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The Journey of Dante Exum

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Dante Exum’s NBA career approaches a critical crossroad this upcoming season.

The journey of a professional basketball player is a fascinating subject. At young ages, young men across the world are fronted with critical opportunities and decisions that dictate the course of their professional careers. Some thrive in the bright lights, signing shoe deals, multi-million dollar contracts, and other high-dollar endorsements. Some crumble under pressure, or simply don’t pan out the way that scouts and teams initially predict. Some experience unfortunate luck with poor health and injuries, which ends up derailing their shot on an NBA roster. Dante Exum’s experience thus far in his professional basketball career has been an interesting one, and is about to get even more fascinating this upcoming season.

Dante Exum graduated high school in 2013. He had showcased his athletic body and skill set in high school and Australian national youth teams, of which he was in a league of his own when it came to athleticism. At the young age of 18, he entered the 2014 NBA Draft after being one of the top prospects among several NBA front offices. He was selected with the 5th pick in the NBA Draft by the Utah Jazz on June 26th, 2014.

2014 NBA Draft Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

The sky was the limit for the young Dante Exum. 18 years old, signing a four year, $16 Million contract, and coming on to a Jazz team that desperately needed a spark of athleticism and play-making ability.

Exum became the 10th Utah Jazz rookie in franchise history to play in all 82 games during the 2014-15 season. He started 41 games and was an integral part of the rotation, playing in 22.2 minutes per game. He averaged 4.8 points per game, along with 2.4 assists which was fourth highest on the Jazz that season. Exum showed promising tendencies, but was still raw, needing additional development.

Exum continued to work on his craft during the off-season, improving his jump shot and ball skills. During the 2015 NBA Summer League, he looked like a different player than the rookie he was a year before. He strutted the court with a new sense of confidence, control, and swagger. He seemed to improve in all aspects of the game. His jump shot seemed more fluid, his passing ability more sharp. Before going down with an ankle injury, Exum was one of the more impressive players in the Salt Lake City Summer League, and everything appeared to be heading in the right direction. And then August 4th rolled around, and every athlete’s worst nightmare came true for Dante.

In an international bout playing for the Australian national team, Exum tore his ACL and was ruled out for the entire 2015-16 season. It was a brutal blow for the Utah Jazz, but even more so for a 19 year old kid trying to make his way in the NBA. All of the excitement that Exum had built up in the Summer League vanished, and his future in the NBA hung in the realm of uncertainty.

Exum spent 13 months rehabbing his knee injury, missing the 2016 NBA Summer League and Australian Olympic campaign in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

But he came back.

Exum suited up for the NBA preseason in October of 2016, and it was great to see him play basketball again. Although a bit timid and careful at first, Exum showed positive signs that he was fully recovered and ready to take on the NBA challenge once again. With the Jazz bringing in veteran point guard George Hill via trade, Exum took the backseat in the rotation and was to come off the bench as a reserve guard.

This is where the Exum journey took an interesting twist. Many expected Exum to jump back into the Jazz rotation and be an important part of the Jazz scheme. But slowly Dante Exum saw diminished minutes last season, and average 18.6 per game, down from the 22.2 per game as a rookie. Exum also lost minutes to Shelvin Mack, who took the majority of back up point guard minutes during the 2016-17 season.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

This was a frustrating part of the season for Jazz fans, as many were excited to watch Exum bounce back from his injury and get back to slicing through the lane. It was one of the few questionable coaching decisions that Quin Snyder has made. There were nine games during the season that Exum didn’t see the court per coach’s decision. But to Snyder’s defense, Exum’s production wasn’t where it needed to be. His jump shot wasn’t falling and he was shooting a mere 29 percent from three. Much of shooting depends on rhythm and routine, which wasn’t a part of Exum’s game in 2016. That could be attributed to his nagging injuries or inconsistent playing time, but Exum’s season ending up being quite the disappointment.

Once again, Exum’s future in the NBA hangs in the realm of the unknown. This upcoming season might be the most important year of his professional basketball career. Approaching a contract year, Exum will need to prove to the Jazz and/or other NBA teams that he is worthy of an extended NBA contract. Truckloads of money are on the line for Exum this season, as well as a continued career in the NBA.

Many players in Exum’s exact current situation falter under the pressure and drift from relevancy in the NBA. Some of them excel into their contract years, performing at high levels to ensure more money and extended contracts to keep playing professional basketball.

This season we should see what Dante Exum is made of. His mental toughness and drive will be tested, more so than it has been in seasons passed. Can he prove that he belongs in the NBA? Can he prove himself worthy of an extension for the Utah Jazz or a reasonable new contract for another team? Only time will tell. For now, the journey of Dante Exum is to be continued..