I remember three Junes ago when the Utah Jazz drafted Dante Exum. I was there, covering the NBA Draft for SB Nation (poorly, which is a good explanation for why it was my second and last time doing it). It was the best result we fans could have hoped for. The best result we could have hoped for did not translate into the best possible result on the court, though. Today we have a player coming off of a serious surgery trying to play catch-up by going slowly. And none of the NBA Refs seem to respect him. And that’s a downer for sure.
I remain optimistic about Dante Exum. That said, he is very behind the curve when it comes to his actual on-court, hands-on learning. He played in all 82 games as a rookie which was nice. But he missed his entire next season. Having an ACL injury is no longer a career-ender, but it takes about two years to get to where you want to be. And Jazz fans were looking at Jabari Parker as an example of a success story where a young player can come back and play above the rim. At least, that was how we felt up until the point where Jabari went down for the rest of this season with another torn ACL - the same one that was surgically repaired.
That fear is always going to be there when it comes to Exum and whatever we expect of him to be on the court. Similarly, the Jazz brass have already invested millions into him and want some type of return on that. As a consequence, they may tend to be even more conservative with how much stress and strain they put on his body. His minutes aren't going up. And unlike Jabari, Dante has zero NCAA experience to fall back on.
The Baby Kangaroo came to Utah right from high school and really has so much basketball yet to learn. Thankfully he has some fundamentals down. He's got a good handle, better than average for his height; and has natural pass first instincts that include bounce passes and lobs. At the very least he knows where to get the ball so that his bigmen in Utah can score.
But where he really shines is on-the-ball defense. This is what distinguishes him from many other younger combo guards (like Zach LaVine, for example). And if this is a focus for his development he could one day become a starter on a contending team. Mind you, it will be in that Ron Harper on the Chicago Bulls level starting PG, not a Ron Harper on the Cleveland Cavaliers or Los Angeles Clippers level.
Is a “Ron Harper type of player” a really bad return on a Top 5 Draft Pick? Maybe. It depends on the system he is in. If Exum is supposed to be a shoot first, athletic guard then he's not going to thrive. If he's supposed to be a defender and transition decision maker on a team where wings like Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood take most of the shots? Then it's a pretty good fit.
SIDEBAR: Comparing 2nd yr Dante vs. Bulls era Ron via Basketball-Reference.com - now he just needs Gordon and Rodney to become Michael and Scottie!
Back before the draft people thought he could be the next Penny Hardaway. I think there is a very slim chance that happens now. But he could be like a much more successful team player, someone who helped his franchise win a ring or two.
I have no doubt he could start in the NBA right now. But what Quin Snyder wants him to do is learn how to be a winner, and get to know what it takes. Being George Hill's squire for a season (or more) isn't a bad way to do that. But, I'm an optimist. I look at the flashes of competency and see him being a difference maker in the future. You know, if he can avoid any other serious injuries. And that's the bigger question mark for me than his learning ability or drive.
And it’s great that he has a high learning ability and an actual drive (a lot of “millennials” do not, according to the damn Baby Boomers who won’t retire and open up jobs for people to be able to use their degrees). He’s still super young and a sponge for good habits.
Exum just hasn’t gotten into a groove yet this season, but DNP-CDs could have something to do with that. Is it likely that he gets into a groove between now and the end of the regular season? Probably not. Is it likely that he has a Bryon Russell like Playoffs by coming out of nowhere? That’s even more unlikely.
But is it likely that he’s going to continue getting better, smarter, and learn how to use his body in increasingly effective ways out there on the court? Absolutely.
Dante is a slow growth stock at this point. The returns haven’t been great, but you’d be a fool to chicken out now and dump him.