Aussies in NBA: What is Dante Exum’s role in Utah?

Dante Exum is facing a new challenge.

The Utah Jazz guard has started the NBA season in a unique role, one that has forced him away from the basketball at the offensive end of the floor.

Prior to Tuesday’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Exum has been partnered with either George Hill or Shelvin Mack every minute he has played. Hill is the Jazz’s big acquisition and the obvious starting point guard. However, when Hill rests, it is Mack, not Exum, who is receiving minutes as the Jazz backup point guard.

Both Mack and Hill are currently ahead of Exum on the Jazz’s point guard pecking order. This was illustrated when the Jazz played the 76ers; with Hill sitting out because of an injury, Mack got the start and Exum served as his backup.

Exum has still been receiving ample playing time, slightly more than Mack actually. Yet the return of the Mack (yes, it had to be done) to Quin Snyder’s rotation has seen Exum maintain his status as a low-usage, off-ball threat.

The Australian’s usage rate is slightly increased from his rookie campaign, currently sitting at 14.5 percent, a figure that is below league average for guards and certainly not what you’d expect from a primary ball handler, something Exum is not at this stage of his young career.

With Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward and Hill leading the way, Utah is an exercise in positionless basketball. There are playmaking options littered across the roster and quite frankly, most of them are superior talents over Exum at this point in time. Exum being relegated behind the likes of Hill is nothing to be alarmed about.

Rather, it’s the ascendance of Mack that is troubling on the surface. Mack is a below-average NBA point guard. He is undersized and has a propensity for over-dribbling the basketball, something that has characterised the minutes shared by Mack and Exum in bench units.

But it seems Snyder has placed a premium on Mack’s ability to attack the defence, and prefers having Exum away from the ball. Whether this is a function of Snyder thinking Exum isn’t ready, wanting Exum to focus on defence or easing him back into action after 18 months on the sideline, is the great unknown. But the root of the problem is likely Exum’s handle, something that remains an area for improvement.

Exum’s handle remains loose and it leaves him open to opposition defenders swiping the ball away. The San Antonio Spurs clued in on this during their two contests with Utah last week. Here is Manu Ginobili ripping the ball away from Exum.

And again, here is LaMarcus Aldridge deflecting the ball away in an unacceptable manner.

Exum also has the tendency to pick up his dribble, another factor which has bogged down the Jazz offence at times. It’s little kinks like these that have opened up an opportunity for Mack to run the second unit.

While it is still early in the season, Utah has an offensive rating of 90.5 when Exum is on the floor. That is Philadelphia 76ers-level bad. There is plenty of noise in this statistic, with the standard caveats about supporting cast and sample size applying. Regardless, it is something to watch as the season develops.

That said all is not lost for Exum. There have been some obvious improvements at the offensive end.

Firstly, Exum’s pick and roll game has been upgraded since year one, and despite the aforementioned issues with his handle, this too is getting better. This progress is most easily seen in the improved chemistry with the likes of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors in pick and roll plays.

The most pleasing sign has been Exum’s willingness to push the tempo and initiate early offence. Every Jazz game is highlighted by a couple of plays where Exum just sprints up the floor and cranks up the pressure on the defence.

Another point of improvement: Exum is averaging 2.4 free throws per 36 minutes this season. That might not sound like much, because it isn’t. But remember that Exum was historically awful at getting to the line as a rookie, which means any improvement is important. More plays like this next one should see Exum improve his free throw totals.

A more aggressive Dante is something we flagged during the pre-season and it appears our wish is coming true.

If Exum can continue showing improvement at the offensive end, look for him to start stealing minutes from Mack, especially considering that Hayward is now back to full health. An extra 30 minutes each night from the Butler product could lessen the need for the perceived playmaking advantage that Mack brings to the table.

Exum is a better fit with Utah’s frontline players. And for all this discussion about Exum’s role on offence, he remains Utah’s primary defender when on the court. This applies regardless of whether it is Hill or Mack sharing backcourt duties.

Exum routinely defends the opposition's most dangerous guard option. It’s essentially the exact opposite of his role on offence. It’s why Exum has made a beeline for the likes of Deron Williams, Derrick Rose and C.J. McCollum upon entering games. There is no doubting his lock-down talents.

Against the New York Knicks on Monday morning, Exum spent his first quarter minutes harassing Rose. We have previously explored why Exum has the potential to dominate at the defensive end, and these talents were all on display at Madison Square Garden.

The debate over Exum’s position and role on the Jazz is a fun one to have, but it is largely an arbitrary hypothetical while he is receiving playing time.

Exum is a complementary attacking option, and arguably the Jazz’s best wing defender. This defensive versatility is why Exum is getting more minutes than Mack, despite the coaching staff clearly not believing in his playmaking ability at the moment.

Exum was drafted to be the Jazz’s point guard of the future. While there is nothing to suggest this destiny is under threat, it remains a little way off at the offensive end. Defence will remain his calling card for now, and the main reason Exum sees NBA minutes.