Utah Jazz need Victor Oladipo-esque breakout from Dante Exum

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - MAY 4: Dante Exum #11 of the Utah Jazz handles the ball against the Houston Rockets during Game Three of the Western Conference Semifinals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs on May 4, 2018 at the Vivint Smart Home Arena Salt Lake City, Utah. Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - MAY 4: Dante Exum #11 of the Utah Jazz handles the ball against the Houston Rockets during Game Three of the Western Conference Semifinals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs on May 4, 2018 at the Vivint Smart Home Arena Salt Lake City, Utah. Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images) /
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With the start of the 2018-19 season quickly approaching, Utah Jazz guard Dante Exum would do well to aim to follow the example of reigning Most Improved Player Victor Oladipo.

As we get closer to the end of August and the start of September training camp draws ever nearer, it’s hard to contain the excitement and enthusiasm about the Utah Jazz this upcoming season. After a wonderful 2017-18 campaign, the Jazz figure to be even better than they were a year ago thanks to continuity and a full offseason of dedication and hard work.

One player in particular is going to be in the spotlight for the Jazz as one who’s overdue for a breakout, in need of proving himself worthy of his newest contract, and vital to the team taking a major leap. That player, of course, is Dante Exum.

I’ve already said on a couple of occasions that I feel that Exum’s goal for the 2018-19 season should be to win the Most Improved Player Award and I stand by that assertion. Though it won’t be an easy task and he’s certain to face stiff competition for the recognition, in order for the Jazz to emerge as a legitimate force in the Western Conference, it will be absolutely necessary.

In fact, Exum would do well to follow the example of the NBA’s most recent Most Improved Player, Victor Oladipo. After stints with both the Orlando Magic, who drafted him, and a brief stop with the Oklahoma City Thunder, many believed that Oladipo wasn’t ever going to pan out to the degree that he’d been hyped as a former second overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. But, boy, did he ever prove that wrong last season.

In his first year with the Indiana Pacers, the former Indiana Hoosier burst onto the scene in a big way, making his first All-Star appearance (and nearly earning a starting spot), while finishing the year with averages of 23.1 points on shooting splits of 47.7 percent from the field and 37.1 percent from deep while adding 5.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.4 steals per game, all of which were career marks.

Dipo went from what some considered little more than an average role player to a bona fide star in seemingly the blink of an eye. He deserves tons of credit for the amazing amount of work he put in during the 2017 offseason and for the development he underwent.

Ideally, with a full healthy offseason and the help of Utah’s renowned development program, Exum will be able to take a similar leap.

But let’s get one thing straight. Though I mentioned that Oladipo had been somewhat of a “disappointment” in his first four years in the league, that’s relative to the high potential he had, and truthfully isn’t all that fair of an assessment. After all, he’s averaged double figures each year in the league (a feat that Exum has yet to accomplish), including a solid 15.9 during the season in OKC where he was largely hidden in Russell Westbrook‘s shadow.

Oladipo received some criticism for being a bit too timid that year, but 15.9 points per game is a dang good mark. I’m pretty sure Jazz fans would kill to see Dante averaging that night in and night out. In Oladipo’s second year in the league, he averaged a hefty 17.9 points per game, adding further evidence to the fact that Victor’s career, even the so-called disappointing parts, have been more prolific than Exum’s slow start in the NBA.

However, if we’re speaking relatively, that just means the Jazz need Exum to grow nearly an identical amount as Oladipo, even if Exum’s starting point is currently lower and won’t result in him reaching the same level of stardom right away. The simple fact of the matter is that the Jazz need Exum to improve exponentially, just as Dipo did, if they are to reach a new level as a team.

Another characteristic of this Oladipo vs. Exum comparison that merits mention is the fact that each player’s teams are in pretty different situations from this year and last. The Pacers were pinned as a lottery team going into last season, with many predicting them to finish near the cellar in the Eastern Conference. Even with those low expectations, Oladipo was easily set to be a starter whose success or failure would determine how high his team could ascend or how low they’d fall.

This year’s version of the Jazz is far from a projected lottery team. In fact, many have them pinned as the second best team in the West. Likewise, Exum isn’t set to be a starter – that will be Ricky Rubio‘s responsibility – but him having an impact off the bench will be crucial for the Jazz.

If Victor Oladipo’s breakout took the Pacers from a projected lottery squad to a playoff powerhouse, then an Exum breakout could similarly launch the Jazz from playoff powerhouse to championship contender. And that’s what the Jazz have to hope for and expect. Likewise, Exum has to expect that out of himself.

Just as Victor Oladipo won the Most Improved Player Award last season for exceeding personal expectations and leading his team dramatically past their expectations, Exum should aim to do the same type of thing.

Last year in just 14 regular season games played, Exum averaged 8.1 points per game on 48.3 percent shooting from the field and 27.8 percent from deep while proving himself as a skilled defender. If he is to take a leap similar to what reigning MIP Victor Oladipo did in 2017-18, I’d like to see those numbers jump to about 15 points per game, 50 percent shooting from the field, and a 3-point percentage in the low to mid-30s, all while remaining a lockdown perimeter defender.

That won’t put Exum on the same level as Oladipo by any means, but it would match their leaps in production from one year to the next almost seamlessly, albeit with Exum starting at a lower point as I mentioned before.

If Dante manages that kind of leap, it could make the Jazz surprisingly better than anyone is currently expecting, just like Oladipo did for last year’s Pacers. And with how good many people already believe the Jazz will be, causing them to reach an even higher level means just one thing – they’ll be a championship contender.

This feels like a lot of weight to place on Exum’s shoulders, but he’s absolutely capable and, quite frankly, feels the same way about himself. In a recent conversation with Fox Sports’ Olgun Uluc, Exum made the following pointed statements–

"“I wanna play 82. I played 82 in my first season. That’s 100 percent my No. 1 goal. I think, just being given that opportunity to play 82, I’m going to earn my minutes, earn my time, and be in one of those critical roles where I can have a major impact.Not just an impact; a major impact on a team. I want to be that guy on at the end of the game, and even taking the last shot. I think that’s a goal I’ve definitely set for myself, and expect myself to make.”"

“A major impact.” You heard it from Dante Exum himself. That’s what the Jazz need him to make and that’s what he expects of himself. If that doesn’t stand out to you as precisely the kind of mindset that would win Most Improved Player Award, I’m not sure what would.

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Exum is poised for a breakout in 2018-19. And that’s exactly what he and the Utah Jazz need. If he can model his ascension after NBA colleague Victor Oladipo, who’s the reigning Most Improved Player and proved just how vital one player’s turnaround can be to a team, then Exum’s career is going to be in a great spot.

And the Utah Jazz will be in great hands.