
Photo by: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Utah Jazz guard Dante Exum was billed as the 2014 NBA Draft’s “International Man of Mystery,” due to the fact that his basketball résumé was relatively unknown compared to those of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid and Aaron Gordon, the four players who were selected before Utah decided to choose the Australian swingman with the No. 5 overall pick.

Exum was shelved for the entire 2015-16 season due to an ACL injury sustained while playing for the Australian National Team last summer, but he contends that he’s fully recovered and ready to get back to basketball.

Depending how you measure success, you may deem Exum’s first season in Salt Lake City a catastrophe or one that exhibited eons of promise despite his propensity to shy away from any type of offense. 

Exum averaged 4.8 points, 2.4 assists and 1.6 rebounds per game on a grotesque 35% from the field and 31% from behind the arc in his rookie campaign. He only shot 32 free-throws the entire season despite appearing in all 82 contests and starting 41 of them, another statistic that can provide fans with a brief summation of how Exum approached the offensive end in his inaugural season. 

He often did himself, and the Jazz’s offense, a disservice by relegating himself to the corner in hopes of eluding the action. According to an article by Jonathan Tjarks on RealGM.com, in 231 possessions spotting-up, Exum shot 32.3% from the field, which allowed defenses to stray away from him and make it tougher for the Jazz to bend opponents’ resistance. 

The 21-year-old guard didn’t fare much better in pick-and-roll scenarios as the ball handler, only hitting 25.9% of field goals on 109 such possessions. 

For those not familiar with Exum’s shrewd and sharp defensive ways their experience with the young Australian may have been soured, but it’d be a travesty to gloss over the fact that he, along with Rudy Gobert, were intrinsic in the mid-season revamping of Utah’s defense in 2014-15.

After the All-Star break the Jazz went 19-10 and presented themselves as one of the league’s most frugal forces on defense. From November-January in the ’14-15 season, Utah allowed squads to score at least 95 points a contest, with teams putting up 100.1 points and 98.3 points a night in November and December respectively.

After the insertion of Exum and Gobert in starting unit, Utah’s opponents were struggling to get their offenses humming, with the Jazz allowing just 90.0 points per game in January, and 87.9 in February.

Dante Exum, Utah Jazz
Photo by: Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

In addition to the aforementioned, there are other statistics that will leave you marveling at the mid-way metamorphosis the Jazz’s defense underwent two years ago. Their defensive rating went from 106.1 pre All-Star break to 94.8 post, and their overall Net Rating saw an improvement of 3.8 from before the break as compared to after.

Exum (along with his gangling 6’6 frame and 6’9 wingspan) was one of Utah’s stingiest defensive players in his rookie year, with his 99.0 Defensive Rating coming in at 3rd amongst guys who logged at least 20 minutes a night in 2014-15.

When Exum was off the court Utah’s defense saw a major reversion, with the team’s Defensive Rating going from 99.0 with him out there to 104.6 without. Opponents’ field goal percentage also saw a three point climb from 43% to 49% with Exum on the pine.

These statistics serve as an illustration of the profound effect Exum had on the Jazz defensively, but the true blossoming of a star won’t occur until he sharpens his offensive skills enough to close the massive gap that currently exists between his capabilities on O and D.

Exum recognizes this, and during an interview with Roy Ward of the Sydney Morning Herald back in late June, he revealed that he’s been tinkering with his jumpsuit during rehabilitation. 

“The pull-up [jump shot] has been one of the things I’ve been trying to adjust, not having been able to run and jump I worked a lot on my shot so hopefully that makes a huge improvement this season.”

I’m sure head coach Quin Snyder would like to bestow more offensive responsibility upon Exum, but for now his shrewd defense will suffice. I expect Exum to remain a relatively low-usage guy (he recorded a 13.8% Usage Rate in his rookie season) that’s of a great defensive aid to Utah. 

He should play with more poise and polish on offense, but with additions such as George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw, he won’t be beckoned upon to manufacture much on O, which has to be comforting for a guy who is not only coming off a significant injury, but looked completely petrified during his first go-around in the Association. 

But, there are a few things I do like about Exum’s bashful brand of (offensive) basketball: it mean’s he understands roles and is accepting of his current one. There aren’t many NBA players you have to beg to shoot, but that’s exactly what Utah had to do during his rookie season. It shows that Exum’s mind is not fixated on superstardom or garnering the critical acclaim that many younger players yearn to be flooded with, but rather on doing whatever is needed for his team to win.

Flanked by up-and-coming studs such as Alec Burks, Rodney Hood and Gobert in addition to the steady and underrated hands of Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward, Exum is in an enviable situation. He’s poised to return in a big way and help a potential playoff team, but the question is in what form will this assistance come: with his smothering defense, or with some offensive bravado to pair with that acuity?

Whether he likes it or not, Dante Exum will start this season just as he did his rookie one: cloaked in a garment of mystery. It’s his goal to disrobe himself of that garb and prove to the world and himself that not only can he play in the NBA, but at a level that warrants the adoration many assumed he’d be the recipient of at this point in his career. 

 

 

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