On Dante Exum's short leash in Utah and his fresh start in Cleveland
Dante Exum is a speedy 6’6 combo guard, who is long and full of athleticism. Originally touted as the next big Australian star, the 2014 NBA draft's number five pick hasn’t quite lived up to his potential just yet, due to a spate of injuries.
According to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, Exum has been traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for Jordan Clarkson. The Salt Lake Tribune's Andy Larsen confirmed that two second round picks will be sent from the Jazz to Cleveland as part of the transaction.
It’s now the sixth season of Exum’s career - what's next for the guard, as he moves to the Cavs and joins fellow Aussie Matthew Dellavedova?
Trust and minutes in Utah
Prior to the trade, Exum had gotten a DNP-CD (did not play, coach’s decision) for five straight games, and really never had the chance to earn a rotation spot with the limited minutes. It is important to consider Exum is returning from a major leg injury, but that doesn’t change the fact that he wasn't on the regular rotation, with Emmanuel Mudiay ahead of him. He played a maximum of 14 minutes, with his latest being eight minutes in a loss against the Oklahoma City Thunder on 9 December. Exum has played 11 games, and a good deal of those minutes have been in garbage time or in short spurts off the bench.
To be fair to Snyder, the Jazz have won their last five games since Mike Conley went down. Fellow Aussie Joe Ingles has been moved into the starting lineup since then, so it could be a case of running with their momentum and not tweaking their rotation during this phase. It should be noted that Exum isn't getting time, even with Conley out.
It looks like Jazz coach Quin Snyder has a short leash with Exum, even when small mistakes occur, and Exum has been well aware of it.
“I’ve had this conversation with my coach many times,” Exum said to Fox Sports Australia, back in August. “It’s just, the expectation of me is so high when I go in, and I like to hold myself to a high standard as well. Yeah, I might have a tighter leash, but I expect myself to go in there and hold myself to that standard.”
“I actually have a great relationship with Quin,” Exum also said. “He hates when I call him Quin; coach.
“In the first couple of years, he was definitely the hardest on me. There’s a story me and Joe like to tell: it was, one time Joe made a mistake in practice and coach just ripped me for it, and even Joe went to coach and said ‘hey, it was my fault’, but coach still just ripped me. I’ve kind of learned how he coaches, and what he expects. He’s just a coach that wants the best for all his players, and wants to get the best out of me. I want that, too, so I respect it.”
The Salt Lake City based team is currently 29th in bench scoring in the league, sitting at 27.1 points per game. Per HoopsStats.com, the Jazz reserves are currently the third-worst in the league, behind the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers (via Andy Bailey).
There’s also a player making over $9 million per year who’s never been given a chance at anything resembling a consistent role from Snyder. Injuries contributed to that too, but Dante Exum’s biggest roadblock has always been the way he’s coached. It wouldn’t be uncommon for a young player to notice being held to a different standard than anyone else on the team. At this point, he plays scared. But, given what we’ve seen from Niang, Green and Davis this season, it’s hard to justify not even giving Exum a chance. His defense and slashing would help alongside Utah’s better players. Consigning those abilities to the bench and garbage-time minutes is tough to justify.
Having Exum back in rhythm as a defensive presence would have greatly improved the team's second unit and at minimum, stop them from leaking points. It looks like the team has decided that Clarkson, who averaged 14.6 points with Cleveland this season, would bolster the Jazz bench much better, especially from a scoring perspective.
Where to from here?
Exum's status remains in flux. He has a somewhat tradeable contract, with a $9.6 million deal that expires after the 2020/21 season. Cleveland moved below the luxury tax with this trade, which makes sense given their season - the team is currently third-last in the Eastern conference with a 8-21 record. There is certainly no pressure to compete, unlike Utah. Wojnarowski also shared that Cleveland is "planning to start uprooting veterans on the roster to gather more draft picks and young assets", with free agency as the goal.
Fellow Australian, Matthew Dellavedova has averaged 13 minutes in 27 games played so far. Clarkson, who was averaging 23 minutes prior to his departure, should free minutes up that could drip down to Delly and also Exum, who will have the opportunity to show what he's capable of defensively, at minimum.
With Exum, it is really easy to fall in love what he could become. If the attributes aren’t enough evidence, the flashes can be. The proven defensive versatility, the ease in getting to the rim and the ability to operate in the pick and roll are all things Exum has shown signs in excelling at.
Maybe a new uniform and a fresh start will unleash Exum, who is waiting for an opportunity to prove himself.