Dante Exum is back and looking better than ever.
The former number five overall draft pick made his season debut on March 15, marking his first NBA action in over 10 months. Exum’s 2017/18 campaign was derailed because of a left shoulder injury that not only threatened his season, but cast legitimate questions over his immediate future in Utah.
Exum’s return to action, however brief it remains, has alleviated many of the concerns. It’s impossible not to get excited about what has transpired, and what it could mean as the Jazz embark on a second consecutive postseason appearance. The Australian has proved his fitness and is evidencing skills never before seen during his fledgling NBA career.
Exum has now played nine games this season, averaging a tick under 15 minutes per contest. He has been used exclusively as a reserve combo-guard, playing approximately 55% of his minutes at the point and 45% in an off guard role, per Cleaning The Glass. This is essentially the split of Exum’s time spent playing alongside Donovan Mitchell. When Exum shares the court with the Rookie of the Year contender, his usage settles into a traditionally low level. But with Mitchell off the floor, Exum’s usage, and overall offensive impact, rises to a career high level. With that in mind, here is a look at what we have seen from Exum during his comeback.
The most striking improvements in Exum’s performance have come at the offensive end. This is amplified when he has power over the basketball, as Exum has displayed a relentless commitment to attacking the defence.
This was Exum’s first touch during his second game back against Sacramento. It perfectly sums up his newfound mindset. Exum elegantly shows off the physical gifts that made him a highly touted draft prospect. The Australian has shown greater command in attacking retreating defences. Acts of imposing athletic dominance have littered Exum’s career, but they have never been consistently infused with an attacking intent that draws parallels to elite point guards like Russell Westbrook and John Wall.
Going against backpedalling opponents is already a huge initiative, but Exum is also showing nuance, and an understanding of how best to utilise his gazelle like frame. Exum receives the outlet pass after a Derrick Favors rebound and instantly motors up the floor. He slows crossing half court, innately understanding fifth gear acceleration isn’t needed, before engaging his opponent and sliding through the lane with a silky spin move. Exum takes just one dribble inside the three-point arc and is able to glide through the defence for the bucket.
Yes, the finish looked clunky – sidenote: many of Exum’s finishes appear like misguided missiles as they slide out of his hand – but this is an improving aspect of his game, despite the aesthetic challenges to his audience. Watch Exum for just a few offensive possessions and you will inevitably witness the underhand finish that dominates his game.
This love child of the finger roll and floater (could we dub this the #DanteRoll, perhaps?) is rarely deployed with the grace Exum’s length allows for, but is a hyper-effective tool for him. The low release means Exum can get this shot off in a split second. When combined with Exum’s acceleration, this is a perfect countermeasure to rim protectors. On the above highlight, Pau Gasol is left flailing at vacant airspace by the time he clues on.
A general passiveness has been the loudest criticism of the Australian guard’s career to date. Many NBA minds have questioned why Exum doesn’t impose his stature and find pressure points within opposition defences. There are many valid reasons why Exum, who entered the NBA as, arguably, the rawest basketball prospect since the one and done rule was introduced, wasn’t able to dominate from day one. These have been well explained and don’t warrant further litigation. All we need to remember is this: at 22 years and 9 months, Exum is just 14 months older than his rookie teammate Mitchell, and just 12 months older than Ben Simmons. Despite being in the NBA system for almost half a decade (that is a crazy thought), he is far from a finished product. It has taken time for Exum to find comfort at the NBA level. He has struggled with developing a feel for the size and speed of the professional basketball, and that is perfectly fine.
If recent performances are any indication, the wait appears a worthwhile sacrifice for Jazz management.
This is the most nuclear athletic moment I can ever recall from Exum. He lulls Shaun Livingston into a trance, before exploding to the rim with a stupendous first step. This is a truly elite skill within NBA circles.
Only a limited number of opponents can contain Exum’s size in the open court. By virtue of coming off the bench, Exum avoids many of them during his minutes. That presents a tremendous opportunity. Second unit bench players, in the main, are inadequately equipped when it comes to curtailing Exum. Aaron Brooks was the latest victim to get the Exum treatment.
These two possessions represent a men against boys moment. Exum calmly accepts the isolation and throttles Brooks with his dribble drive. It isn’t a fair fight. All Brooks can do is slap his opponent across the arms in anger.
Exum must continue attacking isolation opportunities with his athleticism.
What about the opposition?
It must also be said that Utah picked the absolute perfect time for Exum to return. The Great Tank Race of 2018 has allowed Exum time to find his feet against teams who are (** cough cough **) giving their guys an opportunity to play. That was J.B. Bickerstaff’s explanation, after he benched Marc Gasol during the fourth quarter of Memphis’ narrow loss to Utah.
Here is the list of teams Exum has opposed on his comeback tour: Phoenix, Sacramento, Atlanta, Dallas, San Antonio, Golden State (without their four All-Stars), Boston (without Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and Marcus Smart), Memphis and Minnesota (without Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague). Not exactly a murderers’ row of opponents.
Exum is posting career highs across virtually every statistical category. While there is a clear level of growth embedded into these metrics, the application of sample size theatre and opponents with ulterior motives must be acknowledged. That’s not to take anything away from the 22 year-old. There is a qualitative difference with Exum that no level of statistical nerdery can be used to explain. Simply put, he looks comfortable on the NBA hardwood, assertive on offence and impactful with the ball in hand.
Saturday's performance against Memphis was the best of his professional career. With Gasol or without Gasol, the progression was obvious. Exum has played against weak NBA sides before, and never has he looked this comfortable.
Pushing the tempo has helped Exum show off his playmaking talents. With scrambling defences struggling to curtail the suddenly relentless Australian, Jazz shooters are benefiting.
After an opposition field goal, Exum receives the inbounds pass and jets up the floor. He immediately collapses the defence and finds a wide-open Jonas Jerebko in the corner. Most noteworthy is the time taken for this action to play out. The Sweed launches his shot with 17 seconds remaining on the shot clock, as Exum initiates his best Seven Seconds or Less impersonation. He is probing the defence like never before.
Utah is a notoriously slow moving team under Quin Snyder, ranking last in pace of play across each of the past three seasons. They have risen to 25th during the current season, but this is a team that has historically forsaken early offence and avoided the transition game. Exum’s return hasn’t signalled a seismic shift in this regard, although in his limited minutes, there is an unmistakable uptick in velocity. In the minutes Exum plays, Utah’s pace of place jumps to 100.3, a mark that would see them rank inside the top ten, per NBA.com.
In high pressure situations, the Jazz remain a defensive focused team who will occasionally see their offence bog down within the half court. The persistence of a free wheeling Exum has helped establish transition looks that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Better yet, these are just simple basketball plays. Exum has replaced rookie mistakes with sound NBA calibre decision-making; such a development may appear mundane, but the benefits of tightening up the fringes of his game cannot be understated.
On a per minute basis, Exum’s assist numbers are almost double that of last season. Despite his absence from the NBA game, it is clear to see he has been working hard behind the scenes, developing chemistry with his teammates. Exum has always had a nice pick-and-roll relationship with Gobert.
The chemistry has extended to other members of the Jazz frontline. Favors has received a number of favourable looks, stemming from Exum’s penetration.
When Exum is the nominal primary ball handler – i.e. minutes without Mitchell – his assist rate is a stupendous 39%. That is a level only maintained by the likes of Russell Westbrook and James Harden. For the reasons we explained, Exum’s statistical output is overstated. Despite obvious progress, Exum remains severallevels below these MVP-quality players. But this is more anecdotal evidence of Exum’s growth. In years past, he would pass the ball simply because it needed to move. This year, he is passing the ball with intent to create advantageous scoring opportunities for his team.
This may appear to be a fundamental read and pass into the corner, but such ability represents a sure sign of growth. Finding weak side shooters is one of the more complex pillars of NBA point guard play. It’s a skill that Kyrie Irving has only just started to emphasise this year in Boston. Identifying the shooter is one thing, having the confidence and competence to whip the basketball across the court is another. Exum has evidenced improvement in this regard.
For all his progress with the basketball, the defensive end remains Exum’s strength. He has returned to action and immediately reaffirmed his status as one of the NBA’s most promising on-ball defenders. Isaiah Taylor of the Atlanta Hawks got a first hand view when the two matched up.
These two possessions see Exum swallow up Taylor. The Australian’s length is a given, but his footwork is something to behold. Look closely at how Exum pre-empts the drive and denies penetration by sliding his feet. He is putting himself in profitable positions that allow his wingspan to disrupt opposition ball-handlers.
Throughout his career, Exum has consistently boosted Utah’s defence. That remains true this season. In fact, his impact is further amplified given the meteoric rise of Mitchell. When the Exum-Mitchell pairing shares the court, the Australian is the leader of the defence. He is charged with defending the primary ball handler, while Mitchell is assigned the lesser offensive threat.
The Exum-Mitchell duo has posted a miserly 89.1 defensive rating in their time together. Once again, the sample is too small to draw definitive conclusions, but there are signs of a potent two-way backcourt developing in Salt Lake City. In the two clips from the Atlanta game, go back and watch the defensive alignment. Exum is hounding the basketball, while Mitchell is given the freedom to freelance on the weak side. This plays into the strengths of both.
Mitchell has been asked to carry an almighty offensive load for the Jazz in his debut season. He isn’t able to devote similar energy to the defensive end, rightfully so. The presence of Exum ensures Utah can maintain its stingy identity whilst their prized rookie carries the offensive load.
Exum’s size can be overwhelming at times. As he is afforded time to grow into a regular role, his ceiling, as a defensive player, is limitless. It’s just a matter of time. “On the defensive end, I’m still trying to find my feet,” Exum said after playing the Grizzles. “I want to get more steals and contribute a bit more.”
What does it all mean?
The fact that Exum has already carved out regular rotation minutes is revealing. Utah, who remain in the midst of a ferocious playoff push, could ill-afford sloppy play from Exum as he readjusted to the NBA. Exum is playing, and that is the ultimate sign of his comfort.
Barring an epic collapse, the Jazz will return to the playoffs. The bright lights of the postseason present Exum opportunity to solidify his standing in the league. An impressive month could be worth tens of millions to him. Exum will be a free agent after the season and an evaluation awaits both player and franchise. We have previously covered the mechanics of Exum’s free agency and what the offseason could bring. Big decisions must be made, and that is a matter for July.
A negative showing wouldn’t be catastrophic by any means, as Exum has already proven he is fully recovered from the shoulder ailment. That is paramount above all else. His accelerated return just provides the additional benefit of a big stage, at the perfect time.
Exum will likely remain in a reserve role to close out the season. He will be called upon to provide bursts of energy and impact with his imposing athleticism. This is exactly what Exum did on Monday against Minnesota, as he exploded into the first quarter with four points, three rebound and three assists in a matter of moments. This rupture brought vigour to the Jazz, and helped set the table for a resounding victory. Energy and defensive effort is the name of the game. For now.
If called upon, and a playoff series against a small ball maven could be the impetus for more minutes, Exum has already shown he is capable of more. With Ricky Rubio sidelined against Memphis over the weekend, Exum was given extended minutes for the first time this season. The results were resounding, as too were the sentiments of his head coach. “He ignited our team on both ends of the floor,” Snyder explained of Exum. “Just attacked on offence and came up with some big defensive plays.”
When the Jazz drafted Exum in 2014, they took a gamble on potential. They knew he was young. They understood a long development process was in their future. Nobody could have predicted two prolonged injury setbacks, but the franchise was willing to wait for return on investment. Exum has bounced back from injury quicker than expected. He is showing signs of improvement that should excite everyone with a vested interest in his career.