The Golden State Warriors may have been in the process of dispatching of the Utah Jazz early in Game 4, but Utah’s third-year guard Dante Exum wasn’t going to go quietly.
After the Jazz had given up a 22-point lead to the Warriors in the first quarter, Exum entered the game and immediately went to work, allowing the Jazz to cut the lead to 10 in no time.
Along with Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons and Milwaukee’s Thon Maker, Exum is one of the players that Australia hopes will lead it to success in the future. Like Simmons and Maker, Exum is also relatively unknown, but Game 4 might have been his coming out party of sorts.
Prior to being drafted in 2014 by the Utah Jazz, Exum was known as the mystery man in the draft, having not played college basketball in the United States. Scouts said his springy athleticism and length – he stands at 6’6” – was reminiscent of a young Kobe Bryant. Exum showcased to the world what those draft scouts saw some three years ago by crossing up Klay Thompson before using his lightning-quick first step to get into the paint and finish a dunk.
The Jazz’s comeback was short-lived as the Warriors eventually ran out comfortable 121-95 winners, and Exum finished with an inefficient statline of 15 points on 5-for-14 shooting, but everyone saw the potential that lies under the surface.
To say that Exum’s career hasn’t quite taken off yet is probably an understatement. In his first year he was what people expected, a raw and super athletic kid. He was solid without really being all that impressive. However, after playing all 82 games in his rookie season, an ACL injury robbed him of an incredibly important developmental sophomore season. This season, Exum worked his way back from injury but was stuck on a roster that was frankly loaded at the point guard position, following the Jazz’s acquisition of George Hill from the Indiana Pacers.
Seeing Hill at close quarters on a daily basis not only helped the Jazz reach the playoffs, but helped Exum improve his own game.
“Obviously he’s a great point guard and just being able to watch him definitely when I wasn’t playing a lot of minutes, just to see how he ran the team and how he got other players involved, I think that was huge,” Exum told reporters at his exit interview.
“It’s not about trying to mimic his game or anything, but just taking little things that he does – he had that midrange game, I saw he was able to create a lot out of that – so that’s something I want to add.”
If there’s one hole in Exum’s game, it is most definitely his shooting. The young guard shot a ghastly 34.9 percent from the field in his rookie season, including just 31.4 percent from long-distance. He improved his overall field goal percentage in his second season, but his three-ball dipped further. In today’s NBA, guards that can’t shoot simply don’t survive in today’s NBA and Exum knows that.
“I think the biggest thing is the midrange. It’s something that I feel if I get that it can open up my game a whole lot more. Whether that’s a floater when I get into the lane or being able to pull up, I think that’s going to be important for me,” he said.
After averaging 22.2 minutes per game in his rookie season, Exum’s minutes took a dive this season – down to 18.6 – as he had to fight for minutes with Hill, Shelvin Mack and Brazilian point guard Raul Neto, but Exum stated that he was able to learn through the experience.
“Obviously it’s frustrating when your minutes go up and down at certain times but I always use it as an opportunity when I was getting minutes to play as hard as possible, but to step back when I wasn’t and be able to work on my game so when I did get back on the court, I was able to do whatever I can to stay on the court,” he said.
Despite Hill’s impressive debut season for the Jazz, he is an unrestricted free-agent this summer, and Hill leaving could possibly open up a starting role for Exum, a role he thinks he is ready for.
“I definitely have confidence in myself that I’m a point guard and I’m ready to lead this team,” he said.
Exum’s size means that he gives the Jazz some versatility at the guard spots, with the ability to play both guard positions, but Exum suggested that his natural role is still as a point guard.
“I definitely feel more comfortable at the point guard position. I think just being able to get in transition and play motion definitely in the last couple of weeks that was what we turned to a lot – just running on balls and running in transition – I think that’s a lot of my play-style, being able to use my speed and quickness in the open court.”
Despite being swept at the hands of the Warriors, Exum stated that the Jazz are only getting started.
“I think we’re definitely going to carry over what we’ve done this season with confidence into next season.”
“Teams are going to definitely respect us and know that we’re not a team that they can just look at as a win.”