Utah Jazz: Dante Exum’s return will add excitement, intrigue to season’s stretch run

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - OCTOBER 2: Dante Exum #11 and Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Utah Jazz are seen during a preseason game. (Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - OCTOBER 2: Dante Exum #11 and Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Utah Jazz are seen during a preseason game. (Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The impending return of Dante Exum is set to be one of the most exciting and intriguing aspects of an already thrilling 2017-18 season for the Utah Jazz.

During some of the low points earlier in the 2017-18 season for the Utah Jazz when the team found themselves well below .500 and struggling through a horrific December, two of the common sentiments among the Utah faithful were, “If only Rudy Gobert were healthy.” and “If only Dante Exum hadn’t gotten hurt.”

Well, the first one of those wishes – the one regarding Rudy Gobert – has been fulfilled in a big way. Gobert has returned to form as the backbone of the league’s leading defense since coming back healthy. He’s helped spur the Jazz in their recent streak of 19 wins in the last 21 games. He’s the main reason why the Jazz have transformed from a likely lottery squad to a contender for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

But the good news doesn’t end there. It appears that the second of those aforementioned “If only’s” is about to be resolved here soon as well. That’s right, Dante Exum is targeting a return to action this week. He will be practicing for a second time with the Salt Lake City Stars today as the final part of his rehab process. With games on Thursday and Saturday, Exum could make his 2017-18 debut in either contest.

And his return may very well turn out to be one of the most highly anticipated moments of an already exhilarating season.

Following the conclusion of last season, Dennis Lindsey and Quin Snyder challenged Dante Exum to up his game, and based on what we saw out of him during Summer League and in his brief stints in preseason, he apparently took that to heart. In Utah Jazz Summer League, Exum averaged the third most points of any player at 20 per game and the most assists at 6.3 per contest, all while shooting a blistering 52.4 percent.

His chemistry with Mitchell was apparent and the two were a dynamic duo that made Jazz fans giddy with excitement for the potential backcourt they could have for the season ahead.

That excitement only carried over to the pair of preseason games he logged with the Jazz. Sure, they were against lackluster, non-NBA opponents, but Exum put up an average of 10 points on 50 percent shooting from the field and 66.6 percent shooting from deep. And though the sample size was small and the competition was weak, Exum certainly passed the eye test. He looked explosive, confident and possessed an improved shooting touch.

Then, of course, the infamous T.J. Warren body check occurred, inflicting Exum with a serious shoulder injury before his thrilling season as a backcourt companion with rookie Donovan Mitchell even got a chance to begin. Exum had figured to be an enormous part of Utah’s success this year as they looked to have a resurgent season following the loss of Gordon Hayward, but unfortunately, his contributions were eliminated before the season even got underway.

And that likely hurt the Jazz more than we even know. Snyder and Lindsey have alluded to their game plan coming into this season centering quite significantly around Exum’s improved play, which includes a staunch defensive ability and a knack for aggressively attacking the rim with his quick first step.

However, Utah moved on with him sidelined and somehow have been able to put together a resurgent year even without their young guard that they still hope can blossom into a star. But now that he’s set to make his return while the stakes are at their highest for a Jazz team that will be aiming to keep their win streak alive and jockey for playoff positioning, this story could very well be the most intriguing of the year.

Exum is sure to be rusty, but once he gets his legs underneath him, how will he fit? How much improvement from last year will we see out of him? Will he give the Jazz’s bench an extra dimension and another gear? Exum figured to be an enormous part of Utah’s game plan going into the season, but will they be able to assimilate him now and get those desired results out of him?

All of these questions are what is going to make the end of the year even more exciting for Jazz fans than it’s already been. Exum was looking so promising heading into this season and there’s certainly high hopes for his return. It’s hard to fathom the Jazz playing any better than they have the past two months, but if Exum can adjust quickly and start to shine, it’s entirely possible that he could help the Jazz reach a new level entirely.

I would caution fans to temper their expectations somewhat. He’s been out a long time with a significant shoulder injury. However, that’s not to say that he can’t get up to speed by the end of the season and be a contributor in the playoffs. If that also isn’t quite the case, his return will certainly help him have a leg-up for next year when once again Exum will figure to be a major component of a dangerous Jazz team.

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Nevertheless, having a talented young player such as Dante Exum back in action is certainly reason for celebration. It’s going to be a blast to see him take the court and if he and Mitchell are half as comfortable with one another as they were during Summer League, they’ll be an incredibly entertaining pair to watch down the season’s stretch.

In short, as if things weren’t exciting enough in Jazz-land to close out 2017-18, Exum’s return is about to add a whole new intriguing wrinkle – one that could very well elevate the Jazz to even greater heights as they continue their push into the postseason.