Dante's Peak: Soaring towards new heights

The Utah Jazz are the hottest team in the NBA since the All-Star break, posting an 11-2 record and riding a league leading 6 game winning streak. Having the league's second youngest roster playing at such a high level now has the future looking bright in Utah. Just how good the Jazz can be, will likely be determined by their most talented and rawest player - Dante Exum.


Dante’s rookie inferno

Exum’s rookie year has been as challenging as you would expect, for someone jumping from Australian high school hoops to playing against the world’s best players on nightly basis. As a prospect entering the draft, Exum intrigued GMs with his blend of length and quickness that is rarely seen in his position, but also came with question marks on his outside shot. In year one he has flipped the script on the player many thought he would be in the league. Instead of using his physical gifts to charge the lane at every opportunity like a young Russell Westbrook, he has been more of a jump shooter so far, often dining exclusively on 3 pointers and rarely attacking the paint.

Exum Chart

Gordon Hayward recently spoke about Exum, and while impressed with what he can bring to the table as player, believed he was making a common rookie mistake of being too passive on the court in fear of making mistakes. Exum himself agrees with Hayward’s critique and believes his increasing confidence in his game and teammates will see him being more assertive.

It’s a fair comment I’d say. It’s just game by game getting more confident in my abilities and more comfortable with my team I think, and Gordon’s definitely been one guy if I didn't shoot a shot I should have shot, he’d be telling me to shoot that next shot. It’s just about building that confidence. I think getting that starting role has helped me; going against some of the best players from the start, made me more aggressive trying to outplay them in a way.

The Jazz have been taking a softly-softly approach to Exum’s development and he is not asked to do much on the court. You often see Exum bring the ball up the court, pass the ball to a teammate then wait on the perimeter for kick out, instead of frequently running pick and rolls. He has been buoyed by the dedication shown by his Jazz coach Quinn Snyder in working with him to improve his game.

Yeah, coach like everyone is trying to build more and more confidence in me, but one of the more surprising things I found is he’s been on court whenever he can with me, even if it’s just for 5 minutes just to teach me a little footwork drill, he’s on court which just shows he’s committed to the job helping me develop in this role.

Facing up to the likes of Chris Paul, Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook on a nightly basis has been a huge challenge for a 19 year old in his first season. Exum says however, the biggest challenge he has faced this season is off the court.

I think one of the biggest adjustments is just the lifestyle of the NBA. I’m always used to going to school and having meals cooked for me but over here I’m living by myself, having to get the right sleep, right nutrition and then playing 82 games and travelling. I think that’s the biggest adjustment going from where I was.

Hearing Exum talk its all about confidence for for him right now, and if the Jazz coaching staff and teammates can push him towards his lofty ceiling as player he may just be the ingredient which takes them from very good to great as a team.

Exum on Simmons

As a top pick in the draft, Exum has been through the NBA publicity machine and gained invaluable perspective on handling the pressures of the media. In his Q&A session with Asian/Australian basketball media, Exum offered tips for Australia’s next budding NBA star Ben Simmons, who is gaining his fair share of attention already.

I think the main thing is, everyone is going to talk all the time and it might be positive or it might be negative, I think if he can stay level-headed, not too high in the highs and low in the lows that goes a long way in going out and performing on a night to night basis.

While Exum was plucked from obscurity, earning the moniker ‘international man of mystery’ in the process, Simmons route is vastly different by following the tradition path of the majority of the NBA players through the AAU high school and college systems.

I think Ben is in a completely different situation to me, he’s going to do the college thing and have to handle that. The attention he’s getting is a bit different to me, my attention was kind of like who am I and people trying to figure it out. People know who Ben is and what he needs to do what he does well. If Ben keeps doing what he’s doing and improving at the rate he is who knows.

Ben Simmons goes up for the dunk - Courtesy Randy Kemp / MaxPreps

Boom time for Boomers

With Rio just a year away, it was was heartwarming for all Aussie hoop fans to hear Exum talk about his passion in representing Australia.

I play basketball because I love it not for the money or anything, playing for Australia gives you that opportunity to show that. I’ve always had pride for my country, so I look forward to playing.

He acknowledges the bright future of the Boomers with Australia currently having seven players on NBA rosters and the fire to bring home Australia first international basketball medal is burning stronger than ever.

With the amount of guys we have in the NBA, obviously we’re developing and getting better and better. I know, myself included with the 11 other guys who were in Spain, just that feeling of not getting a medal kind of motivates us to try even harder next time we get an opportunity. So I think everyone is going to be better prepared next time, have better relationships and hopefully we can pull out those tough games.

Exum's future is an unwritten book, and it's clear he is dedicated to the game and will only get better with every passing day. Be it in the NBA or in a Boomers jersey, we're all looking forward to his progress in the days ahead.