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Dante’s February Inferno

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Dante Exum is getting better and that should terrify opposing teams.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Utah Jazz Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Three years into his short career Dante Exum has looked nothing like the hype that was built up to his eventual drafting at the number 5 spot in the draft. Dante had one of the worst offensive seasons for a rookie in recent history only to follow that up with a promising summer league that led to a non contact ACL injury which sidelined him for his entire sophomore season in the NBA. Exum’s third year up until December looked like he was headed to bust town. In and out of the lineup behind Shelvin Mack and Raul Neto on the depth chart, the only thing missing from his third season was an extended trip to the Salt Lake City Stars.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Dante Exum was never anointed the chosen one of the franchise when he was drafted. That lofty title was bestowed upon Gordon Hayward only 5 months into his first season after the Utah Jazz traded away Deron Williams shortly after Jerry Sloan unexpectedly retired after a Chicago Bulls loss gone awry. Dante Exum wasn’t meant to be the foundation, he was to be the keystone for the Utah Jazz’s rebuild. His athleticism paired with Gordon Hayward’s all around game, Rudy Gobert’s defense, and Derrick Favors’ punishing post game was going to create a defensive juggernaut the NBA had never seen. Dante Exum would be the Dick Grayson to Gordon Hayward’s Batman that would catapult Utah one day into elite status.

2014 NBA Draft Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Who could blame fans and people around the league with that reasoning? The Los Angeles Lakers coveted Dante Exum hard. Exum had a shoe deal before landing in Utah. He had a foot locker commercial. He was big time. In the state where the words “point” and “guard” are considered holy, Dante Exum had an uphill mountain to climb. He wouldn’t just be compared to Deron Williams or Trey Burke, he’d have #12’s jersey hanging from the rafters above him every game. But we knew he could hike that mountain. He was young, explosive, and had the measurables. He had a good head on his shoulders. His youtube highlights harkened back to a young Penny Hardaway but with John Stockton vision and team focus.

After being drafted the cold reality of being an 18 year old player in a man’s league set in. In 22 minutes a game, Exum averaged 4.8 points, 2.4 assists, and 1.6 rebounds. He rarely took the ball into the paint. Shot a TOTAL 32 free throws and allowed defenses to play the Utah Jazz 5 on 4 letting whoever was guarding Exum to freely roam around on defense.

Utah Jazz v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

His second year after a promising summer league he blew his ACL forcing him out of the Olympics, training camp, preseason, and all of the 2015-2016 season. When returning from injury he was mediocre at best and with a deeper guard rotation Dante Exum quickly fell behind Shelvin Mack and Raul Neto. Many fans, critics, and writers around the league began to write Exum off.

Dante Exum through the 2016-2017 season has found tendonitis in his knee, had to fight his own youthful mistakes, and had to play himself back into shape from an ACL injury. His numbers through December encapsulate that:

After December who could blame Quin Snyder for not playing Dante Exum much? He put him into the starting lineup when George Hill went down and the offense suffered when he was on the court, he turned the ball over almost as much as he converted a pass for an assist, he picked up fouls at an alarming rate, and in increased minutes he still was averaging just a little bit better than his rookie year numbers of 4.8 points, 2.4 assists, and 1.6 rebounds. The end result of that rocky December stretch was Dante Exum’s benching for 9 games at the end of December into January.

The turning point.

At home in a loss to Oklahoma City, Dante Exum looked like a #5 pick. In 14 minutes of play, he held his own against Russell Westbrook and posted a +13 +/- in a game where George Hill posted a -13 +/-. His stat line on the surface looked average: 8 points, 2 assists, 2 rebounds, 1 steal, and 0 turnovers. But when adjusted to a PER36 average you get a glimpse of the flash of potential Exum showed that night: 20.5 points, 5.1 assists, 5.1 rebounds, and 2.5 steals on 50% shooting from the field.

The other exciting development from that game was his usage rate. It jumped to 20%. He was establishing himself in the offense, not waiting in the corner for something to happen.

From that game to the present he turned his numbers around as evidenced by the string of tweets from the SLC Dunk twitter account.

The best development of Dante Exum has to be his usage percentage. He’s taking control of the offense. For the month of February Dante Exum’s usage rate is 22%. To put that into perspective he’s never averaged more than an 18% usage rate in any month of his career. What does that mean? It means more of this:

And people are noticing, but even more importantly, people inside the Utah Jazz front office are noticing:

With Dante Exum playing at this level, Utah has better negotiating position when working out that contract extension with George Hill, and if he doesn’t re-sign with Utah, Utah knows they have Dante Exum chomping at the bit to prove he was worth his high lottery selection.

The other scenario that hurts to talk about but must be discussed is the scenario in which Gordon Hayward does not re-sign in Utah. He jets to Boston or some other team just waiting to use its cap space. Dante Exum playing at this level allows Utah to have a soft landing if Gordon Hayward leaves. They have a strong core of Dante Exum, Rodney Hood, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors, and Rudy Gobert to move roll with next season.

On the bright side, if Dante Exum is continuing his stellar play, it’s hard to see Gordon Hayward wanting to leave Utah when he can have a 6’6 athletic phenom running the point, getting buckets and finding him on the move.

Whatever happens, Dante Exum’s sudden upward trajectory over the past 30 days is exciting, fun, and special.