By Dan Clayton
On the one hand, Dante Exum’s delay in fulfilling his pre-draft potential is totally understandable. Few, if any, youngsters have started their NBA careers off quite like the Australian guard: not playing organized ball for two of the last four years, arriving to his first summer practice days before his 19th birthday, the ACL tear, being on a rebuilding team that was suddenly too good to invest developmental minutes. In other words, he has plenty of excuses for looking like a top-five pick only in brief flashes so far.
But those excuses only work if you’re looking backward; they won’t stop the career clock for a player who’s suddenly 22 and entering the negotiation period for a rookie contract extension.
Simply put, it’s time to put up.
Exum’s selection near the top of an allegedly star-studded draft was always about potential. The Jazz were hoping for a long-term payoff when they took the 18-year-old from the cute Foot Locker ads. (“X like xenopus” remains my flag phrase on Twitter for when Exum does something awesome.) The long bet grew longer when he tore an ACL, and by the time Exum made his way back to the court, Utah had acquired a starting-caliber point guard in George Hill that had rendered the 6’6″ speedster a reserve.
Now, Exum finds himself looking up at Ricky Rubio on the depth chart. And lest he think he can sneak a bunch of shooting guard minutes, the Jazz will be shifting much of their offense to Rodney Hood and lottery pick Donovan Mitchell, a player they hope will work his way up in the rotation quickly.
To avoid seeing his minutes dry up, Exum has to immediately assert his value, something he failed to do in an up-and-down season after his year of knee rehab. He actually found himself out of the rotation briefly, and when he did play, he got a lot of quick hooks. The Jazz were trying to be as good as they could be to entice Gordon Hayward to stay — spoiler alert: it didn’t work — and that meant Quin Snyder couldn’t show the same patience that had benefited Exum and other Jazz youngsters earlier on.
“Obviously it’s frustrating to see your minutes go up and down,” Exum admitted at his end-of-season presser. “I just used it as an opportunity when I was getting minutes to play as hard as possible, but to step back when I wasn’t and be able to work on my game.”
He still probably deserved a few more minutes than he got, but that’s hardly the point now. He’s entering his fourth season (contractually at least), yet has fewer than 150 regular season NBA games on his résumé. If he doesn’t start to resemble the potential star that Utah hoped he was, it’s going to need to happen soon.
Finding the Offense
Despite being profiled as a speedy, slashing scorer ahead of his top-5 draft selection, Exum mostly added value at the defensive end during his rookie year — a polite way of saying he was an offensive liablity. In fact, his rookie true shooting (.457) wasn’t just 7.7 points per 100 shooting possessions worse than that year’s average; it was also the 14th worst by a modern rookie with as many minutes.
That’s concerning, but not necessarily an irrevocable sentence to mediocrity. After all, eventual All-Stars Jason Kidd, Rajon Rondo and Gary Payton were all in the same ballpark as rookies. None were necessarily billed as shooters, yet all three managed to coax enough efficiency out of their games over time to reach star status. And, to Exum’s credit, none of those three righted the ship in year two quite like the Australian did last season. His 2016-17 TS% registered at .521, still a lick below league average, but an encouraging jump after what could be considered a worrisome rookie offensive performance.
But in truth, the leap came mostly by reallocating shooting possessions. He showed off refinements in his in-between game, but most of the improvement came from cutting out nearly all of his long twos (just three percent of his attempts in 2016-17 after making up 11 percent of his rookie shots) and getting more shots off in the restricted area (44 percent of his attempts, up from 13 percent).
To continue to progress, Exum will have to keep getting into the lane. The good news for his believers is he was aggressive during summer league play. Granted, the cohort quality isn’t quite what he’ll experience in October, but Exum used his lethal north-south speed and a growing array of stutters, spins and sidesteps to dance into the lane for most of his 60 points over three July games.
He’ll also need to get better at finishing once he’s there. That was an issue for him last season, largely because of the issue that headlines his offensive scouting report at this stage: he loves to go right. In the low-risk confines of summer play, he started to experiment with some ambidexterity that could open up his driving game significantly. But even on most plays where he drives right, he still usually finishes — sometimes quite awkwardly — with the right.
He would do well to get comfortable finishing with either hand in some of those situations. These are largely fringe NBA guys he’s scoring on; when it’s DeAndre Jordan or Anthony Davis trailing him, some of these shots are going to be sent into row 11 if he keeps bringing it back toward the defender for the finish. (To wit, here are some examples of it not ending well when he insists on going right against NBA comp.)
On the other hand (unavoidable pun), it’s not a bad thing to see Exum use his tools to accentuate something he’s good at. If he’s more comfortable finishing a certain way, and he can use his elite speed and burgeoning craftiness to create opportunities to finish that way, then at a certain point, you have to let Dante be Dante. There’s a whole wave of developmental science built around the idea that strengths-based development is better than creating action plans to chip away at weaknesses. Indeed, there’s something kind of Spursian or Dubs-esque about embracing what a player can do instead of defining him by his limitations.
Greg Popovich has famously and frequently commented on how he learned to see as strengths some of the things he had perceived as weaknesses in future Hall-of-Famer Manu Ginobili’s game. ”
“One of Manu’s real strengths is his unpredictability,” Pop told the New York Times. “and if I try to pigeonhole and take that away, I think it would affect all parts of his game. Whether it’s making a steal an unorthodox way, going to the offensive boards when he shouldn’t, taking a 3 when I’m jumping off my seat, I’ve decided that I just let him play.”
Exum isn’t Ginobili, but some of his purported developmental paradoxes have that same Manu flavor. He needs to get better, not by stifling his creativity and assets, but by testing the limits of them.
If he’s going to recapture some of the magic that made him the fifth pick in the draft, it won’t be by playing it safe. Let Dante be Dante.
That Defense, Though…
While we’ve been weeping over a bumpy start to Exum’s offensive career, he’s been busy frustrating the hell out of some point guard somewhere.
Nobody expected the youngster to establish himself as a plus defender so quickly. At the end of Exum’s rookie season, as Quin Snyder was recapping for media how the Jazz found their identity as a defense-first outfit, he mentioned Rudy Gobert first and Dante Exum second. That summer, Snyder told Dennis Lindsey not to bother with trade proposals that involved his pupil from Melbourne.
“I believe in him,” Snyder would say, according to what Lindsey told the Deseret News. “I believe in his makeup. I believe in his insides.”
He earned that trust by becoming a pesky defender at the point of attack. His size and length put him in a position to bottle up some point guards, and when he’s dialed in he uses his lateral speed to stay in front and/or squeeze through screens and make a quick recovery. Even if a guy gets a step, Exum does a good job recovering, denying the guy the ability to round the corner. He has frustrated even some of the game’s top guards with that combination of size, quickness and general willingness to be a pest.
That’s on the ball. Off ball, he makes some of the same mistakes that young players often make. He can get lulled to sleep at times, over-help other times, or close out without discipline. He can occasionally lose track of a scheme change, like in February when he mismanaged switches and left Thon Maker open for back-to-back threes.
He’ll tidy those things up. In the meantime, not many 22-year-olds are defensively elite at their position, and if Exum’s not there already, it’s only because of a slight sophomore regression. The already stout Utah defense gets 1.1 points per 100 stingier when Exum checks in. When he shares the court with Gobert, the Jazz allow just 99 points per 100 possessions, and actually do a decent job scoring — 105.4, compared to 107.4 team average.
Bottom line: Exum’s defensive smarts and physical tools have probably redefined his floor to some degree. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where he doesn’t begin to resemble his new teammate. Like Exum, Ricky Rubio earned his chops on the defensive end while his offensive efficiency came and went. Exum certainly doesn’t have the Spaniard’s creative flair as a passer, but if his new worst-case scenario is as a Rubio Lite type of player, that’s a pretty valuable NBA guy.
But talking about Exum’s floor defies the intrigue. It’s his ceiling everybody wants to hurry to define.
If we’re ready to redefine the point guard’s worst-case scenario, it’s only fair that we address the top of his range, too. Three years ago, Exum was considered one of a few 2014 draftees who had a chance at reaching star level. Andrew Wiggins has played almost 9,000 minutes already, putting up nice numbers while battling low efficiency. Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid have looked like solid bets when they’ve been healthy. And Exum… remains a mystery.
From an absolute value standpoint, several later picks have already lapped Exum. The only top-five pick to live up to his draft position in Value Over Replacement Player is Aaron Gordon (+2.4 per 100 team possessions over a replacement guy), whom the Magic selected one spot ahead of Exum. The rest of the top performers from that draft class, per VORP, were all later selections. Second-rounder Nikola Jokic leads the pack at 8.3. Marcus Smart and Elfrid Payton — two other point guards who can’t shoot — were top-10 picks and are currently #2 and #3 in VORP. Exum’s teammate Rodney Hood was picked 23rd and has the class’ sixth best VORP.
Exum is ranked 44th in the stat, 28th in Win Shares.
It’s a little unfair since neither VORP nor WS effectively measure the area of the game where Exum has been strongest — the defensive end. But he has not yet resembled the hypothetical version of himself that caused Fran Fraschilla to compare him to a young MJ.
So is it foolish at this point to believe that Exum still has a ceiling in the star range?
The pessimist would point out that if you mine for players who had this bumpy a start to their careers and still reached All-Star status, you won’t find a huge list. But that’s where we keep coming back to those, for lack of a better term, excuses. Reasons to believe we haven’t seen him scratch the surface yet.
For starters, he hasn’t really had an off-season yet where he was fully dedicated on refining his game. In the summer of 2014 he was caught up in the whole draft rigamarole, then in 2015 he was playing with Australia when he got hurt, and the 2016 off-season was basically just a rehab summer. Now he’s in a gym somewhere just honing his craft — and that’s the first time he’s had a whole summer to do that.
For that matter, we don’t even really know how comfortable he was at all last year. Jazz people tried to temper expectations by saying it would take him a while to really find a rhythm. But few believed — including the point guard himself.
“I tried to convince myself that I was ready, and physically I was 100%,” Exum said, referencing the work he put in to prepare his body. “But once you start getting into the season, you have back-to-backs, you know, the mental aspect starts to take effect.”
Exum thinks he dealt with those challenges well, and ultimately he earned back minutes after finding himself out of the rotation. But to project Exum’s future requires some understanding of the context of his first years as a pro.
And there’s certainly at least one guy who thinks it’s too early to declare stardom a goal too lofty.
“I definitely have confidence in myself that I’m… ready to lead this team.”