Monson: Dante Exum’s long, winding road has brought him to a place where he knows he can not only compete, but also help the Jazz win

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Jazz Media Day. Dante Exum.

The first time Dante Exum took the floor in plain view as a member of the Utah Jazz was during a summer league scrimmage in July, 2014.

The last time, as in the most recent, was Wednesday night when the Jazz played Houston in the fourth game of the 2018-19 season.

Exum’s road from the first to the last has been circuitous, but hardly serendipitous, not to any advantage. Unless, of course, bad fortune now leads to good, a turn that may already have begun. It’s long overdue. He did sign a three-year, $33 million deal, maximum value with incentives, with the Jazz during the offseason, so there is that.

Somewhere in all the rough stretches over that four-plus-year span, Exum hopes he gained some confidence and knowledge regarding his game, and some wisdom about life. Even with his devastating knee injury, suffered before his second season, and his troublesome shoulder injury, costing him most of last year, he sees himself as greatly improved, as a stronger, more rocksteady, more refined, and most significantly more prepared player.

With any luck, the Fates may have had their fill, exacting so much of their cruel toll on the kid from Melbourne, content now to let him be.

“Just being on the court feels good,” he said. “That’s where I’m happiest.”

In his most optimistic moments, Exum, now 23, cannot say the undulations experienced since he arrived in Salt Lake City as a smooth-faced 18-year-old have advanced him quicker than an abundance of good health/playing time would have. After showing in every game as a rookie, the Australian guard missed 166 of a possible 250 regular-season games.

Since returning for the final 14 regular-season games of last year, as well as through the Jazz’s modest playoff run, and four contests so far this season, Exum is feeling positive that his current streak of 28 will double, triple, quadruple in the months ahead, that his future is bright.

”I had a good offseason,” he said. “I came in, have been healthy and I want to bring energy every time I’m on the floor. Confidence is a matter of getting out there and playing, gaining experience.”


When • Saturday, 5 p.m. MDT


During that first summer scrimmage, at which 10,000 fans showed up, Exum was jumpy and nervous, rattled by the ovation he was given when he took the floor. Most of the partisans in attendance came to see him. “When they started clapping for me,” he said, “it kind of hit me a bit. It took me a bit to settle down.”

He never did.

“My shots weren’t falling,” he said. “But it was about getting my teammates involved.”

Exum misfired on a 3-pointer, he bricked an open jumper, he shanked a reverse layup, he sent up an airball. Regarding his shot, he said, “It’s something I’m going to have to work on.”

Truth is, the kid looked tentative, overwhelmed. It was a harbinger of things to come, although there also were glimpses of the promise, the gangly talent he possessed.

Exum is a player whose lanky 6-foot-6 frame causes him, at times, to look awkward, and, at others, athletic. When things go wrong, he appears out of his league, and when they go right, he appears darn-near unstoppable. When his pocket gets picked, he seems overmatched, and when he locks down as a defender, steals the ball and launches himself toward the basket, he’s a blur most opponents can’t stay with.

Wednesday night, Exum came off the bench to score nine points on 3-for-6 shooting in the Jazz’s 100-89 win. He dusted a bomb, had a sweet drive along the baseline, punctuated by a floating hook shot, and a strong move to the rim, absorbing contact and finishing with touch. He also defended James Harden over stretches, about as doggedly as anyone can.

The career 39-percent shooter is in this short season shooting a notch better than that, with the familiar mix of drives and deep balls. He’s always been an octopus on defense. Team leader Rudy Gobert is sure Exum has put himself in position now to boost the Jazz beyond anything he’s given the club heretofore.

”He’s being more aggressive,” said Gobert. “He’s kind of figuring himself out. When his mind’s in the right place, he’s definitely a good player, and he’s got a lot of room to grow. It’s tough coming back from an ACL and the shoulder. He’s an athletic player, a driver, a good defender. He makes plays. Even when he doesn’t make shots, he gets to the rim and finds his teammates. So, yeah, he’s going to help the team. He already has.”

Thus far this season, Exum has made 13 of 31 attempts, totals tarnished by a 2-for-11 game against Memphis on Monday night, and passed out six assists in a grand total of 73 minutes.

Most importantly, Exum has shed the uncertainty he so often displayed as a rookie and during the short playing periods between his injuries and rehabs. Nobody goes through those kinds of setbacks and shocks without suffering some sort of double-clutching of the mind.

Exum said the double-clutching days are done.

“My Injuries have brought a mentality of remembering where I’ve been and to keep pushing when I’m out there,” he said. “I come in with a mindset of being competitive, trying to win. That’s the biggest thing that’s changed for me, more urgency. It gets back to that confidence that comes from being around. Knowing I can compete at this level.”

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.