SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz got the frustrating news Friday night that Dante Exum’s latest injury is, once again, likely to keep him off the floor for an extended period of time.
Just three games after returning from a sprained ankle and bone bruise that kept him out for 24 games, Exum suffered a torn patellar tendon in his right knee. While the Jazz have yet to rule Exum out for the season, they haven’t set an evaluation period for the fifth-year guard, which means he’s likely to miss an extended period of time.
Full ruptures require surgery and may take six to 12 months to fully recover, according to the NBA’s website. Exum's patellar tendon is only partially torn and the Jazz have yet to announce a surgery for the injury. That means it’s possible he can return to the floor without going under the knife.
In either case, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Exum’s season with the Jazz has come to a premature end.
It’s a tough blow to the Jazz who signed Exum to a three-year contract worth up to $33 million, but some of that salary includes some built-in bonuses for performance, which he likely won't receive without playing time.
Exum showed brief stretches of his potential as he defended James Harden in the 2018 playoffs, which earned him the large investment from the Jazz. He followed that up by an impressive five-game stretch at the turn of the new year before he injured his ankle against Detroit.
Now, even if Exum can find his way back to the floor this season or is in need of another full summer to rehab, the Jazz must look at a future without Exum as a main cog in the rotation. When he’s been on the floor, either rehabbing or healthy, Exum’s play has been riddled with inconsistency throughout his career.
For his career, Exum averages just under 6 points and two rebounds, and just over two assists per game. He’s a career 40-percent shooter from the floor and 30-percent shooter from the 3-point line. Even as a reserve for the majority of his time with the Jazz, his offensive averages are underwhelming.
Perhaps more troubling is that he's appeared in just 204 of the 420 games the Jazz have played since he was drafted in 2014.
Exum missed the entire 2015-16 season with a knee injury, missed games due to knee tendonitis in 2016-17, suffered a dislocated shoulder in the 2017 preseason that caused him to miss 68 games last year, and his sprained ankle and patellar tendon tear this season. Exum has appeared in just 48 percent of the Jazz games since joining the team.
Another unintended consequence of Exum's latest injury is his loss in trade value.
The Memphis Grizzlies were reportedly shopping point guard Mike Conley at the NBA’s trade deadline and the Jazz were the top suitors. The Jazz were reportedly willing to offer Rubio in a trade, but unwilling to include Exum to complete the trade.
It was assumed the Jazz and Grizzlies could revisit those trade talks this summer, but Exum’s injury has to figure into his value on the trade market.
With Rubio due to hit unrestricted free agency, it’s unclear if the Jazz have the pieces required to satisfy Memphis' demands. It’s a confusing and difficult pill to swallow if the Jazz lose Rubio with no compensation and are again left with a rehabbing Exum, as opposed to a proven contributor in Conley.
Regardless of the Jazz's financial investment, his lottery draft position or his untapped potential, the young Australian hasn’t been fortunate enough to prove he can be a reliable player for the Jazz. This has created a hole the Jazz can no longer fix with a Band-Aid approach.
Raul Neto is a serviceable backup point guard but lacks the size to compete with NBA guards night in and night out. Like Exum, Neto has struggled with consistency and has an injury-riddled history.
Joe Ingles and Jae Crowder can play emergency minutes at point guard but aren’t the natural playmakers the Jazz need in a reserve role. Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell can fill 48 minutes at point guard, but Mitchell is left playing out of position for long stretches of the game.
The Jazz are without a speedy wing defender to spend stretches on the opposing team’s best wing defender, as Exum did against Harden in the playoffs last season. This summer, the Jazz must find a player that can address the team’s needs for a reserve ball handler and a wing stopper, regardless of Exum’s diagnosis.
Exum’s injuries have been unfortunate for both the guard and the Jazz, who have only flirted with seeing his perceived potential. But after Exum’s latest injury, in the team’s best interest, the Jazz must plan for a future without the former lottery pick.
Ben Anderson is a contributor at KSL.com, follow him on Twitter @BensHoops. Listen to him 2-6, Monday through Friday with Kyle Gunther on ESPN 700.