How Dante Exum could take the Smart path to success

For Dante Exum, the upcoming NBA season is a chance to demonstrate his true potential, and carve out an invaluable role on the Jazz’s roster.

Having ended his 2017/18 NBA campaign with an admirable playoff series against Houston, this upcoming season is about proving that he belongs in a league filled with talented guards. He needs to show that the recent playoffs series was no fluke, and that he has a valuable role, on the roster of a rising power in the Western conference.

Drafted at only 18 years of age, and having played his junior basketball in Australia, Exum entered the NBA as a somewhat unknown commodity. He impressed scouts with striking performances at the 2013 Nike Hoop Summit and the FIBA Under 19 World Cup, and built his reputation as an athletically gifted guard with an ability to slash to the basket and pass the ball, as well as impressive mental intangibles.

After being selected with the fifth pick by the Utah Jazz, Exum’s rookie season was an up-and-down affair. Playing an average of 22.2 minutes per game, he averaged 4.8 points, 2.4 assists and 1.6 rebounds. Efficiency was also an issue, shooting at 34.9% from the field, 31.4% from behind the 3-point line, and 62.5% from the free-throw line, all well below league average.

By the end of his first season Exum scored a player efficiency rating of 5.70, the third lowest in the league. Scattered throughout his first season were brief glimpses of player he was tipped to be. However, in general, Exum’s rookie season was underwhelming, proving that the challenge of coming into the NBA straight out of high school is considerable.

Despite playing in one of the most stacked positions in the NBA, the point guard spot, he demonstrated his aptitude as a tenacious perimeter defender.

Amongst his fellow rookies, Exum placed first in defensive win shares, with 2.7, and had a defensive rating of 99. This was better than Draymond Green and Kawhi Leonard in their respective rookies season, both of whom would go on to win Defensive Player of the Year awards. Exum’s quick feet and long arms, traits that make him a great slasher, also make him a pest on defence.

Injuries would wreak havoc on his next few seasons and drastically impact his development. A torn left ACL in 2015, ruled him out for his entire sophomore season, and shoulder surgery in October 2017 caused him to miss 68 games last season.

Despite extensive disruptions that resulted in reduced minutes, defence remained a staple of his game, and Exum managed to evolve and become a well-rounded player.

His offensive game has changed to better cater to his natural tendencies and gifts, attacking the basket more and reducing 3-point attempts to only 20.7% of his total attempted shots. Last season, he recorded an above average player efficiency rating of 16.72, a dramatic improvement from his first year.

With his almost exclusively inside offensive game and natural defensive ability, Exum is clearly not a member of the highly touted 3-point sniper archetype. His position on a team can be tricky to pin down. Unlike the popular “3 and D” archetype --players whose role is to be a 3-point threat and defend-- like Joe Ingles, Trevor Ariza and Robert Covington, that mould isn't a role Exum doesn't quite fit into.

However, there is a current player in the NBA that proves that Exum can indeed be an invaluable component for a team with championship aspirations: Marcus Smart.

Drafted in the same year as Exum, at number six, Smart is proof that the interior scorer/perimeter defender formula is viable, and desirable. Smart is one of the most unique players to occupy the sixth man position in the NBA, bucking the trend of the scoring sixth man exemplified by Jamal Crawford and Lou Williams. Defensively-minded, Smart is the Boston Celtic’s best perimeter defender, their go-to man when it comes to locking down the backcourt.

The Utah and Boston reserve guards have very different physical traits, Exum the far lighter and longer of the two. However, statistics from last season reveal similarities between Smart and Exum. Dante Exum Marcus Smart Games Played 14 54 Minutes Played 16.8 29.9 Points 8.1 10.2 Assists 3.1 4.8 Rebounds 1.9 3.5 Field Goal Percentage 48.3 36.7 3-point Field Goal Percentage 27.8 30.1 Free Throw Percentage 80.6 72.9 Defensive Rating 98.9 99.4 Both players do their damage off the bench and both are often tasked with tough defensive assignments, with Smart currently playing a greater role for his respective team. Despite playing significantly fewer games and minutes than Smart, last season provided a tantalising snapshot of Exum’s potential as an elite two-way player. With less time on court, he was a more prolific and more efficient scorer than Smart. Exum also finished last season with a slightly better defensive rating.

Smart also proves that a guard that can't shoot, but can defend, have a place in the NBA. Like Exum, he has struggled with his long range marksmanship throughout his career. Instead of offence, Smart's value stems from his willingness to take the tough defensive assignments, hassling and corralling the opposition at multiple positions. With his defence and knack for playmaking, Smart has carved out a highly-regarded career with the Celtics.

It is in the vein of Marcus Smart that Exum should pattern his role after, with perhaps a greater emphasis on scoring than Smart, to make full use of his undeniable gifts.

When it comes to team offence, Exum is more of a shooting guard, with his innate driving and slashing ability. This is in contrast to Smart, who performs more of a traditional point guard role on offence, with his talent for setting up teammates and orchestrating plays. With his length and size, Exum can also defend multiple positions, ranging from point guard to small forward. Much like Smart, this ability to switch on defence, and not be constantly out of his comfort zone, gives young Exum enormous utility.

Exum is yet to develop the fearsome reputation that Smart has built over his career. Smart's capacity to regularly lift his team and alter the course of games with his defensive exploits is legendary. This skill was perfectly demonstrated last season, during the Celtics' 99-98 victory over the Houston Rockets on December 29. In the dying moments of the game Smart was able to draw two clutch offensive fouls from James Harden, swinging momentum and leading to the huge home win.

However, the playoffs demonstrated Exum’s talent for defence and his potential to perform a Smart-like function for the Jazz. In game two of the Jazz’s series against the Houston Rockets, Exum had a near-perfect defensive game against MVP James Harden. While being defended by the young Australian, Harden only managed to score 2 points. While shutting down Harden, he also managed to put up 9 points at the other end during his 18 minutes on the court, including a thunderous exclamation mark dunk in the fourth quarter.

His efforts helped guide the Jazz to their only win in the series. Jazz head coach Quin Snyder heaped praise on his resilient backup guard during a post-game press conference. “We've had confidence in Dante taking difficult matchups… [Harden’s] not a player that any one guy can guard so the fact that Dante can come in and give us some minutes and compete and battle is a big thing."

The Jazz-Rockets series exemplifies how Exum can shine as a member of the Utah Jazz; as a slashing, defensively minded sixth man, with the possibility of earning a starting role. With a future MVP-caliber player in Donovan Mitchell, the Jazz don’t need Exum to suddenly put up 20 points a night. What they do need, is for Exum to alleviate Mitchell’s responsibilities on the defensive end, and to provide another athletic scoring option.

If he continues down the developmental path he is on, Exum has the potential to become a great two-way sixth man or even starter for Utah. Clearly, the Jazz see a future with the Australian guard, having signed him to a three year $A45 million dollar contract, a huge show of confidence considering his injury history. It is now up to him to prove his value and carve out a niche in the NBA.