With three injury-plagued campaigns acting as the backdrop to a contract year, the 2017/18 season served as the most imperative of Dante Exum’s pro career to date.
Buoyed by a vigorous offseason that included a dominant Summer League, the strengthening of his troublesome lower body, and lapping teammates during sprints, Exum was feeling positive heading into a decisive season.
“I feel very confident at the moment. My finishing has come a long way and being a better decision maker,” Exum told reporters at Utah’s media day in September.
For the first time during his NBA tenure, Exum had control of his own future. Free of any nagging injuries, and having accepted his coach and GM’s confronting truths, the young Aussie was set to finally seize his spot in Utah, and the NBA.
That’s why, when Exum suffered a significant shoulder injury during a preseason game, it was the most calamitous of setbacks for a player who had done everything right to get back on the floor.
“It was tough,” Exum told The Salt Lake Tribune prior to his season debut in March.
“It was a lot of nights where I’d come to the games feeling the energy and the grind of sitting and watching another game that I couldn’t be a part of.”
The injury, diagnosed as a separated left shoulder, kept Exum out of the first 68 games of the year. Add those to the 98 regular season games he’d already missed throughout his career, and Exum has missed 166 of a possible 328 games — or just over 50 percent.
It sucks, to see a young player have to endure setback after setback. The doubt, the noise — from both inside and out — can start to creep its way in. For Exum though, he knew, even before the latest hurdle, that blocking out both the self doubt and pundits is paramount.
“I bought paintings for my place,” Exum told Utah’s media team prior to the season.
“One of the paintings I bought was called ‘Quiet the Noise’. It’s perfect, in my life, my situation, what I need to do and just be able to quiet everything and just go out and do what I’ve got to do.”
For the final 14 games of the regular season then playoffs, Exum certainly blocked out any noise, and did what he needed to do to make his upcoming free agency period rather intriguing.
Averaging a tick under 17 minutes per game, Exum acted as a spark plug for head coach Quin Snyder off the bench. The Aussie came in looking to attack the basket — something that has always defined the best part of his game. His willingness to bang bodies both in the post, and when driving to the rim was certainly encouraging to see. Exum appeared confident in his shoulder, and his body overall.
With averages of 8.1 points and 3.1 assists, Exum helped Utah to a 10-4 record whilst in the line up. His single best outing came against Memphis on March 30, where Exum posted 21 points on 8 for 10 shooting from the field.
Exum plays best when he’s running north-south, meaning his skill set is most maximized when he prioritizes getting to the rim. Upon receiving outlet passes, Exum persistently pushed the ball with pace, making aggressive plays towards the rim when opposing defences were back pedalling.
Even when Exum failed to score in these instances, he was able to create shots for teammates through drive-and-kicks in semi-transition moments.
Utah had a pace of 97.7 during the regular season, good for 25th overall in the league. In Exum, they had a player who was capable of changing gears and increase speeds, which in turn gave Utah a look they didn’t necessarily have prior to his return. Exum adds another wrinkle to their system when he runs directly north after a change in possession, something that complements Donovan Mitchell well, but more on that later.
To show how aggressive Exum was, look no further than the distribution of shot type. He took 87 shots across his 14 regular season games, 53 of which were lay-ups. In comparison, just 26 came in the form of jumpers. Exum managed to shoot just under 53 percent on drives, and 34 percent on jumpers. Exum was far superior when getting to the rim, something that’s been a forte since his pre-NBA days, and he’s finally recognized it.
It’s Donovan Mitchell’s world
Nothing is guaranteed in sports, but Donovan Mitchell acting as the face of the Utah Jazz for the next decade, is as close to a guarantee as it gets. If Exum wants to remain with the Jazz for the long term, it’s paramount that he finds a way to fit in, or around Mitchell.
The two-man combo of Exum and Mitchell spent just 95 minutes on the floor together in 14 regular season outings. This is a small sample size to draw upon, and may not paint a true picture of how the combo would play together over an extended period of time. Still, it’s a sample size nonetheless.
The duo posted an offensive rating of 106, way up on Utah’s overall team rating. The defensive efficiency was also steller at 96.3.
It’s not surprising the offence sees a decent upswing. Exum electing to push the pace fits in well with Mitchell’s explosive open court athleticism. Both guys can play either guard spot, but Exum is best maximized when playing on ball. This has the potential to work well with Mitchell, with his ability to catch-and-shoot or create shots for himself if given the ball late in the shot clock.
Individually, Exum and Mitchell are capable of playing great defence. Putting two young, inexperienced guards on the perimeter at the same time can leave the squad susceptible to mishaps and confusion, but Utah were so well-drilled that this didn’t appear to be an issue. Having Rudy Gobert as a defensive anchor obviously didn’t hurt either.
Speaking of defence, Dante Exum played one-on-one defence on James Harden here as well as anybody has in the previous two years.
His work against Harden in Utah’s second round playoff series was quite commendable overall. Exum gave up just 12 points to Harden on the 53 possessions he guarded him for across the series, garnering much praise from his head coach.
“We’ve had confidence in Dante taking difficult matchups,” coach Snyder said during the series.
“[Harden is] 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.”
Exum may have played Harden tough, but with Snyder electing to shorten his bench rotation, playing time was difficult to come by for the Aussie at times. Exum managed just 12 minutes per playoff game, averaging a modest 4.3 points and 1.3 assists across his 10 appearances.
A hamstring injury in game 4 of the Houston series dampened Exum’s return to play, but the setback wasn’t deemed as significant moving into next season.
A busy offseason ahead
Dante Exum turned what could have been another lost season, into one that should act as a springboard into his next NBA contract. His willingness to hit the ground running — literally and figuratively — allowed the Jazz and other potential suitors to see, when healthy, Exum can be a game-altering guard on both ends of the floor. His continued maturity in the face of adversity should delight Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey — who believed in Exum enough to draft him with a top five pick in 2014.
Having seen Exum play a little alongside Donovan Mitchell, Lindsey should feel buoyed that, at the very least, the two can share the court together simultaneously without it looking like a clash.
The big question the Jazz front office will have to ask themselves surrounds the health of Exum moving forward, whether the reward of a healthy Dante Exum outweighs the risk of an injured one.
Ultimately, Exum showed enough during his late season run that if things don’t work out in Utah, there will be other teams lining up to offer a deal to a player who, at just 22-years-old, still has massive upside.