Aussies in NBA Playoffs: Dante is ready for the postseason
This season has essentially been take two of Dante Exum's NBA career. After a rookie year that could be summed up with the phrase 'feeling his way around' and missing all of last year with a torn left ACL, this was the year to see just how Dante fits into the NBA.
The Utah Jazz are shaping up to make some loud playoff noise, and I'm glad to say that Exum has been pumping up the volume himself. Let's see what he's done to help this young Jazz team finally make it into the postseason:
Cutting out the triples
In a league where to be considered a top point guard you have to be able to both rain fire from downtown and finish like a Cirque Du Soleil acrobat at the rim, Exum is still a work-in-progress on that first part. His career 3-point FG% is a below-average 31%, and in fact it's a little worse this year than in his rookie season (30.5% vs 31.4%).
But while developing his long range shooting is a key area of improvement for his career going forward, in the here and now Dante has been smart, by choosing to take way fewer triples. In his rookie year, despite that 31.4% accuracy, he took an astonishing 63% of his shots from downtown. That's just plain irresponsible.
This year, he's taken a hatchet to that approach, and only 40% of his shots come from outside. Part of being a positive force for your team isn't just doing good things, but also avoiding doing bad things, and Exum has apparently taken that to heart, bringing his field goal percentage up to 43%, compared to 35% in his rookie year.
Terrorizing the rim
Exum's improved shooting percentage isn't just down to taking fewer bad shots though. His finishing ability near the basket has improved significantly. It's not quite Kyrie Irving-levels of artistry, but Dante is forcing the issue and taking it to the rim hard.
... Sorry, my inner Mark Jackson came out a little there. The fact remains, Dante has made big strides in his rim attacks. His percentages from three feet and in are up to 55%, a staggering 10% better than in his first year.
It's a pretty good idea innit. Not good at shooting? Take your shots closer to the basket, they tend to go in more.
Still long, still strong
On defense, Dante has been more of the same. His length is the obvious thing to look for here, and it's resulted in some highlight plays on that end of the floor.
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That said, it still appears to be same ol' same ol' this season for him on D. It's not a bad thing, given the natural physical tools he has at his disposal and his ability on that end that was on display even as a rookie. If he realizes that potential in the coming years he could be so much more.
For now though, he'll do just fine.
Last but certainly not least, perhaps the biggest change -- and the catalyst for his improvement -- has been all in Dante's head. For example, here's what he had to say about his new-found rim assaults (emphasis mine):
"I kind of knew once I beat my man and got into the lane that I was going to take it strong. I'm starting to know what to expect a little more. It's always hard coming back from injury. The biggest thing is to keep trying to get those minutes and keep building."
That kind of confidence, the kind that lets you see yourself dunking it home before you even step into the paint, can make all the difference between becoming a star and washing out of the league. Maybe being forced to stay away from the game he loves for a whole year just made Dante want it a whole lot more.
"A lot of what I've had to get through has been mental," Exum said during All-Star Weekend in New Orleans. "I had to realize that I need to fight for my spot in the rotation. Every game, I've tried to figure out how to be a presence, and how to help the team when I do play. It's been hard, but I've started to adjust."
Jazz coach Quin Snyder has been hard on the young Aussie, with a string of DNP-CDs earlier in the year a particularly glaring example, but credit to both of them, as it's made for a new and improved Dante Exum. One quote sums up Dante's whole season, from Quin himself:
"The Dante questions are becoming more reasonable because [of] the bandwidth from Dante being somewhere where we are worried about him to somewhere where we're thrilled about him," Snyder said. "The reality is, Dante is getting better."
Maybe all that bench learning is finally bearing fruit.
The Jazz are in the playoffs and are Northwest Division champions. Their growth and development has been one that most have foreseen, and by all accounts, they're doing a good job of living up to expectations.
The playoffs are a whole different animal however, and it'll be interesting to see how far they get. Dante won't be a major player just yet (Gordon Hayward has top billing, obviously), but he will be called upon to play a crucial role nonetheless.
Here's hoping his progress continues deep into the postseason!