How Dante Exum Can Win the Most Improved Player Award

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) /

Dante Exum is healthy and eager to contribute at a higher level for the Utah Jazz. Could he be a candidate for the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award?

Victor OladipoGiannis Antetokounmpo. CJ McCollum. Jimmy Butler.

The list of recent NBA Most Improved Player Award recipients is a sight to behold. Perhaps more impressive still has been the continued development of each of these players since their award-winning campaigns, playing major roles as cornerstones for their respective franchises.

You likely wouldn’t imagine the Utah Jazz’ Dante Exum as one prepared to join such a group. But hold on — stranger things have happened in the NBA. In fact, our own Jared Woodcox listed the MIP Award as the key goal for Exum this coming season.

There are three definitive steps the Utah Jazz’ young Australian combo guard can take toward Awards Season consideration. Let’s break it down.

1) Improved Shooting

You knew this was coming. It’s the big elephant (or kangaroo, if you like) in the room. Dante Exum, the King of Speed, the lanky, lock-down defender, the exciting, slashing dunker, has yet to really find his shot.

A career 39.5 percent shooter from the field overall (that’s right, from the field, not from three), Exum actually had his most accurate season so far this past year, connecting at a 48.3-percent clip. This progression is promising, to be sure, but his overall improvement was counterbalanced  by a career low 27.8 percent from 3-point range.

It’s important to note that Dante’s increased overall shooting percentage has largely been a result of improved finishing at the rim. Exum scored 5.1 points in the paint per contest last year, an increase from his previous career high of 3.2.

Exum’s confidence and strength in finishing, coupled with his speed and explosive first step, have provided him with the building blocks of an offensive game, at least in the short-range.

It’s time to round out that skill set with an accurate shot from distance.

Exum could survive as a serviceable backup guard in the NBA without a deadly 3-point shot. But if he wants to be in contention for MIP this year, becoming a threat from long-range PLUS a powerful driver and finisher could turn voters’ heads.

Imagine the impact that even a 33 percent-from-three-shooting Dante would have on the Utah Jazz’ offense.

Visualize the spacing this would afford Gobert. Donovan. Joe. Picture the ball buzzing around the perimeter on offense, with Exum and company all scaring opposing defenses into a frantic scramble to deny a hot-potato-style distance shooting clinic.

And suddenly, POOF. The defense is broken, and Rudy catches a lob for an easy, open dunk. Or Ingles cans an open three from the corner.

This style of Jazz offense only works to its best potential if Dante can shoot a respectable percentage from distance.

If he is to be in MIP consideration, Exum needs a 3-point shot.

2) Competent Facilitation 

Getting punked and collecting fouls vs. Chris Paul and other savvy veterans. Throwing a bad pass, leading to a breakaway layup. Turning it over on an overly ambitious drive to the rack. We’ve seen this movie before, plenty of times, during the first few seasons of Exum’s still-young Utah Jazz career.

If he is to be an MIP finalist, Exum will have to step beyond all of it. Now, the encouraging news: he’s ready to do just that.

In under 20 minutes per game during the Jazz’ preseason, Dante averaged 4.7 assists (second only to Joe Ingles‘ 4.8, and actually ahead of starting point guard Ricky Rubio‘s 4.0), while turning the ball over only 1.3 times per game.

Yes, it’s only preseason.

Yes, it matters.

Exum showed poise, collection and — most importantly — competence while running the show during his backup minutes. Memories of feeling nervous while watching this young Aussie handle the ball against NBA defenses seemed to fade into insignificance.

The guy knew how to take care of the rock. And he found his teammates for good, open shots, time and time again.

If Dante can continue to average a good assist-to-turnover ratio, and keep hitting his teammates for quality looks, he’s taken another massive step toward the MIP Award.

3) Health

By its very nature, this is a bullet point no one really wants to think about. But it’s the most fundamental cornerstone to Dante Exum’s MIP hopes.

After playing in all 82 games during his rookie season with the Utah Jazz, Exum missed his sophomore season entirely. He followed that up with 66 games played during year three, only to have injuries derail him again last season, leading him to see action in just 14 regular season contests.

You could almost argue that having Dante healthy for a full season, with no other improvements, would be like the Jazz signing a whole new player.

Considering the astonishingly high level of defense Exum played on James Harden, for example, in the playoffs this past Spring, one wonders just how much notoriety his game on that end of the court could gather with a full season’s worth of action under the national spotlight.

The Utah Jazz are playing better than any time in recent memory, and people are taking note. Even casual fans are tuning in to watch Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert play ball.

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If “this other guy named Exum” suddenly begins to stand out as a defensive stalwart, a competent facilitator, and a 3-point threat on a night-in and night-out basis, well…

People will notice.

It’s not a stretch to think that voters for the Most Improved Player of the Year Award might, as well.