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Year Six: Is Dante Exum ready to emerge from injury and fulfill his potential?
Dante Exum enters his sixth NBA season surrounded by a familiar story line. For Exum, his fans and the Utah Jazz, it must all be feeling a little like Groundhog Day. Is this the season that Exum finally breaks out and delivers on the potential and promise that had him drafted fifth as an 18 year old in 2014?
Exum played in all 82 games of his rookie season, and despite averaging a career high in minutes (22 per night) he posted only modest statistics, 4.8 points, 1.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. The advanced stats also were not kind to him, however the Jazz were 3.8 points better per 100 possessions with him on the court and in games he started they posted a 24-17 record. There was enough there to give the Jazz and fans hope that Exum could deliver on his potential.
Following his modest rookie season, Exum tore his left anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) playing for the Boomers and missed the entire 2015/16 season. Every season since there have been serious question marks surrounding his health and ability. Exum played 66 games in 2017, in October 2014 he underwent shoulder surgery and would not return until March 2018 playing only 14 games, and in 2019 Exum missed 41 games due to an ankle sprain, a bone bruise and eventually a torn patella tendon in his right knee. In total Exum has played in only 204 of a possible 410 games (49%).
At just 24, both time and experience are on Exum’s side, and the Jazz did re-sign him to a 3 year, $27 million contract prior to last season. However the goodwill and investment in him must be starting to run low. At 6 foot 6 Exum is a supersized and skilled combo guard, and he has shown that he can put those physical gifts to good use on the court, most notably his efforts defending MVP James Harden in their 2018 second round playoff series. In Game 2, Exum guarded Harden on 22 possessions, most in the team, and on those possessions, Harden scored only two points. He ended the game with 32 total. This is exactly the sort of impact the Jazz hoped and believed Exum could deliver for one of the league's best defences.
The concern is consistency. If you look back, only one series before against the Oklahoma City Thunder, you will see that by the end of that series he was virtually unplayable. Exum needs to be more than a matchup dependant rotation player if he is to live up to his draft selection and current contract.
Exum’s inconsistency and underperformance cannot be separated from his injury history. His absences have robbed him of important development opportunities in both games and training. The effort, physical and mental required to rehabilitate from such substantial injury is challenging enough, let alone three.
The Australian guard enters the 2019/20 NBA season recovering from the patella tendon injury he suffered in March this year. He has not played in any of the Jazz’s preseason fixtures and remains questionable for the opening game of the season against the Thunder. Exum has been undertaking on-court basketball activities in training and whilst there is no official word on his status for the opener, it looks like we can consider him as a potential “day to day”. Even if he is cleared to play in the opener --or whenever her returns for that matter-- he will likely be on limited minutes.
The Jazz announced on media day, that they would be looking to find a role for Exum on the court as a basketball player rather than specifically as the backup point guard. With the addition of Mike Conley there is no path --barring injury-- to a starting role for Exum on this roster. Donovan Mitchell will likely be the starting shooting guard alongside Conley. Mitchell has also spent about a third of his minutes at the point guard spot. Whilst he is more effective at the shooting guard position, it is worth noting that he will likely continue to soak up some minutes at the point guard position, especially without an obviously consistent or reliable backup option on the roster.
The Jazz also signed the young but wayward point guard Emmanuel Mudiay this offseason. Mudiay, like Exum, has struggled to find his feet in the league. Mudiay showed some signs of sustainable improvement for the Knicks last year, scoring 14.8 points on 45% shooting. He's yet to prove he can contribute to a playoff team, and could see his minutes drop significantly from the 27 per game he saw last season. How Mudiay fares as the backup point guard, will impact the role Exum plays on this team. Mudiay is an inefficient volume scoring guard who is a limited playmaker and struggles on defence. However, that could work in his favour as a change of pace to lead a second unit whilst the starters rest. Mudiay will likely have a limited role in the playoffs, but during the regular season he could take on a Lou Williams like role in 12-15 minutes per night. On the other hand, his inefficiency, poor decision making and propensity to turn the ball over could see him glued to the bench.
Another player to watch out for is rookie point guard Miye Oni. The 58th pick in this year's draft was recently rewarded for his solid play in summer league and training camp with a guaranteed contract, and could receive regular season opportunities, especially if Exum isn’t ready to go. Exum and Oni recently had a heated exchange following a two on two drill where Exum reportedly took a hard fall.
Exum's 6-foot 6 frame allows him to possibly play at the wing as well - he has been effectively deployed against an opponent's best wing players as a defensive specialist, and this makes sense. However, the Jazz are stacked at that spot. Even if Mitchell slides down to the point guard position at times, Exum will still be competing with Royce O’Neal, fellow Aussie Joe Ingles and new signings Bojan Bogdanovic and Jeff Green.
Exum has not shot over 30% from three since his rookie year. Even if he becomes the team's best wing defender, which is not impossible, without significant improvement in his offensive game, he offers little more upside than Thunder defensive specialist Andre Roberson. With Gobert, Ingles and Conley, the team might not need Exum’s defensive chops, in which case the team would deploy Bogdanovic and his far superior shooting.
The first and biggest priority for Exum this coming season is health. Even though the team is eager to use him in a variety of roles, and this seems to be in the interest of simply ensuring he gets on the court, the clearest path to minutes is to provide reliable relief for Conley and Mitchell by running the offence for ten minutes a night. Any extra minutes he can find are a bonus, an unfortunate scenario for Exum given the amount of Jazz depth.