You read it right. Stay with me on this, it’ll make sense soon and I promise this is a compliment.
During the first half of the Jazz’s last minute defeat to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Exum had the dubious task of directly opposing Russell Westbrook. Yes, that Mr. Westbrook who has been rampaging through the league on his personal tour de force.
Predictably, the Thunder’s MVP candidate got the better of our young Dante during the first 24 minutes of basketball. Exum tried his hardest; no doubt about it, but it wasn’t enough. Westbrook utilised his extensive arsenal of offensive moves to control the matchup. There were a few line ball whistles that went Westbrook’s way, although that wasn’t the reason for his dominance.
He was just too skilled for a young point guard who has played less minutes in his career than Westbrook did last season alone. You can cite all the evidence you want: Westbrook’s pull up over an exceedingly cautious Exum with 3.47 left in the first term, Westbrook drawing a foul on a drive that mercilessly balanced the opposing forces of crazy and veteran move 30 seconds later, or Westbrook simply making shots over Exum’s outstanding post defence midway through the second quarter. It was a challenge and the more talented man won the day.
Exum spoke to The Pick and Roll post game and confirmed what everyone in the NBA knows about Westbrook. “He was posting me up with that initial bump. I was just trying to get back to the shot. It’s a tough matchup. He hit some tough ones.”
Tough for anyone, let alone a neophyte professional who is in the midst of only his second NBA season.
The half time adjustment
Three minutes and 47 seconds into the half, Snyder replaced George Hill with Exum, a move that belies the role given to the young Australian for the majority of this season. Westbrook was seemingly awaiting, and another alpha strut by the evening’s eventual game winner seemed likely, only it never eventuated.
Snyder had replaced Joe Ingles with Alec Burks 90 seconds earlier and it was Burks who had the pleasure of guarding Westbrook. A subtle adjustment to the broader NBA community, maybe, but it allowed Exum to oppose the likes of Alex Abrines and Cameron Payne for his third quarter minutes. This is when my Kanye moment come to life.
In just five minutes, and a couple of flashing moments, Exum reminded the Jazz why he remains a worthwhile investment. There was a dribble drive past Abrines which drew the crowd to their feet. 70 seconds later, the same result. Without the stress of Westbrook, Exum had, for a few minutes, become the one who was dominating his opponent. He was the one utilising supreme athletic gifts to attack the basket and score with ease.
Man, why can’t life always be this easy?
The Yeezy fans will know that one. It’s quote from Flashing Lights, one of Kanye’s best (and also most underrated) songs, and it perfectly sums up the Exum experience.
At times, Exum makes the game look so simple. With tremendous length and skills that frequently remain hidden under the veil of limited minutes, Exum has the ability to control his opponents. Even if it’s only for the briefest of moments; he can Russell Westbrook smaller guards . With a little help from his coach, this came to fruition during the third quarter.
“Dante did a good job,” Snyder said post game. “He took his open shot when he had it. He worked defensively. He did a really good job.”
Playing against Westbrook is not the criteria for gauging whether Exum is progressing along his NBA journey. That would be grossly unfair, but it does show where the improvement areas exist and more importantly, it shows where the potential lives if consistent minutes can be provided.
“I know my minutes are going to be up and down,” Exum told The Pick and Roll. “So when I get in, I’ve got to be doing as much as I can. In the time I am given, hopefully I can earn some more minutes.”
Exum clearly understands his minutes are fragile. Imagine the boost a stable role could provide. With more shrew opportunities and the chance to exploit favourable matchups, it won’t be long before Dante Exum starts to touch the sky in Salt Lake City.