Dante Exum the key to Utah Jazz’s success in 2017-18

Apr 12, 2017; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz guard Dante Exum (11) dribbles the ball during the first half against the San Antonio Spurs at Vivint Smart Home Arena. The Jazz won 101-97. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 12, 2017; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz guard Dante Exum (11) dribbles the ball during the first half against the San Antonio Spurs at Vivint Smart Home Arena. The Jazz won 101-97. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports /

Dante Exum has potential like no other player on the team to lift the Utah Jazz to new heights if he’s able to undergo monumental improvement this offseason.

Without a doubt, the most important question facing the Utah Jazz right now is whether or not free agent Gordon Hayward will be back in a Jazz uniform next season. It’s been well documented (or the dead horse has been well beaten, whichever way you’d like to look at it) that Hayward’s departure would be a crushing blow to the success and progress that the organization has built up to this point.

However, assuming he does stay put, the Jazz have the potential to be not just a solid playoff team as they were this past year, but a legitimate elite force in the Western Conference. Even with an onslaught of injuries, the Jazz were still the fifth best team in the West and would have been a 60-win team had they remained healthy, according to ManGamesLost.com.

That kind of winning record already puts them in that upper tier, so just imagine what they may be able to accomplish next season with a healthy squad.

And although there are several factors that will determine whether they take yet another leap in the standings, such as Derrick Favors returning to form, Rodney Hood taking a step forward and gaining some consistency, Hayward and Rudy Gobert putting up All-Star seasons to name a few, there’s someone else who I believe has the potential to have the biggest influence on whether the Jazz reach the highest of new heights possible next season. That man is Dante Exum.

It’s been a roller coaster NBA career for the young Australian who was taken fifth overall by the Utah Jazz back in the 2014 NBA Draft. During his rookie season, it didn’t take long before he found himself inserted as the starting point guard ahead of Trey Burke and though he was clearly raw (as everyone expected) he showed flashes of brilliance, particularly on the defensive end, in a way that gave Jazz fans serious hope that he would live up to the hype surrounding him.

However, during the offseason following that promising 2014-15 campaign, the unthinkable happened. Exum tore his ACL during international play and would go on to be sidelined for the entirety of the 2015-16 season. Then 2016-17 rolled around and even with the acquisition of veteran George Hill, many felt that Exum would be given significant opportunity to blossom with Hill as his mentor. Unfortunately, that couldn’t have been further from the case.

Instead, Exum was granted extremely inconsistent playing time and on several occasions found himself behind Shelvin Mack and sometimes even Raul Neto on the depth chart. It appeared that Quin Snyder gave him a much shorter leash than any other player on the roster, benching him after the mildest of mistakes and leading even myself to question if perhaps he was in the coach’s doghouse.

To be honest, his most encouraging moments of the year came in the final game of the postseason, where the Jazz were all but eliminated anyway. Exum put up 15 points in 32 minutes and his incredible quick first step and ability to get to the rim were on full display. He had other shining moments throughout the 2016-17 campaign, but to be honest, he wasn’t granted enough consistent minutes to really showcase his worth to any real extent.

Thus heading into 2017-18, Exum finds himself in an interesting position and a crucial one at that. Especially with impending free agent George Hill’s status up in the air, there’s a good chance that the Jazz will need Exum to step up more than ever. If he does, even if Hill re-signs and Exum comes off the bench, his improvement and ability to be an X-factor will likely be what determines whether the Jazz are ordinary or extraordinary next season.

Make no mistake about it, at times I understood why Snyder was quick to bench Exum as he has much to work on this summer. He’s got to improve his shot from deep so that he’s more respected on the perimeter and opens himself up to more drives for easy baskets. He’s got to be a better finisher. His quick step is great, but once he gets to the rim he’s far from reliable.

Dante’s decision making and control also have to get much better so that he can run the offense more smoothly, regardless if it’s that of the first unit or of the reserves. In other words, for the Jazz to become the powerhouse that they have the potential to be, their highly touted lottery pick has to start living up to those illustrious expectations that once surrounded him. If he can take a major leap this season, there’s no telling how dramatically it will benefit the Jazz.

Not to mention, as you can see in the tweet below from Bleacher Report’s Andy Bailey referencing information from NBAMath.com, despite Exum’s shortcomings, the Jazz actually performed quite well with him on the floor (albeit in a relatively small and considerably erratic sample size). This gives enormous hope that with a little more grooming and some hard work on Exum’s part, he could truly be the answer for the Jazz’s hopes to move solidly into the upper echelon of the West.

It was disappointing to see that once again the point guard position was an absolute area of woe for the Jazz this year. Though George Hill was phenomenal when on the floor, he was greatly hindered by injuries and none of the three backups were ever able to establish themselves as the best second option.

Therefore, if Exum is able to help solidify that hole, bringing consistency and efficiency to the point guard spot while capitalizing on his unique physical gifts such as his length and quickness, he could very well provide the X-factor that the Jazz need to go from good to great.

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Although the Jazz will need improvements from several other current players and may even find themselves seeking aid from outside of the current roster, there’s no doubt in my mind that the young and high-potential Dante Exum has the opportunity to have the biggest effect on Utah’s success next year.

All we can hope for is a full offseason of work (without having to worry about further rehab as he did last summer) that will lead to monumental growth for the young pro. If he’s able to accomplish that, he may very well prove to be the key to the Utah Jazz’s success in 2017-18.