Aussies in NBA: Dante Exum - The Past, The Pop and The Present

After suffering an ACL tear last August and spending the past year on the sidelines, Dante Exum is gearing up for a return to the court.

"The goal is first night of preseason, but the first step is being 100 per cent at training camp,” Exum told Fairfax Media, which would make his return date October 4th (AEST) against the Portland Trailblazers.

What will the injury mean for a player, who tore up the junior international basketball scene, prior to his ACL tear? We look back at the Exum journey so far, and take a peek at what lies ahead.

The rookie season

On the surface, Exum’s rookie season might appear as somewhat of a disappointment.

If you measure it in terms of raw output, 4.8 points and 2.4 assists while shooting 34% from the field doesn’t exactly scream future superstar. At times, he looked too timid to mix it with the giants in the paint so he spent much of time standing on the perimeter waiting to take open jumpers.

His usage rate ranked 73 out of 77 point guards that season and he only shot a total of 32 free throws across his 82 games (more on this in a moment).

It was a different type of play style compared to what Exum had displayed as a junior, where he made a name as a scoring point guard who took games over by attacking the basket with fervor, a rarely sighted phenomenon during his rookie year.

There were good reasons why Exum didn’t just enter the league filling up the box score, and instead deferred to teammates. He was very young, having just turned 19 that year (Exum was the second youngest player in the NBA that season). He was a prep-to-pro by going from an Australian high school straight to the NBA. Combine the unfamiliarity of a new country and culture, along with the fact that he was playing the hardest position in the game? It was inevitable.

The Utah Jazz coaching staff knew they were working with an unrefined diamond. They tried to chisel away with a balance of not pressuring Exum to do too much, while encouraging him to explore his talents.

"You come in as a rookie, 19 years old. I didn't want to step on people's toes,” Exum said last year. “I wanted to come in as a point guard, I'm supposed to get assists, I'm supposed to be that team player. That's what I tried to be. I think the team last year kind of pointed out to me, 'We love that, but we need you to step up offensively as well and be that scoring threat.' I'm going to try next season to try to do it all."

Despite his offensive struggles, there are still many indicators which point to his rookie season being a success.

If you dive under the surface of the raw stats, into the depths of advanced analytics, Exum’s rookie campaign is shown to be a very successful one defensively. When he was inserted into the starting lineup in the second half of the season, he transformed the young Jazz team into a defensive juggernaut, together with Rudy Gobert. Exum was able to use his elite size and length to smother the opposition at the point of attack while Gobert snuffed out any spot fires that escaped.

FATS differential/wins added for Jazz this season.

Alternate title: I love Elijah Millsap. pic.twitter.com/EMtaMfczLs

— Adam Fromal (@fromal09) April 25, 2015

Dante Exum made everyone but Rodney Hood look better on defense in 2014-15... pic.twitter.com/Mr2oWXrY4Q

— Andy Bailey (@AndrewDBailey) May 16, 2016

Exum proved he could be a monster on one side of the ball, even though question marks about his offense lingered.

The free throw factor

If you’re thinking Exum’s 32 free throw attempts in his rookie season sounds like one of the lowest totals ever, you’d be right.

In fact, it ties the lowest free throws attempted in NBA history, for players who played the full 82 games. The other was Keith Bogans in 2011 who played almost 400 minutes less.

Yet, much of Exum’s success as a junior player had come from playing in attack mode, statistically highlighted by free throw attempts. Before his draft, scouting website NBAdraft.net highlighted his ability to drive and draw fouls as one of his major strengths.

“[Exum] Excels at getting to the basket and drawing fouls … Finishes through contact and can score with either hand … Excellent body control allows him to make very acrobatic shots at the rim … Opposing defenders are constantly off-balance due to his effective hesitation moves and explosive first step.”

As a seventeen year old, Exum dominated players up to two years older at the Under 19 World Championships, where he averaged 18.2 points and 7 free throw attempts per game. Exum’s poor games and good games of the tournament were usually dictated by the amount of free throw attempts he took. The opening game of the knockout stage would be one of the good games. His 33 point (12 of 13 free throws), 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 steal game help upset the highly fancied Spanish team and placed every NBA GM on notice.

One NBA GM told ESPN’s Chad Ford that Exum was “the closest he has seen to a young Kobe Bryant," and he wowed scouts pre-draft with his competiveness.

"The teams that got to interview him and do the (psychological) testing on them said that he tested off the charts," Ford said. "When you add that to an NBA-style frame, those guys tend to not fail in the NBA."

Preparing for year 2

After his rookie season ended, Exum spent his time bulking up and getting mentally prepared to play in a more aggressive manner, especially on offensive.

Before tipoff of the opening Summer League game, Exum spoke openly about playing in attack mode.

"A lot of my game last year was standing on the three-point line shooting those corner threes,” he said. “If that comes to me, it's a shot fake and drive to the basket, try to create something more this year while still having that three-point shot."

Although it was only one Summer League game, Exum showed all the potential that he had promised entering the NBA.

True to his pregame words, Exum attacked the basket with fervor and the positive results were followed; he got to the free throw line 10 times while putting up 20 points 5 rebounds and 5 assists.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j2agAYgrM5o

He wasn’t matched up on the average stiff either. Exum's defender during that game was Marcus Smart, a player who proved to be one of the elite wing defenders in the NBA last season. Alas, in the final minutes Exum badly rolled his ankle and would not be sighted in Summer League again.

Regardless he had shown that he understood how he would become a star in the NBA and his coach Quinn Snyder was glowing of his young charge's growth as a player.

"We saw Dante in the Summer League really starting to understand that he could get where he wanted to go on the floor," he said. "It was almost as though he was discovering himself. He was getting more and more comfortable dictating what he wanted to do. I saw a big jump.”

His next competitive hit out would be against Slovenia for a warmup series before official Olympic qualifiers. On a regulation drive Exum performed a hop, skip, and then heard a pop, which ended his second NBA season before it began.

The ACL

To understand what injuring the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) means to an athlete, Neil Gabler wrote an excellent piece examining the rise of ACL tears for Grantland (RIP). In his article we learnt that:

  • The ACL is responsible for limiting the range of motion in the knee, allowing athletes to pivot, make sharp turns and accelerate or decelerate.

  • The ACL is the weakest ligament in the entire body, meaning the new graft (usually the patella tendon) is naturally stronger than its predecessor.

  • The rate of re-rupture after an ACL tear is only 10 to 12 percent, about the same rate for an ACL tear in the other (good) knee.

We also got to know about the dreaded “Gremlin”. It's not the same Gremlin which can’t be fed after midnight, but rather a Gremlin that can’t be fed after an ACL injury.

The term refers to mental doubts an athlete has in their knee post-ACL surgery, which can prove as big an issue as the injury itself. Gabler also wrote about Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford, who allegedly walked with a limp for months after his ACL surgery, due to psychological mistrust in his surgically repaired knee.

If we look at recent point guards who returned ACL tears and thrived, we get Baron Davis, Kyle Lowry, Ricky Rubio and Rajon Rondo. Both Davis and Lowry tore theirs in college, then went on to play at a very high level in the NBA, becoming All-Star players.

Rubio, who while not an All-Star (primarily due to his historically poor shooting) is continually one of the league leaders in assists and steals and looks to have lost none of his pre-injury movement. Rondo is similar statistically, but isn’t effective as he once was, more due to the game itself evolving towards his weaknesses, namely ball movement and shooting.

The Derrick Rose Exception

The nightmare scenario for any NBA player suffering an ACL injury? Derrick Rose.

Pre-injury Rose was maybe the most explosive athlete the league has ever seen. Since tearing his ACL - in an eerily similar hop-step that foreshadowed Exum's injury - Rose has fallen dramatically from his perch as a top 5 player in the league.

Although the troubles began for Rose at the pop in his knee, it’s hard to pin Rose’s fall exclusively to his ACL tear. He has since had 2 meniscus injuries to his right (non-ACL) knee, an orbital bone fracture and series of soft tissue problems namely to his hamstrings.

It’s almost as if his body can no longer harness the power it generates and now it is now slowly breaking him apart.

Rose also appeared to have a particularly large Gremlin, breaking down publicly at an Adidas promotional event soon after his injury and delaying his return to the court despite gaining doctor’s clearance.

For Exum, conquering that gremlin is critical. Overcoming the fear of re-injuring his knee is vital for his ability to return, and be a stronger player than he was before.

Working on his game

The road back for any athletes suffering an ACL injury is a long and often arduous one. Exum talked about the mental hurdles he has faced, and appears conscious of warding off the Gremlin.

"There were plenty of times where I wondered, why me?" Exum told The Salt Lake Tribune in a recent interview. "I wondered if I would be the guy I was before the injury. I was supposed to go home to Australia the next day, and I hadn't been home in a year. I wondered, what's going to happen with the Jazz? That was the pain I was going through."

"I think the biggest thing for me in the mental side is not to shy away from it, just because I think I might get injured," he said. "I'm already defeating myself if I say that, so if I'm not ready, I'm not ready, if I think I'm ready it's a probability that I'll do it, because I'm not going to go in with the mindset that if I play, I'm going to get injured."

Despite the obvious frustration from not being able to push himself harder, Exum stayed patient and continued his rehab at a maddeningly slow pace.

During media day, he explained to David Locke and Ron Boone about how he stayed focused on every rehab milestone along the way.

"I'd always push it. I always said once I was able to do something else and be able to get back on court, it was like: what's the next thing? When can I start running? When I was able to run, when can i start zigzagging?

"It was always something. Once i got to everything, I was like, okay let's play. Like you know [the Jazz staff] kept me at bay to make sure everything went right went smoothly, which it did, so I can't be mad at [not playing a full year]."

The most important moment of Exum's rehab, might be the one when he came off the exact same move that tore his ACL, but instead soared towards the basket.

https://twitter.com/JJSportsBeat/status/780555787697479680

"I was like, 'Man, I did it,' " Exum told Tony Jones of the Salt Lake Tribune. "Once I did that, I was like, 'I'm good. I'm ready to take the next step.'"

At the same time, he spent his time on the sidelines trying to take advantage of his forced layoff by soaking in the nuances of the NBA game.

"It's given me an opportunity to kind of work on everything that I need to work on, and step back from the game and be able to learn," he said.

"Being away from playing, and seeing the team, you get to kind of realize how we can get better. One of the biggest things is controlling the tempo. When you're off the court, when the opposing team is going on a run, you can see how you can change the tempo, what plays you can call. I'm always sitting next to a coach. He'll always give me tips, 'Hey, we can run this now, we can run that.'

"You're thinking like a coach, in a way. When you're a point guard out on the court, you need to be able to do things on the fly. If Gordon [Hayward] can hit a jumper going right, what play do you run to get him that when he's on fire? You saw Rodney [Hood] hit all those threes, so, on the fly, you have to be able to call those plays.”

Although unable to participate in the athletic skills that require two uninjured knees to execute, Exum has been able to spend time in the gym improving his shooting mechanics.

"The biggest thing was making sure I didn't have two hands on the ball as I'm releasing," he said. "That was a big issue with my shot last year. The shot's been straighter, for the most part."

It's too early to tell, but Andy Larsen of KSL.com speculated recently that the Jazz's lack of comments on Exum's improved shooting, might be a bad sign. We'll know for sure, when he returns to the court.

The season ahead

If anything else, Exum's health will likely be better than it was before, simply from the level of care he now knows to apply on a daily basis.

"It's not that I took the game for granted before," Exum said. "But now that I finally have that privilege again, I think once you sit out all 82, you just build that fire every day. I think I have a greater respect in taking care of my body and trying to be good every night."

Exum might want to cast his eye to another player from his injury cursed draft class, as a prediction of how his upcoming season may play out.

Jabari Parker returned last season from an ACL injury which he suffered as a rookie. Parker was slow out of the gates, then post All-Star break raised his play significantly, raising his scoring average by 7 points. A similar slow start with an eye to increase responsibility and workload after the All-Star break could be in the works for Exum’s upcoming season.

Another factor which suggests a softly-softly approach will be taken is the Utah’s acquisition of George Hill during the offseason, who looks set to be the starting point guard on opening night. The good news for Exum is that Hill is unlikely to hold the position the entire season. Hill is a nice rotation player, but hardly a game changer. If anything, his acquisition was another vote of confidence in Exum by the Jazz.

The main benefit Hill brings to the point guard position is his ability to not play point guard; he is a good spot-up shooter and versatile defender able to guard twos and threes. It’s likely the Jazz see him as a future bench player who can play off Exum.

Just as Winston pointed out, the Exum-Hill situation, really isn’t one. There are more positives to Hill's presence than anything else; Exum's projected long-term role on the team is likely safe, with the obvious caveat that he needs to deliver on the promise everyone's seen in him.

Like SLC Dunk's Amar says, could we see Exum and Gobert anchoring the Jazz defense, the way Eaton and Stockton used to?

https://twitter.com/markeaton7ft4/status/778995306939621376?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

Jazz commentator David Locke, in a recent podcast episode also talked about Exum's flashes of aggressiveness coming through in practice.

"There have been plenty of times in practice, defensively, offensively, in open gym where you see the flashes." This was highlighted by a moment in workout, when Exum sprinted down the floor, threaded his way past defense and made an emphatic dunk.

If Exum maintains the attacking mindset he displayed in Summer League last time, and put the insights and training he's made over the past months into use?

“I just want to get back on the court and enjoy it," Exum says with a smile. "Keep playing, play my heart out every night.”

Nothing is impossible - just wait and see.