The Utah Jazz prioritized Dante Exum over nearly every other asset they had this summer, and now he must rise to the occasion on a contending team.
When the Jazz take the court next this fall, the unit we grew so used to seeing share the court will look quite different. By trading for Mike Conley and signing Bojan Bogdanovic far above his market value, Utah did their best to stock up and compete with the best in the NBA. In doing so, the Jazz also put a dent in the depth that has helped them ram through the regular season this past half-decade and put the onus on some of their less-heralded pieces to contribute. One such inconsistent depth piece is Dante Exum, the oft-injured and perpetually raw combo guard the Jazz drafted fifth overall in 2014.
Exum is still just 24, but a year into his $33 million second contract, the young Australian product must show more to help the Jazz solidify a playoff rotation they can feel good about. Heading into the fifth year of his career, Exum has basically never been a net positive on the court. He has struggled mightily with injuries, playing just 204 of 328 possible games since being drafted. And he has failed to carve out a meaningful role in Utah’s plans.
Though the Jazz gave Exum a raise after his rookie contract expired, they did so more as a bet than a reward. Paying Exum didn’t sneak up on Utah. At the time he was drafted, he was so raw and coming from lower-level competition in Australia that evaluators knew he would take a while. Nearing his athletic prime now, if Exum can stay healthy and simplify his game, he will help Utah make up for the losses it suffered this summer at the wing and guard spots as it moved on from veterans Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, Thabo Sefolosha and Ricky Rubio.
Early indications are that Exum will play more on the wing to help offset that lack of veteran depth. According to Tony Jones o fThe Athletic, “the Jazz think they can be special” if Exum stays healthy. Furthermore, Exum is expected to defend both wing positions this season in addition to point guards. That’s the right decision and would help the Jazz take advantage of Exum’s defensive versatility, especially with Emmanuel Mudiay in tow now to sop up backup playmaking duties. Jones also notes, however, that Exum has always preferred operating with the ball in his hands.
That has to change. Exum’s turnover rate has been astronomical each season, putting him in the bottom fifth of the NBA among combo guards, according to Cleaning the Glass. Fortunately, Exum’s assist percentage has also gone up over the course of his career, and he has developed the instincts to make the pass the defense is giving him more often than he used to.
Speed and lateral mobility are two of Exum’s biggest strengths on both ends of the court, and offensively, his ability to consistently beat his man forces the defense to rotate and help as he drives to the basket. As that shift is happening, Exum now understands where the opening will be and can hit that hole with a pass.
Particularly in that last clip, Exum demonstrates the development in his court vision and patience. Many young guards’ handle and dribbling ability inhibit them from being strong playmakers. Exum doesn’t suffer from that problem; when he powers past his man, he gets low to the floor, keeps his dribble alive and in recent seasons has demonstrated a bit of creative shake that he didn’t previously have.
In this way, Exum quickly became a useful NBA slasher. Over the past three full seasons, over half of Exum’s shot attempts have come at the rim, which put him in the 90th percentile for at-rim volume in the league among combo guards, per Cleaning the Glass. Many NBA players have long arms, but few of them operate with that length in a functional way that helps their game. Exum only made 51 percent of his shots at the rim this year but can continue trending in the right direction if he stays healthy and improves his decision making. Flashes against solid rim protectors in drop coverage are a reason for optimism.
Far too often still, Exum sprints toward the hoop with what appears to be no plan or an over-scripted rule book. Either way, it often results in a turnover. Most of these turnovers come when Exum cannot hold onto his handle or gets spooked by the rotating defense. In the playoffs, crunch time or with bench units, defenses are keyed in far more to his and his teammates’ weaknesses, and reading the halfcourt becomes more complex. Simple athleticism and attentiveness are no longer enough. Exum constantly loses his dribble or turns the ball over with an offensive foul in the halfcourt.
Exum would benefit from more trust in his ability to dribble under the basket and reset along the baseline (sometimes called “Nashing”). In the last clip above, you’ll see Exum go up for a dunk and get met by Bismack Biyombo. More of that! The defense knows it can force Exum into mistakes by sending extra defenders into his path. Simply punishing that aggressive help defense by putting consistent pressure on the rim or popping out to take advantage of a rotated unit would help Exum become more efficient. If he does play on the wing more this year, catching the ball on the second side of a primary action will simplify his duties as well and play to his strength — straight-line drives.
When Exum has to make a tight skip pass or throw his teammate open, mistakes follow. Again, if the defense is any tighter than he’s expecting, Exum fumbles. What was probably an open dump-off in practice is covered in live game action, and Exum can’t course-correct.
Then the problems snowball and Exum begins to over-think even the most simple of plays, be it a ball reversal or entry pass. Those types of turnovers could easily be cut out of his game. Besides Mudiay, playing more minutes alongside above-average playmakers like Conley and Donovan Mitchell will mitigate the errors that come when the ball is in Exum’s hands, so long as he is comfortable sacrificing.
Imagining that the mistakes Exum makes are mental is a guess in some ways, though hesitancy and frustration do show up on-screen. If some of the problems are in his head, then a more limited role on offense could bring more out of him on defense.
Last season, former Jazz forward Derrick Favors said during a stretch of impactful play from his younger teammate, “It looks like the game’s kinda slowed down for him. He’s making the correct read now without really forcing anything. … He doesn’t look timid — he looks like he’s having fun and not worrying about playing time and things like that.”
Not many fifth-year players are talked about that way, but when you consider Exum has only played about 3,900 career minutes (league-leader Bradley Beal played over 3,000 himself this season), consistency in his role and minutes total could be important. Ideally, that role is as a defensive stopper. That’s a role he can capably fill, and one that will maximize his impact.
Over the past couple seasons, Exum has learned the rhythm of Utah’s conservative defensive scheme. With Rudy Gobert dropping deep toward the rim against pick-and-rolls and Jazz point guards going under screens to encourage midrange jumpers, off-ball defenders must help intelligently and prevent open 3s. Exum reads the floor well on defense, and his length is a weapon far more than it is on offense.
As he showed in this year’s playoffs against the Rockets, man defense is where Exum really shines. Though physically he is still far from a chiseled, strong stopper, Exum plays hard on that end and stands his ground. Exum’s long, strong strides keep him balanced and upright against driving ball-handlers. And when he times his contests right, it’s a silly proposition to try to get a good shot up over the top of his outstretched arms.
Though he fouled on 4.1 percent of his team’s possessions this season according to Cleaning the Glass, that aggressiveness is part of Exum’s style. The fouls need to lessen, but Exum seems to relish going mano a mano and will give a foul or two to send a message. That’s affordable in limited minutes but not so much if Exum plays more this season.
Adding strength will help here as well. Exum has to use his arms to pressure the ball and stay connected because his chest and overall frame are not strong enough to initiate or absorb contact. A ball-handler need only lower his shoulder into Exum’s abdomen to get him off balance. Difficult floaters — which the Jazz defense is centered around forcing — are a lot easier when it’s Exum between the shooter and the hoop rather than someone like Mitchell or Royce O’Neale.
A belief in Exum surviving on the wing is at odds with the understanding that he needs to get stronger. Even at 24, Exum is probably a negative trade asset on his remaining two-year, $19 million contract. Putting him in position to succeed is their best option, as is speaking highly of him publicly.
In the same Deseret News story linked above, the writer relays an anecdote from Quin Snyder about the power of a Utah assistant sitting down with Exum and clearly outlining the gameplan to improve specific skills. According to Snyder, hearing the information plainly made all the difference. Setting a focus for Exum all the way in August seems a smart way to get through to him as the Jazz acknowledge how important he is to their title hopes.
Setting aside the contract, unleashing Exum as a defensive specialist is useful, particularly in the playoffs, where Utah’s path to the Finals likely has to go through more than one of Harden, Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Damian Lillard. But at just 24, Exum has the potential to be more. The Jazz reportedly refused to include Exum in a trade package for Conley at the trade deadline in February and ultimately avoided including him this summer when they finished the deal. Exum is important to them.
Because of the high-reaching goals of the Jazz this season, Exum will have to restrict his game before it can expand. Adding functional strength and sharpening his handle and decision-making in secondary playmaking opportunities in the halfcourt are two realistic goals that would help him immensely. A stronger Exum would up his at-rim efficiency, foul less and fit more easily on the wing. Cutting down on turnovers and building up his awareness, simply put, would make him more playable on offense. This year’s smaller, more perimeter-oriented Jazz roster needs him. These few small, simple steps could be the difference between a reliable, effective role player on a championship-caliber team and a guy who’s on the trade block.