The men, the myths, the legends. If you’re a hipster, you’ll know. The Jazz have a bright future. Like blindingly bright. And we’re just two months away from everyone else in the world knowing it too.
In fact, they don’t have much need of an X factor. A well-planned offseason took care of that. But if I have to say, which I do (my editor is all up in my personal space), then I’d say Dante Exum…
Exum is the keystone. He’s the one who will put the Jazz in the upper echelons of the Western Conference, the one who could blanket Steph Curry in the Conference Finals. If Exum had it his way, he’d have been taking the helm of the upstart Jazz two years ago. Instead he takes the mantle two years after being drafted with such lofty expectations. Here’s to hoping he takes Utah to the biggest upset of all time against a 74-win Warriors squad.
See, just a short time ago Dante Exum was contending for the No. 1 overall pick. And in 2014, that was no joke. Exum contended with Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Joel Embiid for the top tier of what some experts called the best draft since 2003. If a player of Parker, Wiggins or Embiid’s talent was filling the hole on a deep roster that boasts Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood, Trey Lyles, and George Hill, fans would start to wonder whether or not they’d be challenging in the Western Conference Finals too.
… there was a reason he was considered among the likes of Wiggins, Parker and Embiid. One among them, measurements. Dante Exum’s are obscene. At 6-6 with a leaping ability equal to Andre Iguodala, you could easily forget his wingspan, which is 6-9.5 by the way. Beyond the measurements that evoked comparisons to Russell Westbrook, per Daniel O’Brien of Bleacher Report, Dante Exum classifies as a versatile scorer (if he learns to shoot) with great passing instincts and enormous defensive potential (whose ceiling could rival the Washington Monument).
Exum’s agility enables him to stay in front of his mark while striking to close out on shots with lighting speed. His size indicates an ability to switch on to shooting guards and forwards with surprising ease. Together, they combine to create a floor general who can shut down both guards and man up with forwards. His calculated aggression, maturity and floor awareness ensure his natural gifts won’t be wasted. And they make him a potential dream point guard in small-ball situations. One capable of marking up to four positions and therefore granting his team unlimited lineup flexibility unavailable to most rosters.
Exum backs up this insane combination of refined athleticism with an array of skills to take over an offense. On defense and offense his first step is what Peter Bukowski of Sports Illustrated referred to as, “absolutely lethal.” With his wingspan, he’s got a bigger body than MCW and ranks in as faster than Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, and Steph Curry. Essentially, Exum may be able to reach the rim at will. While he was inconsistent in his first year, he showed elite potential during the season and before the draft, scoring fluidly with either hand. Defenders will sit back on him, but having already made 31.4 percent from beyond the arc as a rookie, the slightest improvement will see him sinking triples at a league-average rate. And if Gordon Hayward, George Hill or Rodney Hood have the rock with Trey Lyles spacing the floor, Exum can drift to the low post, where he can dominate smaller guards as he pleases. Moves including turnaround jumpers, step-backs and instant pull-ups, are all a part of his arsenal. Terrific footwork at lightning speeds sets up these shots and gives him the burst to cut back door on defenders sleeping on his off-the-ball game.
If Exum regains his burst of speed and develops a little consistency, NBA guards will fear their trips to Utah.
And scoring the basketball is only one element of his innate ability to create offense. Despite putting up 24.8 points per 40 minutes, as a youngin’ at FIBA U19 Worlds, Exum also dished out 5.1 assists per game. His ability to handle the rock in tight situations, his ridiculous change of pace/direction, and a filthy crossover gets him to a point where his creativity can take over. He’d mesh well with Lyles in the pick-and-pop and his playmaking in pick-and-rolls would have Favors and Gobert laying waste to the frontcourt.
So why did people forget Dante Exum? He had an underwhelming first year. Or did he? D’angelo Russell is being praised as one of the players with the highest potential to breakout in 2016. Yet he shot just 31 percent from three, touted a 4-3 AST-TO ratio, and ranked second to last in the league (by a lot) in real plus minus with -3.66. Byron Scott deserves as much blame as you want to heap onto him, but the stats remain.
Denver fans are wondering whether Emmanuel Mudiay is a cornerstone for building the Nuggets future. But his -4.3 BPM ranked dead last among point guards in the NBA (also by a lot). These former No. 2 and No. 8 overall picks and their perceived value demonstrate something essential to remember about Exum. He plays the deepest position the NBA has ever seen. And handling that role as a 19-year-old has proven many many times as one of the most difficult possible moments in a player’s career. Forget Mudiay and Russell. Let’s take a look at Dennis Schröder, Reggie Jackson, Chris Paul, Kemba Walker, and Russell Westbrook.
Because of two of the guards immediately taking starting roles, I’ll be comparing per-36’s of the each guards first, second, and third years.
First year: Exum ranks first in 3-point percentage, first in 3-point attempts, third in defensive win shares, and posted the least turnovers.
Chris Paul was the only one to shoot over 40 percent from the field (43 percent)
Yet Paul only shot 28 percent from 3. Exum and Kemba were the only ones to shoot above 30 percent from three.
They collectively shot 41.5 percent from within the arc. Exum shot 41% himself.
They averaged 14 points per game (with Exum falling short of that)
Outside of Paul nobody had more than 1.9 win shares and no less than -0.7
They ranged from -8.3 to 6.1 in box plus minus. (Exum fell in the middle)
As a group they averaged only 5.5 assists. (Exum fell below par at 3.9)
And they averaged from 3.7 to 2.3 turnovers per game. (Exum and Paul led the pack with 2.3 each)
What do I take away from this? Exum was playing with another distributor on the floor. He ranked last in usage by a mile. Only 13.8 percent while the other five averaged 22.2 percent. And when he did get the ball he took care of it, showed a promising shot from beyond the arc, and locked down on defense.
Their second seasons saw large raises averaging 17 points, increasing assists by two, shooting 30 percent from beyond the arc, and significantly increasing Box Plus/Minus.
And by the third year you start to see the real results…
Cp3, Jackson, Schröder, Westbrook, and Walker collectively averaged:
19.5 PTs / 8 AST / 1.8 STs / 4.5 RBs / 34% from 3 / 2.9 BPM / 20 PER / 8 Win Shares / 2.7 TO
Having trained and strengthened, practicing his shot for an entire year, I believe these are the kind of numbers Exum can approach in his “sophmore” season, and George Hill makes them a shoe-in for top-five seed regardless. As a matter of fact, Hill shares a lot of similarities with Exum. They can shoot treys and defend well. But I would make the case that Exum can learn to defend on a whole other level. Hill’s skills won’t stand in Exum’s shadow; his versatility on the floor makes him another Draymond Green type influencer in the backcourt, but I believe Dante Exum has the potential of a cornerstone to build around. And regardless of hiccups in the regular season, we better see Exum getting as many minutes as possible next to Hood, Hayward, Favors, and Gobert.
Because when they get some chemistry, I would start game planning for a long series (if I were Golden State).