Utah Jazz: Dante Exum could be a difference maker come playoff time

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - OCTOBER 2: Dante Exum #11 and Head Coach Quin Snyder of the Utah Jazz talk during a preseason game against the Sydney Kings on October 2, 2017 at vivint.SmartHome Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah. Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - OCTOBER 2: Dante Exum #11 and Head Coach Quin Snyder of the Utah Jazz talk during a preseason game against the Sydney Kings on October 2, 2017 at vivint.SmartHome Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah. Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images /

Dante Exum appears to be coming into his own. And if he continues this trajectory of improvement, he could be a huge asset for the Utah Jazz come playoff time.

The Utah Jazz have looked a little bit dicey of late. After winning 21 of 23 games, many of them in commanding fashion, suddenly they’ve started to look much more vulnerable in recent contests. They’re just 4-3 in their last seven games and the losses aren’t the only games that have been ugly.

In that span, the Jazz have lost to the bottom-dwelling Atlanta Hawks, the inconsistent San Antonio Spurs in overtime (this one is obviously understandable and not all that surprising) and to a banged-up Boston Celtics team that was without Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris.

While I agree that people underrated the players that were active for Boston in that contest and that they’re far from your stereotypical ‘third-string scrubs’ as some fans seemed to believe after the loss, that doesn’t change the fact that it was absolutely a game that Utah should have and needed to win.

The victories over the course of their last seven have been less than convincing as well. Three of them were too close for comfort bouts against lottery teams – a six-point win over the Sacramento Kings, a seven-point win over the Dallas Mavericks and a 10-point win over the Memphis Grizzlies, thanks largely to the blatant tank job that saw Marc Gasol sit out the entire fourth quarter.

The fourth was a 19-point win over the Golden State Warriors, but they were playing without all four of their All-Stars and it took quite some time for the Jazz to gain any footing. Now, I don’t mean to sound nit-picky or overly critical with this and by no means do I expect perfection from the Jazz. I realize that it’s the nature of sports that they’ll win some and lose some. But I think we can all agree that the current trend the Jazz have displayed is concerning.

And if they are to make the playoffs and have any success there, they need to step up in a major way.

Fortunately, amid Utah’s relative slide, there’s been one extremely bright point that has provided plenty of reason for optimism. That bright point that I speak of is the recently returned Dante Exum.

Going into the 2017-18 NBA season, Exum was presumed by many Jazz fans to play a significant role in Utah’s success. Following the loss of Gordon Hayward and George Hill, and with Donovan Mitchell still a question mark, the Jazz were going to need to lean heavily on him to provide an offensive lift and continue to contribute with solid defense.

Unfortunately, as we all know, that all came crashing down when Exum went down with a shoulder injury during preseason play. However, after a lengthy absence, Dante made his return on March 15 against Phoenix and, while he’s certainly had some rust and clearly still needs time to improve, adapt and get back up to speed, he’s largely been impressive in his eight games back.

While the sample size is still relatively small, he’s currently averaging 8.3 points on 56.8 percent shooting from the field and 40 percent from deep as well as 2.5 assists and a plus/minus of plus-1.8. All of those marks would be career-highs if maintained over the full length of a season.

He’s been even better in the last three at 14 points per game on astounding shooting splits of 72.7 percent from the field, 57.1 percent from deep and 100 percent from the free throw line to go along with three assists and a plus-minus of plus-5.3.

Those numbers were of course significantly elevated by his spectacular 21-point outing (8-of-10 from the field, 3-of-4 from 3-point land) against Memphis on Friday, but what I want to illustrate is that game wasn’t just an outlier, per se. He’s been playing well even before that contest albeit without putting up quite as impressive of figures.

And considering what we’ve seen of him so far, particularly if Dante continues to improve in the final six games of the regular season, then he very well ought to be a key contributor and provide the Jazz with an enormous boost come playoff time.

At his best, he can be such a weapon on offense and such an asset defensively. Exum is excellent at pushing the tempo, using his quick first step to surge past his defender and get to the rim. As he continues to improve at finishing, he’ll be even more dangerous in that area.

But his ability to beat defenders off the dribble doesn’t just result in him scoring, but forces opponents to send help defense to stop Exum, potentially leading to more open looks for his teammates and completely opening up Utah’s offense. With that being so, Dante Exum’s speed and aggressiveness could very well open up a whole new dynamic to the Jazz offense.

Not only that, but if he’s able to keep his 3-point shooting clip anywhere close to where it’s at currently, he’ll be even more deadly. The Jazz are in desperate need of another reliable scoring option, particularly off the bench, and while Jae Crowder has been great at times, he’s also been somewhat streaky. If Exum is able to step up and fill that role, it will work wonders for the Jazz.

Exum’s also shown major strides in terms of his passing. Sure, 2.5 assists isn’t jumping off the page at anyone, but 6.2 per 36 minutes is a nice mark, in fact, it’s the second best on the team (minimum 20 minutes played) trailing only Ricky Rubio. The same goes for his assist percentage of 27.0.

And not only is it his passes leading directly to baskets, but Exum has simply appeared more confident passing in general and has been particularly solid in his decision-making. That’s been perhaps one of the things that’s impressed me most about Exum is that regardless of some of the outcomes (missed shots, turnovers, etc.), his cognizance for making the right basketball play has seemed significantly higher than we’ve seen in previous seasons.

On several occasions, including in a big way in the disappointing loss to the Spurs, Exum has absolutely provided an incredible lift and spark off the bench, going as far as to turn the flow of the game around in favor of the Jazz. If we’re talking about him having this big of an impact in eight games playing just 14.5 minutes per contest, imagine what he’ll be able to do if he continues to improve at the level he has been and gets assimilated by playoff time.

The Jazz are far from a perfect team – that’s been evident in the last seven games where they’ve largely struggled. As a whole, they’ve been less than formidable during that stretch. But that certainly doesn’t apply to Exum, who’s off to a great start so far in his return. If the rest of this Jazz team can put it together and get back to the level of play they were exhibiting during recent win streaks, then it’s entirely possible that Dante could be the “Ex-factor” (see what I did there?) to help give the Jazz an extra edge in the playoffs.

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His quickness, passing ability, defensive length and spark off the bench have all shown immense promise thus far. While I think we’ll see some bad games and plenty of discouraging moments out of Exum as he continues to adjust before he’s able to be a consistent producer, there’s no disputing that he’s off to a great start and should very well be a difference maker for the Jazz down the stretch and in the playoffs.