The Utah Jazz became the marvel of the NBA last season, as they turned a fast-sinking ship into one of the strongest in the NBA fleet.
The Jazz, who found themselves nine games below par in mid-January, won 23 of their final 29 games to rocket into the Western Conference playoffs and an eventual second-round showdown against Houston.
Much of this was done without the services of Aussie guard Dante Exum, who suffered a significant shoulder injury in the preseason and missed the first 68 games of the year.
As the Jazz found a serious rhythm complete with a steady rotation, it raised the question; is there a role left on this team for Dante Exum?
Exum had just 14 regular season games plus playoffs to prove to Utah brass that it was in their best interests to re-sign the then 22-year-old as he entered free agency for the first time in his career.
Prove it he most certainly did. Off the back of his late season play, there is real reason to believe the Aussie has finally found his footing in the professional ranks.
Take this sequence for example.
During the third quarter of a playoff game in May, future Hall-of-Famer Chris Paul and the Rockets spread the floor so Paul could work freely against a lone defender — Dante Exum.
With the game tied at 82, and Houston holding a 1-0 lead over the Jazz in their second round playoff series, Paul measured Exum on the left wing with a mixture of crossovers and hesitations.
With Exum remaining firm in his stance, Paul dipped his shoulder and began to drive right. Exum slid down and left, ensuring his hands were outstretched and not reaching. The Aussie took a bump to the chest, forcing Paul to spin away and pick up his dribble. Now camped in the lane, the nine time All-Star pivoted around once more as Exum re-engaged contact with Paul’s body. He used his hands to cut off Paul’s passing lanes and hamper his court vision.
Eventually, Paul found a bailout option in Luc Richard Mbah Moute on the right wing, and Houston were forced to reset.
Just one minute earlier, NBA MVP James Harden tried to drive on Exum, only for the Aussie to draw an offensive foul as he guessed correctly on which direction the nifty Harden would take.
This short sequence is Dante Exum at his very best — an exceptional on ball defender who can seriously disrupt even the best of opposing offences.
Exum was a menace to Houston’s illustrious backcourt all series, playing Paul and Harden as well as anybody had the entire season.
Despite going on to lose the series 4-1, Exum showed his value to the Jazz, and earned a three-year, $33 million dollar deal from Utah GM Dennis Lindsay in July.
Since entering the league as the fifth overall pick in 2014, Exum has struggled to find an NBA identity — mostly through injury, inexperience, and the external expectations that come with being a high lottery selection.
This year however, feels like the best situation Exum has found himself in since turning pro. While not quite a lead guard, he’s not in danger of getting thrown out of the rotation either. Much of a NBA player’s success is determined by their situation and role on a team. While Exum may not be the starting guard some may have once envisioned, he is a genuine NBA rotational player, well capable of making an impact.
Exum’s role this year is simple – be a pest defensively and a pace-pusher offensively. Exum has the ability to give Utah an added wrinkle to their generally slow, plodding offence by giving them an added gear.
Despite a roster full of serviceable guards, Exum should get the nod as back-up to Ricky Rubio, and play around 20 to 25 minutes a night.
Exum will have to contend for minutes, with the Jazz employing guards Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, rookie Grayson Allen, Alec Burks, Royce O’Neal, Raul Neto. Still, expect Exum to to be the third most utilized guard from that bunch behind Rubio and Mitchell.
The Aussie will need to be flexible in his ability to play either guard slot — something he has proven to do in the past. He and young star Donovan Mitchell showed last season, albeit briefly, that they can work together on the floor — posting an offensive rating of 106 and a defensive rating of 96.3 together.
Of course, health will always be a concern for Exum until his body allows him to stay on the floor for a long period of time.
If Exum can manage to stay healthy and nail down his responsibilities, he, and the Jazz, could be in for an even better season than the last.