In summer league and preseason, Dante Exum looked like a different player. That seems like a hyperbole but when you have time go and watch some highlights of Dante Exum. He looks different. It’s not just that he bulked up and started to look like he fit his frame. It’s not that he finally didn’t look to be sporting a jr. high mustache. It’s that he looked like he belonged.
In Summer League, Exum was penetrating the paint and not panicking while the play developed. He attacked the rim without fear, but even better, he was drawing fouls and finishing around the rim. He used his size against smaller defenders. He confidently was making three pointers off the dribble. To the excitement of Jazz fans in the crowd, it appeared that Donovan Mitchell and Dante Exum were developing chemistry on the court. They were looking for each other, playing off each other, and, as a result, were giving Jazz fans dreams of Utah’s backcourt of the future.
In Summer League, Exum picked up where he left off. He often looked like the best point guard Utah had on the roster. Was Ricky Rubio going through his hellacious adjustment period to Snyder’s advantage offense? Yes. But Exum was clearing the bar that a lot of us were eagerly anticipating to see: could he look as good or better than Rubio?
Previously to Exum’s summer league and preseason developments he had looked far from the player that many had anticipated he’d become after being drafted #5 in the 2014 NBA Draft. He struggled in his rookie campaign. While he looked like a premier defender, he looked like a monster liability on the offensive end. Then Exum had his entire sophomore season cut short because of a knee injury in the offseason of 2015. Then in his return he struggled to surpass Shelvin Mack on the depth chart.
Then we began to witness the switch being flipped at the end of last season, the very end of last season. In what would be Utah’s fourth and final defeat of the NBA postseason to the Golden State Warriors with the game out of reach in the second half, Exum was inserted into the lineup. Exum who had played sparingly from the end of March on seemed to be exorcising all of his demons in the matter of a 24 minute half. He was attacking the rim, getting his teammates involved, and at times looked like the alpha player on the court. The Utah Jazz would lose that game, but many turned off their television sets thinking, “I hope we get that Dante Exum next year.”
Dante Exum’s summer league was the remix to that 24 minute half. We saw him with strong takes to the basket. He had done this in the past, but he had struggled with finishing at the rim. There was one other part to that equation. Exum is one of the fastest guys in the league, but it seemed he only had two gears: still and lightning. In preseason, he began to add a hesitation. He had an upgraded transmission which allowed him to make plays like this.
Watch Dante do it again on this play. He tricks the defense into thinking he’s setting up the play and waiting for the screen, but instead he kicks it into high gear that draws the defense in. A lot of the times in the past Dante would go straight out of bounds looking for someone to pass it to, but now he’s going into the paint with his head up watching the defense fall right into his hands. He finds Tony Bradley cutting to the rim and gets it to him for the easy slam.
Because of his ability to get to the rim and his penchant for not taking shots of the dribble, most defenders don’t try to go through the screen, instead opting to drop behind the screen to prevent the drive and dare Exum to take the three. This strategy for the last three years has been exactly correct—until it wasn’t. In Summer League, Dante Exum began punishing players for slipping under the screen by hitting threes off the dribble behind the screen.
For those that don’t think Exum is about to take the next step in his development they’ll point to his combined numbers in Summer League and say, “Well, it was only summer league.” They say that without watching him play and see the true development taking place. This is why Utah looks at the absence of Exum similarly to the absence of Rudy Gobert this year. The Utah Jazz saw Dante Exum’s development and anticipated that he was going to contribute in a big way.
But we, of course, know the rest of this story. Utah’s dream scenario turned to a nightmare as Exum was on the wrong side of a TJ Warren injury and Utah’s second year of a rash of injuries begun. But now we’re almost to the end. Dennis Lindsey has said that Utah anticipates Exum to make his return to lineup sometime in March. The question then becomes how long will it take to see the Dante Exum of summer league and preseason? Depending on the answer, Utah’s improbable run back into the playoff race becomes more interesting.
When Exum returns from injury he most likely will gobble up the minutes being used right now by Raul Neto and Alec Burks. If Exum gets to his preseason levels, it is not out of the realm of possibilities that Quin Snyder could end up playing Dante more minutes than Rubio depending on which point guard has the hot hand. Royce O’Neale might see a dip in his minutes, or we might see Jonas Jerebko’s minutes taken by Jae Crowder in an attempt to keep O’Neale’s minutes up while accounting for Exum’s insertion in the rotation. With Exum back in the lineup, Quin Snyder once again has a deep team with numerous possibilities to throw at opposing defenses and offenses.
What probably gives most people the chills, is the possibility of the DMX backcourt of Dante Exum and Donovan Mitchell. When Ricky Rubio subs out of the game, in goes Dante Exum. Opposing offenses do not get reprieve from a tall and lengthy guard breaking up the passing lanes. They can’t try to switch the point guard on their stretch fours for an advantage. Not with a 6’6 (probably taller due to him growing) as the point guard. Donovan Mitchell and Dante Exum can guard 1-4. Most importantly they are out of this world athletic.
The debut of the DMX backcourt is soon, but, most importantly, the return of Dante Exum is almost here. Soon we’ll get to see if the progress we saw in Summer League and Preseason was real. Soon we’ll get to see if Dante is a vital piece of Utah moving forward. Soon we’ll get to just enjoy Dante Exum making plays like this.
The return of Dante Exum is nigh and we are all here for it.