SALT LAKE CITY — Just two months ago, Dante Exum wasn't playing. Head coach Quin Snyder sat him in four out of five games in late January, coinciding with the return of Alec Burks. And when Snyder did need a point guard, he went with Raul Neto, the energetic Brazilian that started much of the 2015-16 season in Exum's absence.
Why wasn't Exum playing? Well, I covered the biggest reasons in November: Exum couldn't reliably be called upon to handle his defensive duties, and he didn't offer much of anything on the offensive end. Up until Exum's DNP stint in January, no Jazz player had made the team worse when he was on the floor. Whenever Exum was in the game, the Jazz were outscored by 3.3 points per 100 possessions. Meanwhile, all of his teammates were positive, save Trey Lyles (at -0.5 points per 100).
But since then, Exum has started to show some things. It's not that Exum is a world beater, certainly. But since the All-Star break, he's shown more flashes of potential than we've seen at any other stretch of his career.
First, Exum flipped the aggressiveness switch. In his rookie year, Exum used just 13.8 percent of possessions. When he "attacked" the pick and roll, he'd mostly find that he wasn't good enough to create an advantage, and would just kick it out, getting the ball in the hands of Gordon Hayward or Rodney Hood to try again. That took baby steps forward in the first half of 2016-17: he was using about 17 percent of possessions. He'd get to the rim and cycle out, or turn the ball over, or throw up some clever, but likely to get intercepted, pass.
But we're now seeing a confident Exum. He's now using nearly 22 percent of possessions since the All-Star break. Any time he sees the defense is moving, or he has an advantage, Exum's attacked the rim, using his quickness to find openings there to surprise teams. His go-to move is the eye fake: look for all the world like a play is developing in one direction, than quickly burst with a change of direction to the rim.
Dante Exum's attacking with his left hand here, taking advantage of an eye fake to the right to get to the rim with his left: pic.twitter.com/luqAVOEd5v— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) March 17, 2017
This is only possible thanks to some real skill development. In years past, heck, in months past, Exum wouldn't have been able to do this because it forces him to drive aggressively while dribbling with his left hand. Exum has really developed his off-hand with assistant coach Lamar Skeeter, and the results show in spurts like that, as Exum's able to use his burst in a new direction.
He still needs the right ingredients to finish at the rim. In particular, if a team has a rim protector on the floor, he hasn't developed his floater game, or creative layup game, enough where he can reliably finish around that sort of defense. But that's pretty rare to find in bench units, and Exum is mostly able to do well enough when he gets there with finger rolls and soft finishes.
The other nice thing that seems like it's developed is Exum's 3-point shooting. He's shooting 40 percent from there in March, and is doing much, much better in practice than he did in the past. I've watched him go on streaks of hitting eight corner threes in a row; previously, three or four in a row would have been difficult. We may still just be dealing with a small sample size, but again, Exum has looked confident in taking that shot in big scenarios recently, and it's paid off for the Jazz.
And if he continues to improve there, it'll open up his attack game again. Maybe the most common way NBA attackers find their defenders off balance is when they're closing out, trying to run shooters off the 3-point line. Here, Exum attacks that to get all the way to the rim:
Here's Exum attacking a closeout (made possible thanks to improved 3-point shooting in March!) pic.twitter.com/wjbFxXrLSV— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) March 17, 2017
Exum's defense has also taken some nice steps recently. I think he's still overall less impactful than he was in his rookie season, when he focused so entirely on that end of the floor. But he's made some special plays. Look at this steal, for example, when he just envelops Ish Smith with his long arms to tap the ball away.
And finally, here's Exum just being a super lanky dude and stealing the ball, almost Andrei Kirilenko style. pic.twitter.com/ocnZGj890v— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) March 17, 2017
The pick and roll defense is less consistent, and of course, there are the foul concerns. Against Houston last week, for example, Exum picked up four fouls in nine minutes of play, causing Snyder (and Exum himself) to criticize his discipline.
I actually think these issues are related: the league has changed a lot in how its referees are calling perimeter fouls, and in particular, even average players have started to do more to show when they're being fouled. A specialty of rookie Exum was slithering between the screen and the ball carrier to stay in front, which naturally creates contact. That used to be pretty allowed, but now players are accentuating that contact with head jerks and even just throwing the ball at the rim haphazardly. Those are being called as fouls now, and Exum has to adjust.
But Exum's also going to start earning more respect from referees as he gains stature in the league. He gets himself in a lot of good defensive situations where he looks just off-balance enough to draw a blocking foul, and I suspect that will change.
These improvements have led to a consistent spot in the rotation for Exum. And as Rodney Hood has been out with injury, Exum's even finding himself playing some more important minutes at the shooting guard spot next to George Hill, which generally gives him more space to attack with his shot or drive game. With Exum on the court at either position, the Jazz are outscoring teams now by 4.7 points per 100 possessions. That's not the best number on the team, but it's certainly enough for him to play as one of Utah's better bench options.
Is Exum the future of the point guard position for the Utah Jazz? It's hard to project enough improvement that he'd be ready for a starting role next year, which is unfortunate given Hill's salary demands. The Jazz clearly need a reliable starter ahead of Exum. But at times this season, it looked like the Jazz would need to sign two point guards this summer, a starter and a reserve. It looks like Exum has checked the latter box.
Speaking of this offseason, it's going to be an incredibly critical time for Exum. There's still so much of his game that needs to be developed: ball handling, finishing, movement, balance, explosion, pick and roll reads, and much more. And not only is he eligible for an extension this summer, he's going into the year before he becomes a restricted free agent. But with this run at the end of the season, he's given himself something to build on.