With the offseason looming this past summer, the Jazz had a decision to make — bring back restricted free agent guard Dante Exum, or go after someone else instead.
Even for a team with a propensity for valuing continuity, and with a great deal of time and effort already invested in the former No. 5 overall pick, it apparently was no sure thing that the 6-foot-6 point guard would be back for a fifth season with the Jazz.
He had, after all, missed the entire 2015-16 season with a torn ACL, and was limited to just 14 regular-season games this past season after separating his shoulder in the preseason. Further, he is averaging just 5.7 points, 2.2 assists, 1.8 rebounds and 0.4 steals per game so far in his career, while shooting .395 from the field and .306 from 3-point range.
General manager Dennis Lindsey said he found himself in the unusual position of having to convince the coaching staff, re-watching video with them to make his argument for retention.
“We actually went through that exercise with the coaches when we were looking at alternatives,” he said. “I think, in retrospect, when the coaches got to see him play those minutes, that they were surprised how many games, those last 14 games, that he played well and allowed us to increase the margin from the bench.”
In the end, the now-23-year-old Australian was brought back with a three-year, $33 million contract that the team acknowledges is as much about his potential for growth as it is his prior production.
Jazz coach Quin Snyder said he expects plenty of the former, provided Exum can stay out on the court.
“Dante will keep getting better. That’s one of the things that we really like about him,” Snyder said. “But Dante being able to play consistently and be healthy — that’s the experience that you need to improve, and you saw that at the end of last year.”
Exum knows there are greater expectations of him now, and he said he’s been putting in the work to expand his game.
He’s been focusing on “using my speed to get off in transition.” He joined some of the league’s elite taking part in some 5-on-5 sessions in Los Angeles over the summer, focusing on playing the “three” position in anticipation of being featured in more small-ball lineups this year. He’s been launching a ton of 3-pointers, emphasizing “that no matter the result, that it’s the same form.”
He’s also watched a lot of film, ensuring he has the capacity to smoothly run the offense when Ricky Rubio is on the bench.
“The biggest thing for me is just trying to lead out on the floor, making sure guys are in the right spots, and then calling the right plays depending on who we have out on the floor. … It’s just knowing, as a point guard, where I can get people their best shots,” Exum said. “I’ve made a lot of strides, and it’s just about paying an extra bit of attention. … It’s just about analyzing the game in a different aspect, looking at every angle I can.”
Snyder also cited Exum’s importance as a potential defensive disruptor, pointing to his efforts in slowing down James Harden in an admittedly small sample size of matchups from last year’s playoff series against Houston.
Lindsey, meanwhile, went to the statistical well, pointing out not only Exum’s “much higher clip” of free-throw attempts year-to-year (from 0.4 per game as a rookie to 2.2 last year), but also mentioning that last season’s averages of 8.1 ppg, 3.1 apg, and 1.9 rpg came in just 16.8 minutes of action, and that when extrapolated to per-36 minutes averages, those numbers rose to 17.5/6.6/4.0.
In the end, Lindsey claimed, handing the young guard $11 million per year was perhaps not all that difficult a decision after all.
“He’s 6-6 and he’s smart and he’s committed and he’s much more experienced,” he said. “I expect good things from him going forward, and that’s why we paid him the way we did.”
DANTE EXUM BY THE NUMBERS
A statistical look at Dante Exum’s career so far:
Season Gms Min Pts Reb Ast FG% 3%
2014-15 82 22.2 4.8 1.6 2.4 .349 .314
2015-16 Did Not Play — Torn ACL
2016-17 66 18.6 6.2 2.0 1.7 .427 .295
2017-18 14* 16.8 8.1 1.9 3.1 .483 .278
TOTAL 162 20.2 5.7 1.8 2.2 .395 .306
* Missed 68 games due to separated shoulder