Are the Utah Jazz Investing Too Much in Dante Exum?


With the trade deadline passing without the Utah Jazz making a major move (sorry, Shelvin Mack is not a major move), it seems that Dante Exum will be handed the point guard reigns. Is Dante ready? Can he have success coming off an ACL tear and a rookie season that left much to be desired?

The Utah Jazz haven’t had an elite point guard on the roster since 2011. That ended tragically, with Deron Williams getting shipped off to New Jersey (many thanks for Derrick Favors, though) and legendary coach Jerry Sloan hanging up his clipboard and riding his tractor into the sunset.

There were a few replacements in Mo Williams and Devin Harris, but neither of them played well enough to become a core piece of the franchise. And we all knew their time in Utah was borrowed.

Fast forward to the 2014 NBA Draft when the Jazz selected Dante Exum with the fifth pick. On paper, it seemed that the end to Utah’s point guard woes were in sight. Here was this rangy, long, incredibly quick and athletic Aussie who seemed poised to be able to contribute right away.

What happened was the exact opposite. Even while earning the starting position over Trey Burke—due to his ability to defend —Exum spent the majority of his rookie season looking like a hybrid of a deer in headlights and a giraffe trying to roller skate.

Exum constantly looked both in over his head and out of his element.

What’s more, his timidness became well documented, with many people stating that it was detrimental to the team’s success. His offense was so bad that, for major stretches, he was relegated to the corner above the three-point line. He wasn’t handing the ball; he wasn’t setting screens; it was the NBA equivalent of a kindergarten time out.

Exum ended the season averaging 4.8 PPG, 2.4 dimes and 1.6 boards per game, with a PER of 5.70. Insert barf emoji here.

However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom, and Exum’s tape had much more to tell. There were flashes of brilliance and enough glimmers of hope to think that he not only belonged in the NBA, but could have long-tenured success.

For one, his defense was superb. There were long stretches in games where he frustrated elite point guards such as Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker. He was the starting point guard for a team that had the league’s best defense and went 19-10 after last year’s All-Star Break. It would be foolish to think that he wasn’t a major part of that success.

In fact, as the old adage goes: men lie, women lie, but numbers don’t–

By the end of the season, Exum was far more competent as a player. Along with the defense, his outside shot began to come along and he was able to show off some play-making ability. He was only 19, but it seemed that the Jazz had found their guy.

The excitement around Dante reached a fever pitch around last year’s Utah Jazz Summer League. Sporting a much thicker frame and a backside that can only be described as Kardashian-esque, his time in the gym was apparent.

In his first summer game, Exum took Marcus Smart and the Celtics behind the woodshed. Using his new frame and six-foot-six height to his advantage, he was aggressively attacking the paint, en-route to multiple easy buckets and assists. It was his first 20-plus point game of his professional career. Jazz Nation seemed impressed and pleased.

Of course, this was all before he sprained his ankle in the fourth quarter and missed the rest of Summer League action.

Soon thereafter, Dante headed back to his native Australia to play for his national team. He spent the majority of the tournament underwhelming and on the bench. This was until D-day happened: when Exum tore his ACL during a “friendly” game against Slovenia.

See my reaction to Exum’s injury HERE.

With Exum out of commission, the Jazz were forced to trot out a point guard tandem of Burke and Raul Neto. It’s probably safe to say that neither one of them are starting NBA point guard caliber. Just ask Kemba Walker and Damian Lillard.

Enter Shelvin Mack, the Jazz’s trade deadline get. In his first games in a Jazz uniform, Mack has played better than expected, but how long can he keep it up? I have a hard time believing a guy who couldn’t get off Atlanta’s bench is going to lead the Jazz to the promised land. To me, he’s a band-aid covering up an axe wound.

For the record: I like Shelvin and am excited to see what he can bring to the Jazz long-term. As a backup.

Bottom line: The Utah Jazz point guard situation is a major blemish on an otherwise pretty picture and the Jazz won’t be a contender until this is fixed.

Therefore, there are several questions that still hang in the balance.

1) The NBA has evolved. What was once a league dominated by hulking big men has given way to stretched floors, ball movement and ultra-skilled, dexterous players. Point guards and backcourt play have become the league’s prime focus.

The Splash Brothers in Golden State look poised to shoot their way to a second straight title. Lillard and C.J. Mcollum are paving Portland’s way to the playoffs. Meanwhile, Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan look like they could give the Cleveland Cavaliers a run for their money in the Eastern Conference.

That’s is just the tip of the iceberg.

2) Will the Jazz rue the day they didn’t pick up Jeff Teague, George Hill or another one of the point guards rumored to have been available at the trade deadline?

3) The Jazz seemed to have found their shooting guard in Rodney Hood—who is having a breakout season since the new year. In fact, his stats are eerily similar to James Harden’s first two years in Oklahoma City. I don’t think it’s crazy to think that Hood has All-Star capabilities.

So, can Dante Exum be the Robin to his Batman? Is he the answer? Can the two not only coexist, but thrive together? Will the tandem be enough to compete with other elite backcourts across the league?

4) Exum blowing out his knee is about as close to a worst-case scenario as one can imagine. He was already going to be a long-term project and now he’s been set back a year. I’m super curious to see if he has the same speed and defensive capabilities.

5) Shelvin Mack, Raul Neto and Trey Burke all defend, shoot and distribute the ball at a below-average rate. Is Exum going to be able to excel in all three of those facets of the game when he comes back? That seems like an awfully big task.

6) After being out a year, how will Dante fit in with the starting unit?

7) Who is going to be his backup when he returns next year?

8) Is it possible for Exum’s game to mature without playing in a single game? Can he learn and grow simply by watching? Is he going to be able to make the jump to being a quality NBA point guard?

9) How will he be mentally? It’s one thing to bounce back physically—especially with someone as young and athetically gifted as Dante—it’s another to get your mind right. The Jazz are on the precipice of contention and I don’t think they have a lot time to waste waiting for him.

He’s going to have to be aggressive and tenacious from the jump. That could be a tall order.

10) Is it crazy to think that a 20-year old who struggled as a rookie is going to struggle coming back from a season-ending injury? It would be a lot different if Exum were a superstar.

11) Between the ankle and the ACL, is Dante injury prone? If so and he gets hurt again, what’s the Jazz’s contingency plan? It obviously can’t be what it’s been lately.

12) The Jazz have their core and their playmakers intact. What they are in dire need of is a floor general. Someone who can is skilled, outspoken and brazen enough to orchestrate the offense. Does Dante have it in him to do that? He looked to be able to in those three quarters against the Celtics, but is that enough? Or will we see him resort back to the timidness he displayed throughout his rookie season?

13) Are the Jazz putting too much on Dante’s shoulders? Is he the missing link to continual success? Or will the weight and pressure come crashing down in a heap of heartache and disappointment?

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I think Dante is going to be a fantastic player and I believe that when he returns he will have much more success than he did as a rookie. But just how much?

The Utah Jazz are mortgaging their future—along with the patience and success of their rising stars—on Dante Exum. Who at the very least is an unproven product.

Think of it as if you were investing in the stock market. Would it be wise to dump all your money into an unproven commodity with a ton of upside or in something stable that will net you a realistic and proven return on your investment?

The skeptic—and realist—in me thinks that there are plenty of speed bumps left in Dante Exum’s way. Jazz fans may once again be asked to exercise patience while he continues to develop.

Here’s hoping I’m wrong.