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For Utah’s Dante Exum, it’s now or never

What can he do if he can stay healthy? Can he make up for lost time?

From the very beginning, Dante Exum has shown promise. When the Utah Jazz drafted him in 2014 with the 5th overall pick, he was meant to be the point guard of the future. Exum, despite entering his sixth season in the NBA, has yet to fill that role for the team.

The young guard has faced a series of frustrating injuries. Time and time again, Exum’s struggle to stay healthy has prevented him from gaining the crucial kind of experience that is fundamental to on-court development.

Standing at 6’6 in shoes and with a 6’9 wingspan, Exum has a natural edge over smaller guards. He is quick, capable of taking advantage of small openings in the opponent’s defense. He makes aggressive plays and creates shots for his teammates. His biggest strength, however, is his sheer commitment to the game.

2015 NBA All-Star Rookie Rising Stars Challenge Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Exum’s Exposition

In January 2014, Dante Exum announced his decision to declare for the upcoming NBA draft. Exum was selected by the Utah Jazz with the fifth overall pick in 2014. The rookie scored five points in 9.5 minutes playing in his NBA debut during the season opener.

As a rookie, Dante made appearances in all 82 games and started in 41 one of those games. He scored double digits in 13 games and led the team in assists 11 times during that first season. His game wasn’t perfect, but he worked to fix his mistakes and improve every time he stepped on the court. Dante was meant to be the point guard of the future, and fans could see that he was willing to earn that responsibility given the chance.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Dante’s Inferno

Dante’s promising journey was first interrupted in August 2015. While playing for the Australian national team, the 20-year-old guard tore his left ACL. Exum underwent surgery later that month and consequently missed the entire 2015-16 season.

This was the start of Dante’s hellish battle with injury after injury (...after even more injury).

Dante returned to the court the following season, and played 66 games during the 2016-17 season. He averaged 6.2 points and 1.7 assists per game. He averaged just 18 minutes per game, but again, he showed flashes of promise. He showed a willingness to take risks--a willingness to make mistakes and then fix them.

During the off-season, Exum did everything right and felt positive entering the upcoming season.

In October 2017, just before the start of the season, Exum experienced another major setback. He underwent surgery again. This time it was for shoulder injury that occurred during a preseason game. As a result, Dante missed the first 68 games of the 2017-18 season.

After his recovery, Dante Exum once again showed his ability to push past frustration. He had to prove himself. Not only did his personal development depend on it, but he also needed to prove himself before reaching restricted free agency. Exum returned to the court on March 15th and had minutes in each one of Utah’s final 14 games. He averaged 8 points in just 16.8 minutes per game. Exum shot 48.3 percent from the field. Despite previous injuries, Dante’s athleticism and speed were evident. In the postseason, Exum established himself as a capable defender, proving to be a challenge for James Harden.

He resigned with the Utah Jazz on July 6, 2018.

Last season, Dante’s journey continued to be littered with injury. In January 2019, he was ruled out for a few weeks due to a sprained ankle. His return was again delayed due to a bone bruise from his ankle sprain. After missing 25 games, Dante returned to the court… only to be ruled out indefinitely four days later after sustaining a partially torn patellar tendon in his right knee.

NBA: Utah Jazz-Media Day Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Making up for lost time

His dedication to get better on the court is evident in his work off the court. While recovering from knee surgery this summer, Dante chose to focus on getting bigger and getting stronger. He hit the weight room frequently, and the results are obvious. Exum looks bigger. His shoulders are broader. This will help him withstand contact in the paint. And hopefully, it will help him avoid future injuries.

Dante has made some other changes over the last few months. At the start of his career, Exum exclusively played in the point guard position. But during training camp, Dante and the coaching staff have embraced the idea of him playing a variety of positions. This opens up a lot of options for Dante to develop and gives the Jazz another weapon they can plug in where needed.

The start of the season is just days away. The Jazz are being cautious with Exum’s recovery. Taking things slow. But Dante is pushing himself to make progress.

More than ever before, Dante Exum has something to prove. Because of this, fans can count on him to give everything in competition. He has a chip on his shoulder, because it’s now or never. If he can stay healthy and keep the frustration in check, he has the realistic potential to make up for lost time.

Now or never

Dante Exum entered this most recent off-season as the second-longest tenured member of the team. Yet he is lacking the experience that would elevate him into a veteran role. This is due to the fact that Dante has played in just 204 NBA games over his 5-year career.

Watching a young player face setback after setback is difficult. It sucks. Dante Exum has the potential to be an incredibly talented player. He very well could be a missing piece to Utah’s offensive game. But who can know for sure? We haven’t seen what Dante can do when he’s at his best. At least, not yet.