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SALT LAKE CITY — In the highly touted 2014 NBA draft, the Utah Jazz selected Dante Exum with the fifth overall pick. Exum and Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Joel Embiid were viewed as potential superstars entering the NBA in the same draft.
Comparisons to the 2003 draft (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade), the 1996 draft (Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen, Allen Iverson), and the 1984 draft (Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, John Stockton) were made, leaving fans of teams with high draft picks anticipating franchise-changing pieces.
So far, the results have been mixed. Outside of Wiggins, the top five picks have all suffered serious early season injuries. Parker suffered a major knee injury that cost him nearly an entire season. Embiid made his NBA debut this year after back and foot injuries saddled him for the first two years of his career. The Orlando Magic’s Aaron Gordon also suffered a foot injury, forcing him to miss major time.
Exum suffered a similar fate, with an offseason knee injury robbing him of his sophomore season.
The Jazz, unable to wait on Exum to develop to better their point guard position, traded the 12th overall pick in the 2016 draft for veteran George Hill.
So far, Hill, despite missing roughly half of the Jazz’ games, has been a revelation. The Indiana native is averaging 20 points per game, while shooting a blistering 53 percent from the floor, including 45 percent from the 3-point line. If Hill were to continue those numbers, he’ll make a great case to appear in his first All-Star game at 30 years old. With this level of play, the Jazz simply can’t afford to keep him off the floor.
Meanwhile, Exum has been plagued by inconsistent play on both sides of the floor. The third-year guard is shooting just 39 percent from the floor, converting only 25 percent of his 3-point attempts. In late November, Exum was benched for an entire game against Minnesota, the first DNP-CD of his career. In the three games surrounding the missed action, Exum recorded a total of 22 minutes.
The growing concern of Exum’s lack of play and progress is palpable in Jazz-land. KSL’s own Andy Larsen wrote a great piece on Exum, his development, and why the Jazz aren’t playing him.
For Exum to grow into the player the Jazz want, he must get minutes on the floor. For the Jazz to play well enough this season to re-sign Gordon Hayward in his upcoming free agency, this season can’t be used as a crash course for developing Exum.
While Larsen answered Jazz fans' most common question; “Why isn’t Dante Exum playing?” I find myself asking, why do we care?
With Hill on the floor as a starter, the Jazz are 8-3 on the season, a rate that would project to well over 50 wins extrapolated over the remainder of the 82 game season. Essentially, with Hill the Jazz are getting the results they wanted. With Hill playing at his current level, and Exum at his own, the Jazz can’t feel comfortable allowing HIll to walk in free agency this summer, handing the keys to the franchise over to the still unproven Exum. It's now likely that Hill is the Jazz point guard of the future.
While Exum is younger, and currently a cheaper option than Hill, he’s not helping the Jazz produce wins, the sole goal of NBA teams. As Larsen points out, he’s not producing even at the level of backup Shelvin Mack.
And yet, fans clamor for more floor time for Exum. But even if they do so unnecessarily, it’s hard to blame them.
The Jazz burned the entire 2013-14 NBA season positioning themselves to draft a player with Exum’s potential. Fans suffered through a miserable 57-loss season while watching forward Paul Millsap sign with Atlanta, only to turn into an All-Star in his debut season with the Hawks.
Fans, and apparently the Jazz front office, bought into the hype of the 2014 NBA draft being one for the ages, hence tanking for draft position.
Due of that investment, the Jazz are beholden to developing Exum, betting again on potential that may never be realized, at the behest of wins for the franchise.
The alternate route is to stick with more proven players, as coach Quin Snyder recently attempted, while drawing the ire of a Jazz fan base that was trained to practice patience by the team’s decision-makers.
This is not to dismiss Dante Exum as a bust just 100 games into his career. Exum has improved from his rookie season nearly across the board statistically, all while playing fewer minutes. At just 21, he may be a half decade from truly reaching his potential as an NBA player.
But the entire purpose behind tanking to draft Exum was to build a winning team in the not too distant future, and with Hill on board, the Jazz have reached that goal. Whether Exum is the catalyst or not, the Jazz are winning games within the timeframe laid out by general manager Dennis Lindsey.
While the Jazz are fulfilling their promise of winning games, the fan base is left wondering why they suffered through three seasons of losing records, and watching proven assets walk in free agency, while failing to develop their biggest draft investment.
As the Jazz have found the winning recipe using veterans and draft picks they’ve acquired through trade, as Hill, Hayward, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert and Rodney Hood all joined the Jazz via trades, they may be forced to abandon their most ambitious strategy in tanking for Exum, admitting it was a less than essential step in the rebuilding process.
Fans should enjoy this roster, and support the veteran offseason acquisitions that Lindsey and the Jazz front office made. Meanwhile, the team’s self-induced growing pains surrounding the acquisition and development of Exum should serve as a cautionary tale against future tanking.