Dante Exum's budding career, remains a delicate quandary. While this has been true since Exum debuted in October 2014, it became even clearer when T.J. Warren hurdled into the young Australian earlier this month. The aftermath of this event was disastrous, as another season of NBA basketball was cruelly taken away.
Exum separated his left shoulder on the play, and required surgery to stabilise significant damage within his AC joint. The Utah Jazz announced that surgery was successful – a standard decree – while refusing to provide an exact timetable on Exum’s return.
While the Jazz won’t publicly admit it, this latest injury will almost certainly sideline Exum for the entire 2017/18 season. There remains a slim chance Exum could return to action post All-Star break, although the benefits of any in-season comeback must be weighed against the potential impact of a long-term setback. The Jazz have cautiously managed Exum’s career to date so expect a similar approach this time. And as unpalatable as it may be for all involved, history shows that waiting is the prudent course of action.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the Charlotte Hornets faced a similar predicament two seasons ago, when they aggressively pursued an accelerated in-season comeback from a significant shoulder injury. Kidd-Gilchrist returned ahead of schedule, only to play in seven games, before reaggravating his ailment and being sent away for another surgical procedure. Exum’s camp would be wise to learn from this.
So what now?
In the weeks following this new reality for Exum, most attention has, rightfully, been given to the here and now. After all, this season was meant to be his coming out party. With confidence in his surgically repaired left knee restored, Exum flashed tantalising improvements during Summer League and looked ready to stamp his authority on the Association.
However, that is all a moot point now. For the second time in his burgeoning career, a full season has been eliminated due to a freak injury. That is horrific luck for Exum. It also presents a significant obstacle for Jazz management as they decide how to proceed with their oft-injured prospect.
The Jazz drafted Exum fifth overall in 2014, so he’s had an equitable contract for the first four years of his NBA career. Exum’s rookie scale contract will expire at season's end, meaning there are no more guaranteed dollars or roster spots. For better or worse, he will be a free agent during the 2018 offseason.
While the Jazz don’t hold a contract option for Exum’s fifth NBA season, they do maintain his rights and have the power to extend a qualifying offer before the 30 June 2018 deadline.
Extending Exum a qualifying offer for the 2018/19 season – currently estimated to be approximately $7 million (USD) – will make the Australian a restricted free agent. This would ensure the Jazz could match any contract offer he receives on the open market. Essentially, it provides the franchise a right of first refusal.
If another team wants to acquire Exum, they must first sign him to a contract offer, known as an offer sheet. Once signed, the Jazz would then have 72 hours to decide whether they want to match the contract and keep Exum, or let him walk away for nothing.
If Utah doesn’t extend a qualifying offer, Exum will become an unrestricted free agent. Under this scenario, the Jazz could still sign the Australian to a contract, although they would lose any ability to match rival bids.
The most likely outcome is that the Jazz extend Exum a qualifying offer and let the free agency market run its course. The Jazz could still work towards a long-term extension, although in the shrewd business of NBA basketball, offering long-term money to Exum will likely be seen as an unnecessary risk. In such a depressed market, a one-year, seven million dollar deal, such as the qualifying offer, would represent fair value for both sides.
With only a handful of teams slated to have salary cap space in 2018, it’s extremely unlikely another franchise would sign Exum to a significant offer sheet. There just isn’t the quantum of dollars available in the market anymore; the spending spree of 2016 is well and truly over.
Even more important, Exum hasn’t shown enough to justify anything more than a short-term deal. Assuming he doesn’t return this season, Exum will be entering a fifth NBA campaign with only 3,045 minutes under his belt. That number is low for any lottery pick, extremely low for a top five selection and often indicative of a bust.
It’s too early to label Exum with that dirty word, especially given the extenuating circumstances at play, but there are valid questions concerning his future.
My bet is that Exum plays out the 2018/19 season on his qualifying offer and becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2019.
The Jazz have little incentive to offer anything more than a one-year deal. The only exception would be if Exum was willing to accept a longer deal at a bargain basement rate. Don’t expect this to happen, however, as Exum has little motivation for doing so. He would be sacrificing future flexibility for only a few million dollars; pennies and dimes in the current day NBA landscape.
The 2018/19 season would then see Exum auditioning for minutes, roles and dollars. Not just in Utah, but across the league. One good season could eliminate the pain and stress of crippling injuries, while another setback could descend him into the depths of the NBA.
Exum is still just 22 years of age. Raw talent alone dictates he will be given ample opportunities to prove himself, although this latest injury setback does accelerate his timetable. The chances previously available are slowly eroding, as too is his room for error when it comes to maintaining an NBA career.
It’s hard to see Exum ever delivering on the promise he offered as a draft prospect, but that doesn’t mean he cannot carve out a successful niche in the league. Shaun Livingston is someone who has previously been linked to Exum, both in terms of game style and because of setbacks suffered early during his career. Livingston was forced to reinvent himself due to significant injuries before becoming a two time NBA Champion in Golden State.
Jeremy Lamb is more contemporary example of a high draft pick who finally found his place after a tumultuous start to his career. These aren’t the sexy names Exum was compared to entering the NBA, although both Lamb and Livingston have sustained long-term careers and that is nothing to sneeze at.
If there is one silver lining from this latest injury set back it’s that Exum’s surgically repaired knee remains healthy. He also knows the road ahead and, as painfully annoying as it may be, he understands the mental battle that rehabilitation presents.
Exum talked over All-Star Weekend about his journey back from the ACL tear. He lamented over the time lost, but was finally at ease. He was healthy and thirsty to show the world he belonged. “I couldn’t ask for anything more,” Exum told me when explaining the feeling that comes from being healthy and surrounded by the NBA’s elite.
That makes the latest setback even more heartbreaking. It’s another challenge to a career that, despite promising so much, continues to be plagued with misfortune.