How will Dante Exum fit into the Utah Jazz upon return?

Since entering the league as the fifth overall pick by the Utah Jazz in the 2014 NBA draft, Dante Exum has been a polarizing player through no real fault of his own.

With little footage of the Aussie in action outside of his terrific performances at the 2013 Nike Hoop Summit and FIBA Under 19 World Championships, Exum was labelled as the ‘mystery’ player of his draft class – something that may have aided his rise up draft boards.

Quite often, the casual NBA fan will look to the latest crop of five-star college basketball recruits when assessing the upcoming draft. As Exum didn’t take that route to the NBA, he skipped out on much of the scrutiny and analysis that comes with playing top flight division I basketball. Some were cynical on the Aussie due to their lack of knowledge, while others were excited with the idea of what the public didn’t yet know about Exum’s game.

Fast forward to 2018 and Exum remains just as polarizing to fans as the day he was drafted. Through his first four years in the league, Exum has missed over 100 games due to two significant injuries – an ACL tear suffered in 2015, and a separated left shoulder suffered in a preseason game earlier this season. Some have already labelled Exum a bust, while others are quick to point out that enduring two major injuries in the first four seasons of your career is enough to hinder the development of almost every young NBA player regardless of talent level.

A report from the Deseret News today says Exum is now participating in non-contact drills at Utah practice. With a return to Utah’s line up imminent, how will the polarizing Aussie reintegrate himself into arguably the hottest team in basketball right now?

Exum’s most recent stretch of healthy basketball was rather encouraging. The Aussie looked tremendous in the final game of Utah’s season in 2016/17 – a game four loss to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors in the second round of the playoffs. In the matchup, Exum came off the bench to score 15 points while aggressively looking to get to the rim. In featuring on the Jazz’s 2017/18 Summer League team in Utah, the Aussie averaged 20 points, 6.3 assists and 4.3 rebounds on 52 percent shooting and truly looked a class above.

The staple of Exum’s game has always been his ability to get to the rim – either finishing in traffic or drawing defenders to find open teammates. At his best, Exum is ultra-aggressive in his pursuit to get into the paint, and his most recent play suggests he made a conscious decision to do just that.

Last season, Exum connected on just 29.5 percent of his thee pointers with 41 percent of his total shots taken for the season coming from behind the arc. In contrast, Exum shot 55 percent on lay-ups and dunks combined, with 42 percent of his total shots taken coming in those forms. Exum netted 132 points from 149 three-point attempts and 172 points from just 86 lay ups and dunks combined. It’s noticeable that Exum is much more efficient when getting to the rim. Combine that with the fact that attacking the basket will create more open looks for teammates, and it’s clear how Exum can fit in with the Jazz.

Attack. Attack. Attack!

The result of being aggressive towards the rim will result in a much higher percentage shot for Exum as opposed to settling for the three. In a game that values every possession, being as efficient as possible with your possessions goes a long way to being successful and making your mark on a team.

This season, with Exum on the sidelines, Utah head coach Quin Snyder has turned to Raul Neto, Alec Burks and Royce O’Neal to carry the back up point guard duties behind starter Ricky Rubio. A healthy Dante Exum offers the Jazz a better option overall than all three of those players with his size, play making and defensive capabilities.

As a team, the Jazz currently shoot 37.6 percent from three – third highest in the league behind only Golden State, Sacramento and Portland. If Exum finds himself on the floor with outside shooters like Joe Ingles, Donovan Mitchell, Jonas Jerebko, or even the much improved Ricky Rubio, Exum’s skill set becomes even more important to the Jazz.

The talk of Exum being a bust has always felt premature. Young players need playing time to figure out their identity and role at the professional level – something that Exum hasn’t had enough due to two significant injuries. His 148 career games equate to less than two full seasons of NBA experience. His playing identity as an aggressive backup point guard who can finish through contact, push the pace of the game, and find open shooters is something the Aussie was discovering in the post season last year, and the preseason this year.

As with most players returning from a serious injury, there are going to be growing pains both individually and as a team. However, if Exum concentrates on being aggressive towards the rim – and his most recent healthy play suggests he will – Exum will add another element to a team that is currently firing on all cylinders.