What's next after Dante Exum's career night against the Timberwolves?

It might be premature, but Dante Exum, since being traded from the Utah Jazz a few weeks ago has been quietly showing signs of a breakout season in the NBA. Coming into the league, Exum had tremendously high expectations, as he was drafted number five in the 2014 NBA draft.

On 6 January against the Minnesota Timberwolves, it really felt like Dante Exum figured it out. He played with confidence and poise, like he belonged, something we did not see often in Salt Lake City. In only 24 minutes of playing time, Exum finished with a career high 28 points on an incredible 11/13 from the field.

In the pick and roll, the 24 year old Australian was lethal. He showed off an array of finishes at the rim, which included the use of a high hook shot/floater on multiple occasions. Exum, not known for being a deadly sharpshooter, knocked down all four of his threes – the defence sagged and he took the shots without hesitation.

His performance was capped off with the go ahead bucket in the fourth quarter, but he was taken out about halfway through the final period, and the Cavs couldn’t continue the fight. The Timberwolves ended up taking the win, 118-103.

“I took my shots. I was very efficient, and that’s the shots I can do when I get in there,” a candid Exum explained post-game. “I’ve been practising for a while and definitely the three I’ve [been] working on for a while. “I started making shots and everyone felt we could do this. It’s disappointing we couldn’t hang on but it was a good team effort and I feel like we are going in the right direction.”

What are realistic expectations?

Coming out of Lake Ginninderra high school in Canberra, Exum was known as the mystery man of his draft class – this was due to the limited footage available of the combo guard. With talents like Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins, Exum was right up in the mix for a top three pick, very much considered a tantalising prospect.

While he has shown glimpses of potential, injuries and inconsistency have mostly prevailed. After appearing in all 82 regular season games in his rookie season, Exum suffered a tear in his ACL while representing the Boomers, subsequently missing the entirety of his sophomore year.

The following year, Exum returned to action and couldn’t quite find a groove in the 2016/17 season. According to Basketball Reference, he averaged 6.2 points, 1.7 assists, shooting 42% from the field, but it was only in 18.6 minutes per game. The following two seasons, Exum played a total of 56 games thanks to a variety of injuries – a shoulder surgery was required in 2017, issues with his ankles in 2018, and a partially torn patella in 2019 that ultimately ended his season in March.

Now, Exum seems fully healthy and relishing the change of scenery. Since being traded from Utah, he has appeared in six games, averaging 10.3 points per game, shooting 58% from three, both of which would be career highs.

It’s a small sample size, but it’s important to note that he is only doing it in 16.7 minutes off the bench. If Exum can keep putting up impressive performances like he did on Monday, more game time and even bigger numbers could ensue.

We know what we have with Exum. He has such incredible attributes – his speed, athleticism and length are mouthwatering to any basketball purist. It’s safe to say we’re not the only ones excited about him, either.

“We haven’t had that many opportunities to practise, just a couple of times,” coach Beilein said, when asked about whether he’d seen those flashes from Exum before. “I’d seen him a little bit when he played at Utah, and what’s even better than that, Sam [reporter who asked question] - he’s a great guy to coach, he wants to be coached, he is a willing defender, he has got good length for us.

“I still think he’s really young even though he’s been in the five years, I think he’s 24 now, I’m really excited about him.”

The Cavs situation

The Cavaliers are in strange territory right now. While they still have veterans like Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson on the roster, their 10-26 record suggests they may need to blow it up and fully commit to a rebuild.

On top of that, coach John Beilein was employed before the season, somewhat representing a move that confused onlookers. The tremendously successful Beilein, known for his work at Michigan College, is no spring chicken at 66 years old and it’s tough to say whether he would be a fan of a rebuild.

It’s now up to the Cavs to fully empower their young players. Love has been involved in a manner of drama recently and that can’t be good for any young team - moving on from him now seems inevitable. Specifically, guys like Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, Kevin Porter Jr and obviously Exum, need to be given the keys to the team. This could give the organisation a chance to see which of these prospects are worth keeping around, and who they should shop.

It’s tough to say whether Exum will ever quite reach the terrifically high ceiling he has. If he stays healthy and gets extended minutes, Australia could potentially have a second All-Star in the coming years.