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Dante Exum at power forward? It’s not as crazy as you think...

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The Utah Jazz’s supersized guard could have an evolution unlike any other.

Utah Jazz v Phoenix Suns Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

Dante Exum’s start to his career has been bumpy—and that’s putting it mildly. He entered the NBA as a teenager, missed his entire second season due to injury, struggled to earn minutes in his third season, re-injured himself in his fourth season, then re-injured himself AGAIN in his fifth season. During that time he has found himself playing anything from point guard to shooting guard to small forward as Quin Snyder and his coaching staff have struggled to find where he fits. With the Utah Jazz short on power forwards could the Australian guard become something much more different than projected?

To discuss that, you have to first look at Utah’s projected power forward depth chart. Derrick Favors manned the power forward position last year with Jae Crowder splitting time there. Here’s who played time at the four last year, their measurements, and, just for fun, their three point shooting percentage.

2018-2019 Utah Jazz Power Forwards

Player Weight Height Wingspan 3P%
Player Weight Height Wingspan 3P%
Derrick Favors 265 6'10 7'4 21.80%
Jae Crowder 235 6'6 6'9 33.10%
Joe Ingles 226 6'8 6'10 39.10%
Royce O'Neale 226 6'6 6'10 38.60%
Georges Niang 230 6'8 6'10 41.00%

Derrick Favors—as we all know—was a center playing power forward. Royce O’Neale and Jae Crowder were more the modern prototype of the power forward position. More a heavier wing than a larger forward. They both were 6’6 with large wingspans. Royce and Jae both weighed 225-240lbs. They also could stretch the floor. When Joe Ingles was out on the court, he ran more of a point forward role. While Utah would have loved to have Royce O’Neale and Jae Crowder play that similar role, they battled turnovers when they were asked to do heavy lifting as the playmaker. Royce made strides in that area, but he’s not at Joe Ingles level nor should we expect him to obtain it.

The Utah Jazz have a problem for next year however at the Power Forward position. They’re light on warm bodies who specialize in playing the four. They have players who have played it when their team needed them to—Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, and Royce O’Neale—but their only real power forward is Jeff Green who has struggled to be a plus player when on the court the past 5 seasons.

Could the Utah Jazz look to Dante Exum to make an extreme jump to power forward?

Dante Exum entered the league weighing 190 lbs. He had a 6’6 with a 6’9 wingspan. He has since grown to almost 6’8 and looks more like an elite NFL tight end. He’s definitely looking like he’s in the 220-240lbs range. Over his career he has shot 30% from three, but his real strength is his speed and playmaking. If anyone could match what Joe Ingles can do as a point forward, it would be Dante Exum. Before Exum suffered his injury his last 8 games he was averaging a PER36 of 20.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 9.8 assists, 1.9 turnovers on 50.7% and 41.7% 3P%. How would Dante Exum compare to Utah’s other potential Power Forwards in 2019-2020?

Let’s compare all of Utah’s potential candidates with their height, weight, wingspan, three point percentage, assist percentage, rebounding percentage, and average DRAYMOND rating from FiveThirtyEight.

Utah Jazz Potential 2019-2020 Power Forwards

Player Weight Height Wingspan Career 3P% Ast % Total Reb % DRAYMOND RATING
Player Weight Height Wingspan Career 3P% Ast % Total Reb % DRAYMOND RATING
Dante Exum 225 6'6 6'10 30% 17.90% 5.20% 1.5320429
Joe Ingles 226 6'8 6'10 40.80% 20.20% 7.10% -0.37619626
Royce O'Neale 226 6'6 6'10 37.40% 10.80% 10.80% 0.93629535
Georges Niang 230 6'8 6'10 36.40% 9.90% 9.60% -0.870820667
Jeff Green 235 6'9 7'1 33.33% 8.50% 8.50% -0.209303583
Bojan Bogdanovic 216 6'8 6'11 38.90% 7.80% 11.60% -0.77138502

We can quickly see from this information that there’s a damn good reason Royce O’Neale is rumored to be Utah’s choice at Power Forward for next season. He can pass the ball, he can spread the floor, he can stand his ground at the position, and his total rebounding percentage is the second highest out of all candidates. His Draymond Rating is one of the highest on the Jazz roster—third to be exact—and he’d set a tone with the starting unit for the Utah Jazz. If you’re going to play the Utah Jazz, it’s going to be a defensive battle. O’Neale can set that tone. Royce O’Neale can also work as the ballhandler in the pick and roll. If Utah wants to run 4-5 pick and rolls with Royce, they wouldn’t have their hands tied.

As far as the person most expect to spend a lot of time at the Power Forward spot—Bojan Bogdanovic—there is some worrying signs when it comes defense. Bojan Bogdanovic is never the guy who is going to be a defensive monster, but he could see some big gains on that end by working with Quin Snyder—who are we all kidding, Rudy Gobert is going to be manning the paint and erasing every mistake Bojan makes on defense. Bojan will look great, and we should all expect a storyline to emerge throughout the season talking about his renewed focus on that end of the ball when, in all actuality, it was just Rudy Gobert.

Moving on to our other candidates because Royce isn’t going to play more than 20-25 minutes at the four, and the Utah Jazz would like to save Bogdanovic from playing the four until the fourth quarter so they can run their FIBA All-Star lineup of Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Rudy Gobert. We’re looking at Joe Ingles, Dante Exum, Jeff Green, and Georges Niang.

I know there’s a few writers at this site who are HYPE about Georges Niang’s upcoming season, but I do not count myself among them. The Jazz have been both good and lucky when it comes to finding diamonds in the rough, but we cannot expect the same development from every undrafted player that makes it onto the Utah Jazz roster. While Georges Niang can light it up from three, he struggled when those three point shots were when it mattered most, and he struggled mightily on the defensive end as his DRAYMOND Rating can attest.

Next up is Jeff Green. Jeff Green was an amazing signing for the Utah Jazz because you can see he has some elite wingspan. They can’t teach that in school. His defense isn’t as bad as people assume with an average DRAYMOND rating of -0.209. With Rudy Gobert out on the floor, that rating could be in the positive for 2019-2020. Jeff Green is an alright playmaker for the four, but he’s not going to be running any offensive sets anytime soon. What Royce gives Utah as far as playmaking goes, Green will not. What Green will give you is an athletic wing in transition and someone who can matchup to larger forwards if teams want to try exploit Utah’s size at the power forward position. With so many years of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert playing PF and C, it still feels weird to say that Utah is undersized at the four now.

Now we’re down to the Aussies, Joe Ingles and Dante Exum. I HIGHLY doubt we’ll see Joe Ingles play any time at the four spot unless injuries hit. The reasoning? He’s getting older and Utah will want to preserve his health at any cost. What he brings as far as floor spacing and playmaking cannot be replaced by anyone on this roster. Though it is tempting to see Joe Ingles and Rudy Gobert run endless 4-5 PnRs.

Which leaves us with Exum. I don’t think that this article will be the first or the last that we scrutinize what position Dante Exum plays this season. But the reasoning behind it this season will be much different from previous seasons. In past seasons, Utah has run a very traditional NBA offense. They had a traditional Power Forward in Derrick Favors and the Utah Jazz were trying to find minutes for Dante Exum on the court with Shelvin Mack gaining favor as the backup one. Other times, it was because of Raul Neto’s improved play, not Dante Exum’s regressive play that was the reason for the necessary adjustments.

This season, Utah is projected to run a VERY modern NBA offense with 4 out spacing with either Rudy Gobert or Ed Davis manning the middle. It’s an offense that Orlando Magic-era Stan Van Gundy would be proud of. It has its Hedo Turkoglu in Joe Ingles. It’s Rashard Lewis in Bojan Bogdanovic. It has a way better Jameer Nelson in Mike Conley. It has an astronomically better Courtney Lee in Donovan Mitchell. With that offense, Dante Exum could be playing any number of positions because of his versatility. He can play-make like Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley, but he has the size, wingspan and weight to matchup with any player short of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Giannis Antetokounmpo on the defensive end. If Utah wants to have fun, they can even trot out an all-bench lineup that features Mudiay, Ingles, Green, Exum, and Davis that has Ingles, Green, and Exum fluidly interchanging while on the court. They can relentlessly switch on defense without the opposing offense finding a severe mismatch.

Dante Exum’s DRAYMOND rating is insane. He has a positive 1.53 which actually puts him as the second best defender according to the DRAYMOND rating metric behind Rudy Gobert. Ya know, the two time Defensive Player of the Year. Dante Exum might not even be a regular in any position this upcoming season. He could be Utah’s ultimate utility player, their swiss army knife off the bench. With a change to the offense that no longer features a traditional roll man at the four spot, Dante Exum can easily enter the game for any player point guard through power forward, and STILL operate the same.

On the defensive end, you are who you guard, and with Dante Exum’s increased strength, he is well prepared for the modern NBA’s move to smaller wings as modern fours. Dante Exum is able to take the defensive task, and we could see Dante Exum increasingly taking the opposing team’s best player on the floor as his defense has been elite in the regular season and in the playoffs against high caliber offensive threats. Just ask James Harden.

Could Dante Exum play Power Forward? It’s definitely an intriguing possibility. One that a modern Utah Jazz offense and a bulked Dante Exum have made closer to a reality this offseason.