2018-2019 Off the Glass Breakout Players Series: Dante Exum
With the 2018-2019 NBA season fast approaching, Off the Glass is making predictions on who the breakout players of each team will be. Today we look at Dante Exum from the Utah Jazz. Entering his fourth season, Australian point guard Dante Exum remains one of the greatest unknowns from the 2014 NBA Draft, despite a promising rookie campaign, flashes of defensive brilliance, and multiple major injuries. The Utah Jazz selected him 5th overall, as Exum’s combination of speed, size, and athleticism at the guard position is a rarity even with the advancements in player training and development. Exum enjoyed a clean bill of health this past offseason, allowing him to focus on preventative measures instead of rehabbing the shoulder or knee injuries that plagued him in the past. A year removed from ACL reconstructive surgery Exum should feel more confident and fluid in his motion on the court. The Jazz front office appears to be confident he will indeed rebound - at least in the short term - after committing him to a three year, 33 million dollar deal. This was a fair deal for both sides as Exum has great upside but has missed 49 percent of regular season contests since entering the league.
The conversation swirling around Exum at the end of last season was his defensive efforts on James Harden during the Rockets-Jazz second round matchup. It demonstrated that Exum can play meaningful minutes during a playoff series and help dictate outcomes on a big stage.
The two best ways of proving that is being the star on your team or being able to give the opposing star a headache.
Exum excels playing on-ball defense against the slippery, athletic, crafty, sharpshooting and intelligent guards of the Western Conference. That’s important; this December, over a ten day stretch the Jazz face the Rockets, Warriors, Blazers, Thunder, Blazers again, and cap it off with the 76ers. The Jazz will need to show out during that stretch to establish themselves as title hopefuls. Utah’s win-loss record during that span could be brutal if the Jazz fail to lock down the multiple All-NBA perimeter threats. Look for Exum to be the X-factor as his containment on the perimeter could help swing these contests in Utah’s favor. Exum is in the conversation with the top-tier backup point guards such as Dennis Schroder, Spencer Dinwiddie, Terry Rozier, and Fred Valvleet. He would easily be the opening day starter for teams like Cleveland or New Orleans over the likes of a Collin Sexton Jr. and an Elfrid Payton, and a better option than whatever Phoenix or Orlando trots out to begin the year. His per 36 numbers are starter-quality at 17 points and 6 assists per game.
After a down year in 2016-17 with a 55 field goal percentage finishing at the rim, Exum rebounded last season to 67 percent in the restricted area. This coincides with an increasingly inverted game as he attacks the paint for nearly 80 percent of his shots, more than double what he did as a rookie. If Exum is able to improve both his three-point shooting and willingness to take shots from deep, he could become dynamic on the attack. For now, the Jazz need him to play within himself as an important bench cog within their advantage offense. Sticking to his strengths and being a defensively minded grinder makes him a strong candidate for a starting guard spot on the @chrisvernonshow ‘can’t do it, doesn’t do it’ team. For a team that employs a top-10 point guard in Ricky Rubio, Exum holds the raw talent to be the best point guard on the Jazz. Only two inches shorter, Rubio has the same 6’9 wingspan as Exum and a plus defender in his own right. But don’t expect Rubio to be meeting 7’3 Boban Marjanović at the top any time soon.
If the Jazz want the luxury of running out two point guard looks then both players will have to improve their three-point marksmanship. Exum shot 27.8 percent from range last season and Rubio came in at 35.2 percent, although vastly improved from earlier in his career, this still will not cut it. Exum’s long-range accuracy hardly benefits from looks in the corner, and with his ability to defend in transition, it makes little sense to station him out there. With Rubio being in the last year of his Minnesota contract and the Jazz able to open up a max cap slot next offseason, this might make Exum the point guard of the future by default. Utah obviously is not a destination NBA city, but may be able to lure a needed stretch four in Nikola Mirotic or 3-D wing in Khris Middleton by bowling them over with a big offer. In recent history contracts have been less of a matter in Utah, Coach Quin Snyder plays the guys that are most effective together. Gordon Hayward skipping town took the potential of a pecking order being established based on external justifications. It is possible they seek to maintain that balance by keeping this core together. If Exum showcases his ability to stay healthy and climbs to an elite level he’ll be entering free agency on the cusp of his prime in line for a big money contract. A second extension would cement Exum as a fixture in the Jazz backcourt next to Mitchell for years to come.