Every season the draft brings a fresh infusion of talent to the NBA. In theory this is an even, steady process. In practice, hindsight and historical perspective show that there are borders and boundaries — talent doesn’t just arrive in the NBA, it arrives in generational waves. Sometimes we can’t see these aesthetic dividing lines for decades, sometimes you simply can’t miss them.
The present day NBA appears to be on the cusp of welcoming a remarkable new generation to its forefront — players who are not just incredible but incredibly unique. Players who will not just excel but transform the roles and responsibilities of basketball players as we understand them. Over the course of this week, The Step Back will be examining many of the players who could figure prominently in The Next Generation. Not every player we turn our attention to is destined to be a star, but all could play a role in defining the future of the NBA. Read the whole series here.
The Next Generation: Dante Exum
Unless there are potentially transcendent bigs available — a Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal or even a Dwight Howard — the underlying theme of most NBA drafts over the years has focused in on dominant lead guards. In today’s NBA, the ability to attack the basket with speed and power gives teams an advantage that is hard to defend over the course of, not only 48 minutes, but 82 games.
Drive-dominant guards can flourish and it seems more and more like we’re entering a golden age for this player type. Whoever, a flooded market creates competition for minutes and squeezes those players with holes in their game. Miss sometime with an injury and you risk getting left behind.
Enter Dante Exum.
Exum of the Utah Jazz is in his third season but missed all of his sophomore year because of a torn ACL. He has statistically underachieved and as the Jazz have moved ahead by leaps and bounds, he has seemed less relevant to their present and future. With just 132 games under his belt, Exum is already flirting with being branded a “bust” because health issues have interrupted his development. Moreover, with 3-point shooting becoming increasingly important in lead guards, his lack of growth in that area has taken some of the shine off his star.
The Australian-born Exum burst onto NBA scouts’ radars after an eye-opening performance at the NIKE Hoops Summit in April of 2013 followed by another impressive showing that June at the FIBA Under-19 World Championships in Prague. Exum showed the necessary point guard skills to warrant a selection by Dennis Lindsey and the Utah Jazz with the 5th overall pick in 2014.
“We feel very fortunate to get a young talent, and I’ll stress young, like Dante,” Lindsey told reporters the night of the 2014 Draft. “It’s a projection pick, an anticipation pick, but he’s 6-foot-6 and fast and he’s a good kid so we really didn’t want to overthink it… He’s more of a scorer. His greatest strength is his ability to accelerate quickly and break through the line of the defense and he has an array of finishes.”
Lindsey and his staff seemed to be spot on — Exum’s first year in Salt Lake City showed some signs of what his ceiling could be despite some obvious struggles. Exum did well physically, starting 41 games and appearing in all 82. His 22 minutes per game and modest averages of 4.8 points and 2.4 assists, didn’t vault him into the Rookie of the Year discussion, but that and his defense at the point of attack did help the Jazz to a 38-44 win season — a huge step forward from their 25-57 season the year before. At 19, he was an immediate rotation player on a team that was on the come up. Then he tore the ACL in his left knee while playing for the Australian National Team during the summer of 2015.
Pre-injury, Exum was able to get in the lane in limited minutes and finish 99 shot attempts at a 52 percent clip. He also established the ability to find 3-point shots in the left corner, making 41 percent.
Post-injury, Exum has continued to show the ability to get to the paint and finish, but has struggled to produce the same level of consistency from behind the arc, especially from the corners making just 22 percent.
Exum’s value as a two-way, rotation guard is undervalued because of his low per-game production combined with the expectations from being a high lottery pick. For as quiet as his individual numbers are, he appears to benefit the team. He’s featured in the Jazz’s most effective lineup this season (min. 75 minutes played). There is still a lot of growth to go but what he is right now, however limited, works for the Jazz’s roster.
The question becomes how do you value what Exum is now versus what he can be potentially. Have we seen enough offensively to determine that he can be a useful, 25-30 minute per game player even in the playoffs when rotations tighten? Will more minutes and offensive responsibility take away from his overall defensive game?
For the sake of the Jazz organization, the emergence of George Hill into one of the game’s better two-way lead guards has limited the pressure on Exum to step into the forefront. That’s a benefit for Exum, who will turn 22 in July.
Exum’s injury and Hill’s emergence has allowed him to, at times, blend in off the ball and it shows his feel for the game and the potential of finding different ways to score.
As illustrated by the shot charts above, Exum had a solid 2014-15 in terms of shooting left corner 3s (took 58, made 41 percent) but so far this year he’s shooting just 22 percent from the corners. The ability is there, but the numbers aren’t, yet.
Exum has shown flashes of having the ability to finish off cuts, where he averages 1.43 points per possession, which is in the same company as names like LeBron James, DeMar DeRozan and Kawhi Leonard.
With the ball, Exum can be a handful, especially going right in the high pick-and-roll with Rudy Gobert. His 0.79 points per possession mark scoring in the pick-and-roll, with a fairly high volume, on 24.2 percent of his possessions, has him among a group of solid rotational guards like Milwaukee’s Malcolm Brogdon (0.78), Indiana’s Monta Ellis (0.78) and Toronto’s Cory Joseph (0.79), as well as the Bucks’ dynamic Giannis Antetokounmpo (0.79)
One potential positive sign that his knee is close to 100 percent, Exum has shown some burst to the rim at times and is finishing
This is where drafting Exum so high actually benefits the Jazz, despite the negative narrative about him potentially being a disappointment for his draft slot. Utah has him under contract through next year and can slowly develop him in their system, maintaining all the contractual leverage.
In terms of on the court, it’s hard to definitively say Exum is a candidate for a franchise starting point guard role. If he doesn’t learn to shoot — especially with draft classes like this year’s coming in almost every year — Exum may always been something of an afterthought. Still, his development bears watching. He great defensive potential and his shown himself to be useful as a complementary ball-handler this season. With a team like Utah that has so much offensive creation on the wings in Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood, Exum could quietly be the perfect fit.