Utah Jazz: Stop me if you’ve heard this before — Exum is the X-factor

Former lottery pick Dante Exum’s career has been a perpetual false start thus far. His ability to stay healthy and productive on the court could change everything for the Utah Jazz next season.

With the 2019 FIBA World Cup set to tip-off this weekend, things have arguably never been better for the Australian national team. The Boomers, as they’re called, are just days removed from their first-ever win over USA Basketball and, in spite of star point-man Ben Simmons‘ decision not to play with them this summer, they have the look of legitimate challengers for a gold medal.

While the Utah Jazz’s Joe Ingles has been a huge part of everything that’s going on in the Land Down Under, another Aussie Jazzman — former No. 5 overall pick Dante Exum — has been conspicuously absent. Gunning for World Cup glory is out; Exum is too busy fighting for his chance to even be on the hardwood.

Of course, the same could be said about his first five years with the Jazz.

Since making the move to the NBA and Salt Lake City, Exum has only appeared in 49.8 percent of his team’s regular season games. Instead of rocking the hardwood and developing himself from an early-lottery talent with sky-high potential to the young star many expected him to become, he’s spent his time rehabbing an ACL tear, a separated shoulder with ligament damage and a torn patellar tendon.

The latter was what felled him last season, but according to Exum, he’s well on his way toward putting the latest setback behind him. “I’m back on the court, I’m running, I’m doing all that, I’m moving side-to-side and I’m feeling good,” he told NBA Australia this week.

Good times, indeed, for a team and a fanbase that has been waiting an inordinate amount of time already for his big breakout. But, despite the optimism, Exum is still playing the long game with regards to his full recovery —

“I’m doing all that, but I’m just going make sure, once I start to get more into the nitty-gritty stuff of, five-on-five and everyday practice, that my body can handle it.”

This is they key statement with regards to Exum, because his body’s ability to withstand the grind, not just of his latest recovery, but of an 82-game NBA season and the deep playoff run many in Utah are expecting, is undoubtedly the X-factor for the Jazz next season.

I know, I know… you’ve all heard this before, but now — more than ever — Exum’s ability to stay on the court, stay productive and start delivering on that massive potential could be a boon for the Jazz. Because, this time, it could be the tipping point for the Jazz in their quest for the Larry O’Brien trophy in 2020.

With the Jazz electing to go for broke this offseason by bringing in the likes of big ballers Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, super-subs Ed Davis and Jeff Green, as well as boom-or-bust guard Emmanuel Mudiay, the stakes have been raised in Jazzland.

Provided everyone stays healthy and gels, 50-plus wins, a top playoff seed and a good run in the playoffs aren’t the ultimate goal — they’re the minimum expectation.

At this juncture, Exum doesn’t really factor into that equation. He’s largely been a phantom for the whole of his team’s recent evolution, so why would anyone expect anything different with the next level of that process?

As much as we all like the guy, anything he does at this point is gravy.

That said, his physical gifts and the things he’s been able to accomplish with them during those rare moments when he has been on the court and producing leave the possibility for Exum to be a real tide-turner; that something extra that propels Utah from good to great, from a respectable playoff run to title contention.

Over his last month of action in ’18-19, before he fell prey to the latest catastrophic injury, the erstwhile Aussie was nothing short of brilliant. In 16 games, he averaged 19.2 points, 8.4 assists and 3.4 rebounds per 36 minutes. Along the way, he shot over 50 percent from the floor and knocked down 38 percent of his 3-point attempts.

During that stretch, the Jazz scored 113 points per 100 possessions when Exum was on the floor and held opponents to just 98 points by the same measure. That equates to a net rating of 14.8, the best mark on the team among rotation regulars.

Simply put, the Jazz reached heights otherwise unseen when Exum was in there and really rolling.

Now, imagine what might happen if he could provide similar production and impact for a team that’s thrown Conley and Bogdanovic into the mix with stars like Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert; not to mention the team’s jack-of-all-trades in Ingles; a team that is head and shoulders better than any we’ve seen in Jazzland in a decade or more.

As great as the acquisitions the Jazz made were, Exum performing at his best level — not even his best potential level; a level we’ve already seen from him — along with the big guns could be as big a deal for the team as any of the blockbuster moves were.

As ever, though, Exum’s body has to handle the load.

If it can, the Jazz’s path to the biggest possible payoff becomes a whole lot smoother.