Dante Exum's game remains a mystery. Where are Utah at with his development as a pro?
It’s been a little over 500 days since Dante Exum suffered a complete tear of his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) while preparing for the 2016 Olympic games with the Australian National Team. The damage done to his knee was quite the setback for the young Aussie — it ultimately prohibited him from putting in any live action on the court during his sophomore season. Now amidst his third professional season, Exum is trying to find his role in a team that looks to compete for a top-four seed in the Western Conference.
The Jazz organization is sitting at an interesting crossroads with Exum. They are dealing with a win-now mindset (their last playoff appearance was back in 2012), which could potentially stall Exum's development for another season — if the Jazz allows Exum to spread his wings, they could risk sacrificing wins. Let's dig in a little deeper and see where Exum stands regarding his overall development as a pro in the NBA.
Despite the limited professional experience, Exum was pegged very early on as one the league's next "can't miss" prospects. His unique physical attacking style of play resembled that of Derrick Rose when Rose first entered the league in 2008. At the time of all this, the NBA was slowly trending towards placing a higher value on having ball handling guards that were physically imposing in stature.
The young Boomer burst onto the scene after dazzling scouts across the league with his freakish array of tools out on the court. During two of the top premiere events for young prospects — the Nike Hoops Summit and the FIBA U-19 World Championships — Exum outclassed his peers Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Jabari Parker. He set the tone at those events, firmly establishing himself as one of the most intriguing basketball prospects of the past decade.
After his stellar performances out on the circuit, Exum decided against joining a powerhouse school like Kentucky or Indiana, choosing instead to immediately enter the NBA draft. Leading up to the draft in 2014, the then 18-year-old Exum was one of the least experienced international basketball players to be projected as a top lottery pick by notable draft publications, including DraftExpress, NBADraft.net and ESPN.com. There wasn't much film on Exum — he only competed against higher level competition in a handful of events. All of this culminated into Exum becoming the international man of mystery. I even took a stab at trying to predict where Exum would end up in the draft. Here is my write-up on him back in 2014:
I envisioned Exum paired with Victor Oladipo as a killer backcourt that could wreack havoc both offensively and defensively. Ultimately, my prediction was off by one pick. On draft night, Exum was selected fifth overall by the Utah Jazz, which was quite the gamble at the time. The Jazz traded for Trey Burke on draft night the year prior, establishing that they already had their point guard of the future. Yet, part of the beauty of the NBA draft is the uncertainty of what front offices will do with their selections. Teams have different draft and roster construction philosophies, and just because the Jazz had Burke didn't mean that couldn't take a risk on Exum. General Manager Dennis Lindsey and the Jazz decided to take that risk drafting Exum as a developmental asset, knowing his progression as a player could take some time.
As drafting styles differ from team to team, two constants remain — need and potential. Upon his arrival in Utah, one thing was apparent, Dante's fit may be a little trickier than the Jazz first envisioned. The "need" was already filled by two young guards, Burke and Alec Burks, but Exum would serve as a depth piece. Fast forwarding two years later, the Jazz addressed the point guard position as a position of need by trading for George Hill. As Exum's role may have taken a back seat, at 21 years old his potential still looms.
On the surface, everything is fine with the Dante Exum of today. Like most young players, development takes time. We are 110 games into his career, and it’s safe to say he is still in the early stages of his overall development as a player. Exum has many intriguing parts to his game. In fact, if we were to put our mad scientist hats on and construct a point guard in a lab, multiple parts of Exum’s game would be adopted.
The implementation of Dante’s size would be the first attribute chosen. He stands 6 feet 6 inches tall with a long, 6-foot-9-inch wingspan — perfect measurements for the contemporary NBA guard. His speed and athleticism would be the next undertaking within the procedure. He glides across the court like a gazelle, often showing flashes of top flight, end-to-end speed coupled with jaw-dropping, one-man fast breaks seemingly out of thin air. But at this point in time, that’s about all a scientist would want from Exum’s skill set.
Exum's actual basketball skills have somewhat plateaued. He came into the league as a suspect shooter and remains one. Although he appeared in all 82 games of the 2014-15 campaign, starting in 41 of them, Exum only averaged a shade over 22 minutes per contest and was a questionable shooter — he shot 35 percent from the field and 31 percent from the 3-point line. Before missing his entire second year due to a torn ACL, Exum put a serious amount of work into his jump shot as seen here:
Despite the countless hours that Exum put into his shot, the results still are just not there. Through 28 games this season, Exum is averaging just 0.8 3-point makes per game out of 2.5 attempts, resulting in a 30 percent clip. He'll need to see some improvement over the next 50 games if he wants to avoid being known as one of the worst shooters in NBA history to start a career. According to David Locke (Jazz play-by-play radio host and creator of the Locked on Podcast Network), only 15 players in NBA history have started the first two years of their career shooting under 37.5 percent from the field and below 32.5 percent from three. The list includes names like former teammate Burke, Sasha Vujacic, Alexey Shved, Phil Pressey, PJ Hairston, Devon George, William Avery, Jerome Allen and Nikoloz Tskitchivili.
Moving to the defensive side of the ball, Exum's length helps create massive advantages out on the perimeter against both point and shooting guards. Unfortunately for Exum, his defensive awareness just hasn't developed at the rate that the Jazz would have hoped. He is often caught making poor defensive choices. His foul rate per 36 minutes doesn't look too stellar either, averaging 4.3 fouls in that span. Check out these videos below where Exum and his teammates have poor communication, ultimately leaving Exum against Dallas' 7-foot-1 center, Salah Mejri:
Exum has been an interesting case study when it comes to on/off metrics this season. Through the 28 games he's played this year, the Jazz sit at minus -3.4 points worse per 100 possessions with Exum on the court. When he's out on the court, the Jazz offensive production takes a dip, too — they are scoring at a rate of 98.3 points per 100 possessions. When Exum hits the bench, according to the numbers, the Jazz offense and defense jump leaps and bounds. They are currently sporting a stellar 113.4 points per 100 possessions, only allowing 100.6 on the defensive end, resulting in a +12.8 net rating.
Yet despite these numbers, the Jazz's most successful lineup this season involves Exum. Exum, Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, Boris Diaw and Rudy Gobert have a total of 85 minutes together, which is the team high, and they have posted an impressive +33.6 net rating (114.9 offRTG, 81.4 defRTG). It's important to note, however, that while Quin Snyder and his staff value Exum's development, the reality is that the Jazz want to make a run at a top seed. Exum's development has stalled out, and it will stay that way if he continues to only play the 20 minutes a night.
As long as the Jazz keep winning, Exum will continue to have a lot of value for the organization. He is still on his rookie contract and will not hit the restricted free agent market until 2018. With the new CBA in place, Exum's contract continues to be as cap-friendly as contracts can be, especially considering the production he is actually providing for the Jazz. Take a look below at Exum's contract courtesy of Spotrac.
As the Jazz look to rise in the ranks in the Western Conference, they will certainly be monitoring every step in Exum's developmental process. The organization will be pressed with very difficult contract decisions this summer, including that of Exum's backcourt partner, Hill. If Exum is going to have any future past his rookie contract, he'll need to start showing larger signs of improvement. Otherwise, he'll turn into one of the great "what if" prospects in the last ten years.