The Utah Jazz returned to the big time this NBA season.
Game 7’s victory over the Los Angeles Clippers will be the defining moment from what was a successful season. While the Golden State Warriors swept them aside in the second round, that outcome cannot and should not diminish the progress made by the Jazz franchise and their two Australian players.
Joe Ingles has become the Jazz’s ironman --through three seasons in Utah he has missed just four games-– and impressively started all 11 playoff games during his maiden postseason. He finished the playoffs with splits of 6.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 30 minutes per game.
While those statistics don’t jump off the screen, simple numbers have never quantified Ingles' full impact in Utah, and that was again the case during this postseason.
The Jazz were 11.2 points per 100 possessions better with Ingles on the court against the Clippers and Warriors. That single measure may slightly overstate Ingles’ impact, especially because he enjoyed the benefit of playing the majority of his minutes with Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert, however it does illustrate the power of Ingles’ selflessly versatile game.
Ingles took on a larger ball-handling role against the Clippers, and rewarded head coach Quin Snyder with some terrific all-around performances. Besides his outside shooting, the Jazz didn’t rely on Ingles’ scoring but the well travelled Australian reinforced that he can contribute in a larger role against the very best teams in the Association.
The high water mark of Ingles’ postseason came in game four against the Clippers, where he scored eight points while adding 11 assists, six rebounds and two steals during 38 minutes of game time.
Ingles’ impact was diminished against Golden State in the second round, as the Warriors' length and speed took away much of the freedom afforded by the Clippers. That same comment can be extrapolated out to the entire Jazz team and shouldn’t alter how anyone views Ingles’ postseason. Golden State is destroying the NBA like the Galactic Empire’s Death Star and the Jazz were just the latest victim. Ingles, just like the Jazz, was simply overmatched from a talent perspective and lost to a superior team.
With playoff experience now under his belt, Ingles will enter free agency as a 29-year-old and looks set to cash in with a life changing payday. His performances over the past month have boosted a growing resume and should provide extra bargaining power in contract negations.
What about Dante?
Dante Exum’s postseason was simply a representation of his entire regular season.
Exum started the Clippers series out of Snyder’s rotation and did not see the court until game four. In total, Exum played a meagre 24 minutes in the first round series. Snyder decided to use the combination of Shelvin Mack and Raul Neto to compliment George Hill against Los Angeles. Barring five surprising minutes in game seven, Exum was an afterthought and didn’t impact the series at all.
Exum was then given the chance to play against Golden State, with a toe injury to Hill helping him receive solid rotation minutes during both games in San Francisco. Even then, Exum’s impact was limited and the same issues that plagued him during the regular season reared their ugly head. That all changed in game four.
With Utah down by 22 after the first quarter and staring a sweep between the eyes, Exum was the catalyst for a massive Jazz run that got the game within eight points at intermission.
Exum scored nine points during the second term, but his mindset was the shining positive from an impressive game four performance. His defensive energy and versatility helped spark the Jazz, while an aggressive mindset on offence allowed Exum to show off his athletic talents. He was attacking the basket with an obvious intent to score and utilising that lighting quick first step at every turn.
It was only twelve minutes of basketball but it was a confronting reminder of Exum’s immense potential. Against one of the most talented squads in NBA history, Exum was putting his head down and attacking with a purpose.
Exum finished the game with 15 points, three rebounds, two assists and a steal in 32 minutes.
Yes, the Warriors won game four and finished their sweep. Yes, the Warriors used a couple of nice adjustments to make Exum look every bit the project player he remains - namely going under every screen and refusing to guard him out to the three point line after half time. All the same, game 4 was another example of Exum showing his potential to the NBA universe.
There have been flashes like this all season, like the night in January when I witnessed Exum elevate his game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Seeing Exum in full flight is a thing to behold and a glorious reminder of why Exum was selected with a top five pick. But they were too few and far between during the regular season, and a one night only show during the playoffs.
Receiving playoff minutes as a 21-year-old prospect should provide Exum with the benchmark for where his game needs to grow. Game 4 against Golden State needs to become the standard, not the exception to the rule.
During exit interviews, Exum admitted he still has plenty of development ahead of him, but also proclaimed he is ready to lead the Jazz as a point guard and eager to fight for more minutes next season.
Exum and Ingles both had moments during the postseason that reinforced their placing in the NBA. Ingles showed that huge strides taken over the regular season could be maintained in basketball’s most pressurised setting. Exum’s moment was fleeting and exceptional all at the same time.
Both enter the offseason with huge question marks over their prospects in Utah.
Ingles is a restricted free agent and George Hill, Exum’s superior on the point guard pecking order, is also looking for a new contract. Throw in Gordon Hayward’s free agency and there are plenty of questions to be answered in Utah.
If everyone returns, the Jazz should become a perennial playoff side with aspirations of evolving into a bona fide contender. Ingles could maintain his status as a jack-of-all-trades veteran while Exum hopefully becomes a regular contributor for a rising franchise. That is the best case scenario for the Utah Jazz and their Australian athletes.
Should either Hill or Hayward bolt for greener pastures, there is a real chance Exum and Ingles could become the Jazz’s full time starting backcourt next season.