There are oft-used words when Dante Exum’s name is mentioned: potential, injury, hobbled, flashes, development, or, unfortunately, bust. His picture is practically next to potential in the dictionary. A high school aged player that entered the league with loads of hype, but lacking any hint of polish that comes through the seasoning of the NCAA, Dante Exum fell to the Utah Jazz as the Orlando Magic shocked fans as they selected Aaron Gordon over the 6’6 point guard who had drawn comparisons to another Orlando Great, Penny Hardaway.
Up until the offseason, every single one of those comparisons had felt as misguided as comparing another past Utah Jazz draft pick, DeShawn Stevenson, to the GOAT Michael Jordan. That is until Dante Exum had an amazing offseason. At the Utah Jazz summer league, he looked like a man amongst boys. Pretty crazy considering most playing in that summer league were Exum’s age. Most forget that Dante Exum is only 22 years old—one year older than rookie phenom Donovan Mitchell.
Dante Exum averaged 20.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 6.3 assists in three games in the Utah summer league. Other Utah summer league standouts such as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown didn’t eclipse Exum’s scoring or assists. Markelle Fultz struggled against Exum’s length. Donovan Mitchell flourished when play next to Exum as the pair was a defensive and disruptive nightmare.
Expectations of how Exum had begun to tap into his potential—there’s that word again.
October rolled around and preseason was on its way. Exum’s name was mentioned by coaching staff as someone who had improved considerably over the offseason. He had put in the work. Exum could get to any spot he wanted on the court using his speed, but now he had balanced that speed with change of pace. He started lulling people to sleep on the crossover. He used the pick and roll to his advantage. He had started to take advantage of his height and newly found strength to abuse small players. During the summer league, the Jazz had used him as a positionless point guard. Donovan Mitchell guarded the one while Exum guarded the two and effortlessly switched positions all the way down to the four spot.
Exum’s explosion on his knee was back. One play in particular that highlighted this was a spin move to the hoop while exploding off of two feet for the two handed slam.
Dante Exum with the spin and the stuff! #NBAPreseason pic.twitter.com/7YHXJsSx9E— NBA UK (@NBAUK) October 5, 2017
Quin Snyder even mentioned that the offense was built around Exum’s, as well as Rubio’s, strengths. It seems to hint that Exum had started some succession planning in case the Rubio experiment didn’t work out.
Then, as they always do, the Utah Jazz suffered yet another injury to a player poised for a big year: Dante Exum. In a fluke injury that involved a Phoenix Suns’ player out of control in preseason, TJ Warren fell on Dante Exum while crashing to the ground and injuring his shoulder. Luckily for Utah, this wasn’t a repeat injury to Exum’s knee. It was an acute injury that had nothing to do with prior health conditions. This was just a fluke play of asshattery executed by the body of TJ Warren. Once again, Dante Exum would have to go through rehab and come back.
No timetable was given on Exum’s return while most signs point to a return after this season. Not exactly the type of thing you’re hoping for if you are a player in a contract year.
What is disappointing is he looked to be outplaying Ricky Rubio in preseason. At the time, we shrugged that off as Rubio being new to the Jazz’s system. Surely, Ricky Rubio would adjust and take over the point guard position. But Rubio has looked uncomfortable and out of place in Snyder’s offense and his shooting has regressed to the mean faster than it takes someone in Utah to sober up due to Utah liquor laws. In preseason, we saw the hints that Exum was ready for something special. Exum’s preseason numbers were fantastic.
Dante Exum vs Ricky Rubio - PRESEASON
In preseason Exum outplayed Ricky Rubio in some areas. The Utah Jazz were much better while he was on the floor. We had thought that was due to Rubio’s learning curve to Utah, but as we now know, the Rubio, Derrick Favors, and Rudy Gobert combo is a wet blanket to any offense. With Dante Exum that wasn’t the case in preseason. Dante Exum was hitting the corner three with frequency and wasn’t turning the ball over as much as Rubio. Once again, another preseason hint that turned out to be true. Those turnovers? Rubio is turning the ball over 3.9 times per 36 minutes, a career worst. Rubio’s three point percentage in preseason? Also prophetic. Rubio hasn’t cracked 30% from distance over the season yet.
Prior to the season, I had written this paragraph for the SB Nation NBA Preview. Two days later, Dante Exum was injured and I had to re-write it due to a potential lost season. I had predicted that Dante Exum would usurp Ricky Rubio in the starting lineup and that by season’s end the Utah Jazz’s starting lineup would be Dante Exum, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors, and Rudy Gobert.
Those that say, “IT’S JUST PRESEASON,” there were warning signs to this season: the ineffectiveness of Rubio, Favors, and Gobert, the lack of spacing with three non shooters, the turnover problem of Ricky Rubio, Rodney Hood’s ability to light it up from distance, Alec Burks’ improvement, Favors’ looking back to being right, the Jazz’s soon to be reliance on Mitchell for offense, and Utah’s stellar bench all were seen during preseason. Exum’s development wasn’t a fluke.
If Dante Exum is able to return late into the season, he could be instrumental in a playoff push. While recovering from injury, he may not be able to supplant Rubio in the starting lineup but he’ll take some pressure off of Rodney Hood and Donovan Mitchell, allowing them to do more damage.
Past the season and into the offseason, Utah needs to lock him up to a four year extension. He had shown signs of being a starter in this league. Paired with Donovan Mitchell, the Utah Jazz have a special backcourt of the future—and a young one at that. This would go a long way in rebuilding Utah after Gordon Hayward’s exit.