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Waiting for Exum: Is this the year Dante Exum finally arrives?

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An annual tradition like no other: waiting for Dante Exum.

Houston Rockets v Utah Jazz - Game Three Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

VLADIMIR: We have to come back tomorrow.

ESTRAGON: What for?

VLADIMIR: To wait for Godot.

Four years have passed since the Utah Jazz took a flier on Dante Exum. He wasn’t even initially supposed to fall to Utah in the 2014 NBA Draft. Players like Exum aren’t supposed to land in Utah. He was featured in a Foot Locker commercial before he even had put pen to paper on an NBA contract. Rumors swirled that he was wanting to be drafted by Los Angeles. He was supposed to be some unholy union of Derrick Rose’s first step and Penny Hardaway’s athleticism and size. He would be foregoing a year at college and taking the leap directly to the NBA.

In the age of one and done’s, high schoolers usually can’t sidestep the process. Exum was unique. He stayed a year at the Australian Institute of Sport where he continued to work on his game—albeit while playing iffy high school competition—and then declared for the draft upon turning 19. While there are many high schoolers that have entered the NBA before Exum, few had entered the NBA without playing professionally or in college like Dante.

Exum dropped to the Utah Jazz after the Orlando Magic took whom many had projected Utah to end up with: Aaron Gordon. With Gordon rising past Dante, the Utah Jazz took on the raw Australian diamond with the hope that they would be able to shape and polish Exum’s game to its full potential.

The Jazz’s general manager, Dennis Lindsey, preached patience with the young prospect. Dante Exum unique road to the NBA would prove to be difficult. He was a big point guard. His body wasn’t NBA ready. He had raw NBA ready skills that would be challenged on Day 1. The Utah Jazz had just drafted a point guard the prior year with their first pick. Dante Exum said he wanted to come in and be a leader. Big talk when the Utah Jazz supposedly had that guy in Gordon Hayward. Exum ended up starting for Utah by the end of the season and being part of a hard nosed defense that improved mightily when he and Rudy Gobert were inserted into the starting lineup. Then the offseason injury ...

VLADIMIR: We’ll hang ourselves tomorrow. (Pause.) Unless Godot comes.

ESTRAGON: And if he comes?

VLADIMIR: We’ll be saved.

Thus began the will he/won’t he take the next step of Dante Exum’s career. Dante Exum after his first season had one of the worst offensive season’s of a top 5 pick in recent memory, yet at the same time Exum was pivotal in Utah’s almost history defense post All-Star break of the 2014-2015 season. While playing for the Australian team getting ready for Olympic qualifiers, Exum looked like he was putting it together. He was using his size as an advantage as well as his speed. He looked like a Top 5 pick in those games and then FLASH! It was gone. ACL injury. Exum would not play a single game in the 2015-2016 season.

In the 2016-2017 season, Dante Exum would need time to work himself back into game shape. He would need development time. While many hoped that this would be the year he could turn the corner, it just wasn’t in the stars. He was returning from an ACL injury and wasn’t named Russell Westbrook. His recovery was going to take time. He even struggled where he should have excelled: defense. He was confused by switches, got burned by his men, and consistently was eaten up by screens.

Not helping the situation was how Utah over the offseason had flipped the switch from team in rebuild to playoff contender. They had acquired George Hill, Boris Diaw, and Joe Johnson to pour gasoline on their improvement fire. While this wasn’t necessarily in the best interest long term of developing their young talent like Rodney Hood and Exum, it was in the best interest of the franchise’s future at the time: Gordon Hayward. The Utah Jazz had pushed all their chips to the center of the table that season in the hopes that they could make a playoff run and prove to Hayward that they were heading in the right direction for years to come.

By the season’s end, it had seemed like the strategy was a success. Despite injuries, the Utah Jazz had made the playoffs while pulling off an upset in the 1st round by eliminating the Los Angeles Clippers. They ultimately would fall to the soon to be champion Golden State Warriors while injuries continued to mount—most notably to their starting point guard George Hill.

NBA: Playoffs-Utah Jazz at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Lost in the fray of all of this was the young wunderkind, Dante Exum. The Utah Jazz’s nitros infused playoff push for the season had a cost. While Joe Ingles saw his minutes increase and his game take another step, the less experienced NBA players on the team—Dante Exum, Rodney Hood, and Trey Lyles—all took steps back. Trey Lyles couldn’t stand practicing for 3 hours. Rodney Hood couldn’t fend off a fierce starting spot competition from Joe Ingles. Dante Exum saw his minutes reduced due to mental errors and Quin Snyder’s trust in the veteran Shelvin Mack. In a rebuilding year, the coaching staff and organization may have been more liberal with their minutes while they worked through these challenges, but not when the team’s star player could bolt in the offseason. Utah saw their entire 2016-2017 season as one long drawn out “Meet the Parents” type season where they hoped Gordon Hayward could see himself staying there as a Jazzman for life.

He didn’t. He left. Then he didn’t. Then he did. Unfinished business, he wrote. He burned Utah and its fanbase, and in his wake, the Utah Jazz had deal with the consequences of postponing the development of Exum and Hood in order to please their Benedict Arnold of a star player.

ESTRAGON: Suppose we got up to begin with?

VLADIMIR: No harm trying. They get up.

ESTRAGON: Child’s play.

VLADIMIR: Simple question of will-power.

ESTRAGON: And now?

POZZO: Help!

With Gordon Hayward out of the picture, the attention—rightfully so—turned back to Utah’s young prospects, Dante Exum and Rodney Hood. Rodney Hood was being anointed the Jazz’s soon to be leading scorer. Dante Exum—eager to prove his value to the organization—participated in the Utah Summer League despite entering his 4th season as a pro. Dante Exum looked polished. He stood out on the hardwood more than Donovan Mitchell and Jaylen Brown. He was a man amongst boys. It finally appeared that 2017-2018 would be the season of Dante Exum. Jazz fans had waited long enough for the 5th pick of the 2014 NBA Draft to take the next step. They were witnessing those steps in summer league.

NBA: Preseason-Sydney Kings at Utah Jazz Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Dante Exum put on a show against his home country’s NBL squad the Sydney Kings. He looked dominant. Then came the fall. Earl Watson’s Phoenix Suns were undisciplined, reckless, and out of control. The Suns’ TJ Warren while fighting for a rebound, pushed too hard in a preseason game causing him to fall on Exum, separating his shoulder. The early prognosis was Dante Exum was to miss an entire NBA season ... again.

ESTRAGON: Let’s go.

VLADIMIR: We can’t.

ESTRAGON: Why not?

VLADIMIR: We’re waiting for Godot.

Dennis Lindsey would refer to Exum’s time missed during the 2017-2018 season as detrimental as Rudy Gobert’s missed time. That’s a helluva statement when one considers that the Utah Jazz would go on to finish the season 29-6 once Rudy Gobert returned from injury. It almost feels hyperbolic to compare Dante Exum’s absence to the black hole felt when a defensive player of the year is sitting in street clothes. Curiously, one has to wonder what Dennis Lindsey was seeing in those practices, scrimmages, and offseason workouts before Exum was hurt to make such a grand statement.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

When Dante Exum returned from injury with only a few games left in the regular season—earlier than expected—he didn’t appear to be the Dante Exum seen in Summer League and preseason. The player whose career had been milestoned not by great games but by flashes of potential seemed to be on the verge of a breakthrough. But here Exum was, back and supposedly FINALLY healthy, and struggling. Exum had one special game in which he scored 20+ points, but beyond that, it was more of the same from Dante. A young player grasping to get back to game shape while showing a flash here or there to keep you hanging on.

It’s fitting that fans who stan for Dante Exum refer to their fandom as Exum Island. Waiting for Exum’s breakthrough can feel as isolating as being stuck at sea on a deserted island. There are moments of hope—a plane seen flying over head, just before the horizon, or even a break in the never-ending static of the radio—but between those flashes is monotony of the same pattern day after day.

That’s why what happened in the second round of the NBA Playoffs has the potential to change everything.

VLADIMIR: We have to come back tomorrow.

ESTRAGON: What for?

VLADIMIR: To wait for Godot.

With Ricky Rubio hurt, Donovan Mitchell having to play substitute starting point guard, and Royce O’Neale subbing in for Spida-Man at shooting guard, Dante Exum was thrust into big minutes in the playoff rotation not as a result of merit, but desperation. It was here on the NBA’s biggest stage against the NBA’s top seeded team that Dante Exum seemed to finally arrive.

To those who like to throw a wet blanket on a promising situation, this was far from the breakthroughs in the past. Admittedly, Exum’s big steps in the past all came with large, unmistakeable asterisks.

Defensive prowess during his rookie year*

*his offense was terrible.

Looking like he belonged with National Team during the Summer of 2015*

*it was an exhibition game in the Oceania division of FIBA.

Dominance at Utah Summer League 2017*

*it’s Summer League, man.

Showing out against international teams during the 2017 NBA Preseason*

*it’s Preseason, man.

NBA: Playoffs-Utah Jazz at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

This time, no one was taking it easy. He was tasked with guarding James Harden, the soon to be MVP. While guarding Harden, he did something no other player had been capable of doing: shutting him down. While guarding Harden when he is going 100% for that Larry O’Brien trophy, Exum allowed the MVP to score just 12 points the entire series. Harden only took 12 shots on Exum while Exum guarded him for 54 possessions. Exum was supposed to be the weak link for Utah, and he ended up being the strongest part of the damn chain.

Dante—for a playoff series—arrived. Then the season was over. Fans wanted to believe what they saw. This performance wouldn’t come with an asterisk, but it was another flash.

VLADIMIR(vexed): Then why do you always come crawling back?

ESTRAGON: I don’t know.

...

ESTRAGON: It’d be better if we parted.

VLADIMIR: You always say that and you always come crawling back.

Here we are now at the present with time but a flat circle when it comes to Dante Exum taking the proverbial leap in his development. There are flashes, asterisks, set-backs, baby steps, but still the Utah Jazz are left scratching the surface on what seems to be the overflowing potential of the 5th pick of 2014 NBA Draft.

Buuuuut now ... now there are expectations.

Dante Exum has a 3 year / $33 million dollar contract. He’s no longer given the type of leash as a rookie or young player, he’s now being paid as a veteran. While he is only been able to legally buy alcohol for a little over two years, he is going to be expected to pool his talents together so that they finally bear the resemblance of a final product. Dennis Lindsey has preached patience with Dante Exum, and here, four years later, the patience has hit the precipice.

Fans on Exum Island are hoping to be rescued, and the Utah Jazz are hoping to be vindicated for taking a big risk on a 19 year old international kid who had never played an ounce of professional or college ball before entering the NBA. Fans have come crawling back to Exum Island year after year after year after year. Some out there may have said it would be better if fans parted ways with Exum. But fans always say that, yet fans always come crawling back. They have been waiting for Exum this long, what’s another year?