Three years and $33 million.
For plenty of NBA fans, especially those who don’t follow the Utah Jazz, the new Dante Exum contract led to some sticker shock.
Longtime NBA writer Chris Sheridan reacted by tweeting, “Nominations for most money given to a draft bust are now closed. How exactly did @daanteee earn $33 million? He may ultimately be worth it, but he certainly hasn’t earned it.”
Sheridan’s hyperbole aside, some of the reactions to the Exum contract were warranted.
Among the 303 players with at least as many minutes as Exum since he entered the league, he’s 300th in Win Shares, 299th in Win Shares per 48 Minutes and 294th in Box Plus-Minus.
Among the 1,556 players in NBA history with at least as many minutes as Exum through their first four seasons, Exum is 1,524th in Win Shares.
When looking at catch-all metrics like those, it might be easy to agree with Sheridan’s assessment that Exum is a “bust.”
But, as most NBA fans know, numbers don’t always tell the whole story.
Exum turned 23 in July. Utah rookie Grayson Allen turns 23 in October. And Exum’s four seasons in the NBA were a crash course for him.
In June of 2015, I wrote the following about Exum’s rookie year for Bleacher Report:
According to Basketball-Reference.com’s Player Season Finder, 92 NBA rookies [now 117] were 19 or younger on February 1 of their respective first years.
Narrowing it down even further, only 16 entered the league without playing for an American high school or college [now 19]. Exum was the only member of that group without prior professional experience [still true].
No one as has ever experienced the same NBA learning curve as Exum. His leap from the level immediately preceding the NBA (Australian high school basketball) to the NBA (the highest level of basketball in the world) was unprecedented.
And yet, he showed more than a few flashes over the course of his four-year rookie contract that he belongs.
Start with his rookie campaign, when it was clear he could, at the very least, be an impact defender.
Exum became a full-time starter on January 22 of that season. Up till then, the Jazz were giving up 106.8 points per 100 possessions, a defense that ranked 27th over that span. From January 22 to the end of the season, they gave up 97.1 points per 100 possessions, which was the best defense over that timeframe.
The league further explained Exum’s impact as a rookie:
Unfortunately, the rising defensive ace hit a significant obstacle prior to his second season, when he tore his ACL in international play with Australia.
In 2016-17 (the third year of his rookie deal), Exum played around 600 fewer minutes than he did as a rookie. And his On/Off splits saw a drastic inversion. Utah outscored opponents by 5.9 points per 100 possessions when he was off the floor, as opposed to two when he was on.
But, individually, there were still signs of progress. Exum produced significant increases over his rookie year in Box Plus-Minus, Win Shares per 48 Minutes, Rebounding Percentage and points per team possession.
And then, in 2017-18, after missing most of the season with a shoulder injury, we really got to see a glimpse of what Exum might be.
Now, of course, Exum put up those numbers in a significantly smaller sample than anyone else on the list. And I’m not saying he’s on their level yet. But that kind of raw production for a player on Exum’s learning curve is encouraging.
And it’s a nice reminder that the curve is heading in the right direction.
It may not feel this way, because it’s taken a while for him to get to where he is now, but Exum’s career has actually been a steady climb upward.
And he’ll have to continue to do that to warrant the $33 million Utah paid him.
While 2017-18 was encouraging, it was just his first season with an above-replacement-level-player Box Plus-Minus (-2). And he still has some work to do to get above average (zero).
The most obvious area for improvement is probably still shooting. While his True Shooting Percentage has gone up in each of his three seasons, his three-point percentage has moved in the opposite direction. And up until this summer, the jumper still looked uncomfortable.
Then, video of Exum shooting a pull-up off the dribble in a summer pickup game hit the internet in August.
It may be peak offseason NBA Twitter to read anything into one play from a pickup game, but dribble pull-ups were almost nonexistent throughout Exum’s rookie contract. Any semblance of a jumper, in combination with Exum’s explosiveness, would do wonders for both him and the Jazz.
Improved handles wouldn’t hurt either. There are still times when it looks like the ball is barely attached to Exum, in stark contrast to point guards like Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving, who seem to have it on a string. He may never get to their level of ball-handling, but there’s no harm in trying.
He could also let go of being a point guard. And he may already be doing that, as evidenced by some of his comments about playing the 3 on media day.
Instead of exclusively being a point guard, Exum can be a part of a position-less platoon that makes the Jazz more dangerous on both ends. When Quin Snyder deploys lineups including some combination of Exum, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Alec Burks and Grayson Allen, Utah will be able switch all over the perimeter on defense and attack from all over the floor on the other end.
Exum came into the league with tons of promise. The next Anfernee Hardaway. Another shot at Shaun Livingston. And while some people may have lost faith over the first four years, his recasting as a prototypical position-less player could reignite the flame.