Aussies in NBA: The Exum Conundrum
|Warren Yiu||Jan 10, 2017|
Back in 2014, the Utah Jazz saw their future coming together.
The Jazz were coming off a disastrous 2013/14 campaign, but future building blocks had been identified. In Rudy Gobert --who averaged less than ten minutes per contest back then-- the Jazz saw the the promise of a modern-day rim protector, one who could anchor the defence for a decade.
Derek Favors, acquired as the centrepiece of the 2011 Deron Williams trade, was morphing into a battering ram in the post and learning to loft soft midrange jumpers. Gordon Hayward was gaining valuable reps as an alpha dog, with the chops to run an offence from the pick-and-roll.
It all reached a crescendo when the Jazz were awarded with another high lottery pick, and the opportunity to add another young talent to their rising core. And so, with the fifth pick of the 2014 NBA Draft, the Jazz selected Dante Exum, the proclaimed International Man of Mystery.
Fast forward to 2017, and Hayward is blossoming into a fringe All-Star talent, while Gobert is gobbling up fools who dare to venture into the paint. Favors’ development has plateaued due to injuries, but he’s still a proven quantity.
We are however, still none-the-wiser when it comes to Exum as a bona fide NBA player. We’re left scratching our collective heads over what he really is. How exactly do we grade his development so far?
Year 3 of the great Exum experiment has turned into the giant elephant in the room, and the Jazz have some looming, unanswered questions.
Is Exum a scoring point guard or a facilitator? If he is a point guard, do the Jazz even have enough intel to be confident that he is their point guard of the future?
Or, is he really a wing masquerading as an occasional floor general?
Most importantly: has Exum failed to deliver on the NBA court so far?
Those are tough questions to answer when you consider the stakes.
Exum will be eligible for a rookie-scale extension by the end of the season (any time from July 1 to October 31 this year, to be exact), but it’s unclear how he factors into the long-term future of the Jazz. Heck, it’s uncertain how he fits into the short-term future of a team straddling win-now mode with roster-building imperatives for the long-term.
The Jazz are caught in the middle. Win-now prerogatives --as evidenced by the addition of veterans George Hill and Joe Johnson over the summer-- don’t necessarily mesh cleanly with the longer view, such as providing enough playing time for long-term building blocks.
When Hill was injured for an 8-game stretch at the start of the season, Exum was given the opportunity to start a bunch of games in his place. During that stretch, he averaged 29.9 minutes per game and showed some encouraging signs of growth.
He showed a greater willingness to attack the rim, after his rookie season as a little-used wing who chilled in the corners. That lack of aggressiveness bore out in his shot selection; 63.5 percent of his shot attempts were from beyond the arc in his rookie season, an absurd amount for an iffy shooter.
During his recent November “breakout”, 3-pointers still accounted for 42.5 percent of his shots, but he did show signs of life in his off-the-bounce game, a sore point for Jazz fans.
After taking a grand total of 64 shots at the rim in his rookie season, Exum took 27 shots alone in the restricted area as a starter, converting at a 55.6 percent clip, per NBA Savant.
Exum still doesn’t deal well with contact, but he showed that he hadn’t lost that quick first step when presented with the opportunity to glide past slowpoke bigs. He’s flashed nuances in the pick-and-roll game, reading where his defender is leaning, before bolting the other way.
When he’s over-penetrated, he’s shown the ability to keep his dribble (and his composure), circle around a la Steve Nash, and find cutters.
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That’s some advanced stuff there.
NBA defences quickly figure you out if you’re a one-trick pony, so adding a little guile, a little change of pace or direction, and diversifying your arsenal matters. Every little thing counts and it's encouraging to see glimpses of Exum's self-exploration.
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Exum has always understood the topographical dimensions of the court, being able to read the floor at least one step ahead of the defence. He’s shown that he can throw passes a beat early, enough for defenders to commit in a direction, unable to sway their momentum to recover in the play.
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Exum vs Mack
Despite the obvious ability, those glorious moments remain fleeting. Exum still sports a relatively low usage rate at 17 percent of possessions this season, a slight uptick over the 14.1 in his rookie year, per NBA.com. Questions will persist over his aggressiveness from a fan base desperate for him to succeed, or at the very least, find out what they truly have.
During that critical period from November 11-20 when Exum had the opportunity to establish himself, here’s how he fared against Shelvin Mack, his rival for primary backup point guard duties:
[table id=142 /]
Mack far and away outpointed Exum in every relevant statistical category. He also recorded better assist and turnover numbers, and had a far higher offensive rating and net rating, per NBA.com.
In a vacuum, Mack outperformed Exum and deserves more minutes. Quin Snyder has flip-flopped between Shelvin Mack and Dante Exum as he juggles his rotation, but he’s made it clear that his decisions are based on merit – he will play whoever is playing well at the time, exactly what you’d expect for a team in the dogfight for a playoff berth in the Western Conference.
But here’s the rub: the Jazz need to find a long-term floor general who grows with the rest of the young core, provided that they stay together. And the Jazz need to find out if Exum is that guy.
Is Shelvin Mack --a looming unrestricted free agent himself-- the answer, particularly if George Hill also bolts in free agency? There’s no reason why Mack can’t get better. After all, he’s only just entered his prime. But you’d have to think that any improvements would be incremental, and that Mack is closer to his ceiling than Exum is.
Exum’s game has warts and all, but he’s still only twenty-one years old. Twenty-one!
And then you see things like this that make you go, holy cow!
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Exum's size and length are special for a point guard, if he is indeed one. So, is it time to figure out if Exum can play?
That’s all on him.
Just to underscore the “aggressiveness” narrative --or lack thereof-- that has plagued Exum's career to date, he played a total of 51 minutes of crunch time in his rookie season. Crunch time is defined as the last 5 minutes of regulation, or overtime, and with neither side ahead by more than 5 points, per NBA.com. In those minutes, he took a grand total of 4 field goal attempts. Four!
This season, he has only played a total of 5 minutes of crunch time, and taken zero shot attempts.
Some of that might just be a comfort level issue; he’s a heady player who would rather search for a great shot then chuck up a wild shot just for the sake of it.
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But another part of the equation seems to be a general lack of confidence. When Exum zooms into the paint, it can become a bit of an adventure. You can almost see him thinking through the steps of what he needs to do – I’m getting into the lane, I really am. I BETTER NOT BLOW THIS!
Exum still can’t shoot, and it's a major part of the problem. He’s at 36.5 percent from the field overall for his career, and he’s shooting barely above 30 percent from deep.
Opponents don’t respect his jumper, meaning enemy players aren’t afraid to leave him open in the corners to clutter up more dangerous stuff elsewhere on the court.
He hardly handles the ball, low on the Jazz totem pole for pick-and-roll usage, which only compounds things because he can’t shoot, and he never cuts to the basket.
Spot ups comprise by far and away the highest frequency of his shot profile, per NBA.com. Chilling in the corners is great if shooting is your forte; not so for Exum.
He still needs to develop a tighter handle, something that is limiting his ability to consistently get into the paint and draw fouls, naturally capping how aggressive he can be. During Exum's rookie season, watching him get to the line was akin to seeing the Yeti, but he’s at least increased his free throw rate to 1.8 attempts per 36 minutes.
In reality, Exum doesn’t necessarily need to soak up Mack’s minutes, especially if Snyder continues to play them together. He merely needs to strike a better balance of when to take over the reins of the offence, even just for short stretches, and actually do something with those possessions.
Exum versus the 2014 draft class
Exum is effectively starting his career again after taking a season off, but he’s played a grand total of 111 games for his career, and logged just over 2400 minutes in total. He’s still an NBA neophyte, and players do develop at their own pace, but the career trajectory of players by their second season usually begin to take shape (we’re treating this as effectively his second season).
Let’s compare the developments of some of Exum’s contemporaries from the 2014 draft class, of both high-end picks and lower selections.
There is no single catch-all statistic that can perfectly encapsulate a player’s value, but for the purposes this exercise (since we’re largely looking at individual player development from an offensive standpoint), we’ll focus on the Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of this cohort.
*I’ve excluded Joel Embiid, who is effectively not even halfway through his rookie year.
[table id=143 /]
*statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference as of 6/01/2017
**Jokic was drafted in 2014, but came to the NBA in the 2015/16 season
Take a look at that list. A few rough observations pop out.
Firstly, we see that players tend to improve their offensive efficiency and output from Year 2 onwards. Exum is no different, and certainly appears to have improved from his rookie season. Yet his on-court performance is dwarfed by his contemporaries.
Secondly, most have played significantly more minutes than Exum.
Players have to deal with vastly different basketball situations. Plonk the likes of Wiggins and LaVine onto a rebuilding Timberwolves outfit, allow them to play, make mistakes, build confidence, and grow out of their warts, and you have a greater chance to see more productivity. You also get the chance to see what you really have.
Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle have had the opportunity to explore who they are on losing teams that can dole out ample playing time. We're seeing what Nikola Jokic may become in an experimental Nuggets lineup.
But what if you’re stuck in a situation where you don’t have that luxury? What if your court time is sporadic? What if even the minutes you play aren’t maximised to give you the opportunity to showcase what you can do?
Remembering Wesley Johnson
Remember when Wesley Johnson was drafted by the Timberwolves with the fourth overall pick in 2010?
He was 22 years old, fresh out of Syracuse, and projected as a player ready to help his team immediately. He was long and lean, with the athleticism to make an impact.
At the time, Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress, said of Johnson’s strengths in college: “One of the reasons Johnson doesn't attempt all that many 3-pointers is because Syracuse would much rather get him the ball from 15-feet and in. It's here that Johnson can operate as a huge mismatch against most collegiate forwards, as he can elevate smoothly for a mid-range jumper if his man sags off him, or blow right past him with his terrific first step if he plays him too closely. He has great quickness making his way into the lane, and appears to have worked extremely hard on polishing up some very impressive spin moves.”
Played as a power forward in college, Johnson would face up and use his quickness to blow by opponents to the rim. On defence, he was long enough and survived on the glass. Most importantly, he was put in a position to succeed.
The trouble was, nobody told the Timberwolves.
In the NBA, Johnson was tasked with chasing shooting guards and small forwards on the perimeter, and essentially morphed into a 3-and-D guy. Used as a low-usage perimeter player, his physical gifts were nullified as he transformed into another ho-hum NBA wing.
We kept waiting for him to break out. We kept waiting for the reason why the Timberwolves drafted him so high.
Now, think about it. Does Exum have a little Wesley J in him? Are the Jazz, effectively utilising Exum’s physical advantages? Or is he turning into another low usage ho-hum NBA wing?
NBA history is littered with high lottery picks who did not develop due to various circumstances. Some were drafted in less than optimal situations. Others didn’t have the work ethic to improve. Exum appears to have the latter, now he just needs to showcase what he can do in actual games.
I’m sanguine over the prospect of Exum being slightly better than Wesley Johnson. He was younger to enter into the league and he’s flashed a high basketball IQ, on both sides of the ball.
The Jazz need to figure out how Exum fits into their future, and a lot of that is on Exum. It’s time that those fleeting glimpses of potential became consistent reminders of his value. It’s time for Exum to make that leap and demand those minutes.
Has Exum’s development curve been stymied by a short coaching leash? Did injury rob him of one vital season of maturation?
Maybe. Regardless, he’s reached a critical juncture in his fledgling career. Exum's assignment to the D-League's Salt Lake City Stars and subsequent recall (along with Alec Burks and Raul Neto) has made the situation more evident.
The clock is ticking for October 31, and it’s quite the conundrum.