Las Vegas • Dante Exum’s encounter with Elijah Millsap was brief, but memorable.
The Jazz’s rookie guard hit Paul Millsap’s younger brother with an explosive right-to-left crossover during Saturday’s game against Philadelphia in the Las Vegas Summer League. He then accelerated baseline, beat Sixers’ defense to the basket and dropped a beautiful bounce pass to Rudy Gobert, who went up strong and got fouled.
There will be many struggles for Exum this coming season. He needs to add weight and strength. He has to gain a knowledge of the NBA game, and his jump shot leaves plenty to be desired.
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But Exum’s summer league debut clearly showed that the Jazz may have hit the jackpot in drafting the 6-foot-6 floor leader from Australia. With his size, his speed, his court vision and his basketball IQ, Exum was sensational at times, showing athleticism and making plays that are simply hard to teach.
He scored 10 points, grabbed four rebounds and handed out three assists in what turned out to be a loss to the Sixers. But more than once, he brought the crowd at the Thomas & Mack Center to its collective feet with his deft playmaking.
“I thought I did some good things, but I know that I have a lot to learn and a long way to go,” Exum said. “I know this is a young team and I want to fit in. It was good to get the first game out of the way, I had some butterflies out there, but that was to be expected. The biggest thing is that I want to stay confident in my shot. I want to be able to make plays out there and just be confident.”
The whirlwind hasn’t stopped for Exum since the day he was drafted. He’s seemingly been on an endless track of practices, games, more practices, and dealing with an ever-present crush of media, intrigued with the international kid. Think of a hamster running on a wheel.
To Exum’s credit, he’s dealt with all the attention with the aplomb of someone much older. On Sunday, Exum celebrated his 19th birthday, something that reinforces the fact he’s one of the youngest guys in the current rookie crop.
“The best thing about him is that he’s been extremely coachable,” Jazz assistant Brad Jones said. “He wants to be great, and he’s going about that every day in practice. We thought he did some really good things in that first game. We also thought he’s had some things that he’s needed to work on as well.”
Exum knows that he’s far from a finished product. He found himself winded in spurts against Philadelphia, and that caused him to get beaten a few times defensively. And while he did make a critical 3-pointer down the stretch, Exum’s shot remains a bit ugly once the range extends beyond the paint.
And then, there are the learning experiences for which no amount of coaching can prepare Exum for. An example: Millsap got physical defensively on Exum in the fourth quarter, pushing and shoving as Exum tried to drive to the basket, using his strength to throw him off kilter. Millsap was largely successful.
“He’s got to figure out how to deal with that, and still run an offense,” Jones said. “We know that he’s going to get better at this as time goes on.”
Still, his ability to get to the basket, and his ability to set teammates up were all on display. And in a summer league that features Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, Exum’s debut was as celebrated as anyone’s.
Now comes the more difficult part: improving as the summer league goes on. The Jazz will meet Parker and the Bucks in a late Monday game, then play Denver on Tuesday. For Exum, it’s another learning experience, his first back-to-back as a pro. How will he handle it? How will his legs feel, and how will he fight fatigue?
“He’s played really well,” Utah forward Rodney Hood said. “I think we all saw what he was able to do. He’s fun to play with because if you’re open, he’s going to get you the ball.”
Jefferson signs with Mavs
Richard Jefferson, who started at small forward last season for the Jazz, has signed a one-year minimum contract with the Dallas Mavericks.
The Jazz made no attempt to re-sign the veteran forward, renouncing his rights a few days ago. Utah took on his contract last season in an attempt to gain salary and keep cap flexibility.
Ty Corbin started Jefferson for much of the season, intitally to the chagrin of many Jazz fans. But the former Arizona Wildcat responded with a bounceback season, making shots, running the floor, finishing in transition and becoming one of the better shooters on the team.
As a result, there was a market for Jefferson’s services. The Mavericks, needing veteran help behind newly acquired Chandler Parsons, will rely on him for production off the bench. He will try to replace some of Vince Carter’s scoring. Carter, who was instrumental in Dallas’ postseason run last year, has moved on to the Memphis Grizzilies.
Dante Exum file
• Celebrated his 19th birthday on Sunday.
• Scored 10 points in his summer league debut with the Jazz.
• Is starting for the Jazz at shooting guard in the summer league.
• His first basket as a pro came on an alley-oop dunk.