Dante Exum is, flat out, a quantum leap compared to guys like Earl Watson, Jamaal Tinsley, and John Lucas III. It's likely that he will at least start the season off the bench, and as a result, be our best back back-up point guard since John Stockton. (Or, uh, maybe Howard Eisley?) Of course, we don't see Dante Exum as a bench player.
Or at least not for a very long part of his career.
It's nice to imagine that with his combination of athleticism, size, and instincts that he will one day be good enough to start for an NBA Finals contender. He basically has the body of a small forward, but has played point guard all his life. And it's going to be a struggle to see where he's going to get playing time this season under Quin Snyder.
For those of us following his career we've now seen him in 13 games that all pretty much don't matter much in the big picture: five in the Las Vegas Summer league, and now 8 games with Australia against the likes of Finland (3 times), Ukraine (twice), Lithuania (once), Philippines (once), and France (once). The Aussies will play against France one more in their last tune up before the FIBA World Cup on Sunday. That will make it 14 games that don't really matter.
What we're seeing is that right now he's not even starting for Australia, and in the games he is playing there (aside from two good games) he's basically Earl Watson-ing it out there. Perhaps that's what his coaches want to see during these friendlies, I don't really know. He took one shot in 20.65 mins in his last game. That's not the aggression we want to see.
Despite the lack of an actual game plan or reliance upon Exum so far with the Aussies, and despite him starting at point guard for only one game with the Jazz so far, there are plenty of things to be impressed by.
- I cannot stress enough how impressed I am with his defense. He's that right combination of size and athleticism to be able to blanket guys, especially when they move around with the ball. It's something Andrei Kirilenko was really good at doing as well, and ball denial is the highest form of defense there is. If the guy you are defending can't even get the ball on offense you are killing it. But this is a secondary skill for Dante. I am surprised by his on the ball defense. Everyone gets lost on pick and rolls, and his team defensive instincts lead him to defend no-man's land quite a but, but his on ball defense is so very impressive for a teenager. He is good at preventing guys from getting by him. It's one thing to stay between your man and the basket on defense by moving backwards and giving up ground. That's not what Dante does. He's long enough and quick enough to shut down potential places for his man to go. Against some of the weaker back up PGs he has played against so far this has been demonstrated quite a bit. He's going to struggle as an NBA rookie on defense, like all NBA rooks do, but he'll have a fighting chance against most of them. Of course, the guys who make a living off of pick and rolls (Stephen Curry) or guys who are tanks (Russell Westbrook) are still going to find their way to their favorite spots against Exum. But they'll do so expending much more energy than they've had to against Jazz point guards in recent years.
- Passing. Passing. Passing. This kid can flat out pass. He gets a ton of "hockey-assists" where he's the man who makes the pass to the guy who gets the assist. This is invaluable in a multi-pointed attack. Particularly as a primary ball handler it's his job to elicit a change in the defense through his dribble penetration. This usually means someone is open. And instead of making the dangerous pass to the open man he trusts in his ability to make space for his shooters, and then makes the pass to the pass that gets to the open man. This is a mental thing. He understands the game and does not do risky things. (Compare him to how Trey Burke would just sometimes put his head down, get jammed up, and then make a play in a dangerous part of the floor.) So far with the Aussies he has an Assist to Turn Over ratio of 4.29 assists to 1.00 turn overs. For a guy who has the ball in his hands so much this is pretty darn good.
- He is a smart guy. He has shown to be pretty patient, and doesn't jack up a lot of bad shots. Sure, he went 1/8 FG vs. France the other day, but France is one of the better clubs out there. He is someone who has been making smart plays all summer long. From Vegas, to these European friendlies, he has been putting things together quite well. A point guard with these good instincts, and quickness, aided by a 6'9.5" wingspan, means a lot of deflections. (Food for thought, he has a longer wingspan than Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood, Carrick Felix, and all of our wings and guards not named Alec Burks) Not everyone knows how to use their talents, or advantages. He does. I guess for him he has to keep things simple right now as he is going from playing against high school guys to play against, you know, 10 year vets in the FIBA World Cup. In doing so he has decided not to try to do too much so far. And it's working.
Yes, of course there are problems being put on display as well. He went 3/18 from downtown in Vegas, and so far against these National clubs he's had gone only 4/15. If you add it up his 7/33 shooting (21.21 3pt%) isn't that impressive. But that isn't part of his game right now. And people add things to their games all of the time. No one thought Alec Burks would be a great three point shooter but he shot better than Gordon Hayward did last year -- shooting 35%. Exum isn't a great shooter, period. He's not making a lot of his shots from anywhere. I am concerned with his free throw shooting though. For his 2014 Summer total he has gone to the line 19 times, making only 10 (52.63 ft%); and what is worse, nay inexcusable, is that for his size, speed, and athleticism advantages -- he has only going to the free throw line 1.46 times a game.
I guess he's more interested in the "drive and dish" right now, instead of the new NBA point guard go-to-move of the "drive and no dish". He said it best, he's a point guard. He's going to have to learn to be a bit more selfish though.
Still, the per 36 statline of 10.6 ppg, 5.5 apg, 4.0 rpg, and 1.5 spg isn't all that bad for a teen.
We're going to love him most for his passing, but there are a lot of specifically impressive things about his game. The more we see of him a) the more data we have, and honestly, b) the more we find to fall in love with.