As many longtime supporters of Jazz point guard Dante Exum noted on social media Saturday night, the price of real estate on “Exum Island” is skyrocketing.
Against the Knicks, he registered 13 points and 13 assists for the first double-double of his career. The prior game, against the 76ers, he scored 20 points while hitting 3 of 5 shots from deep. He had two strong games against the Blazers recently — totaling 15 points (on 7-for-9 shooting) and four assists on Christmas, and eight points and eight assists on Dec. 21. He’s had one or zero turnovers in eight straight contests.
Exum finally seems to have unlocked some of the potential that led the Jazz to select him No. 5 overall in the 2014 NBA Draft, to have become a fully productive rotation piece. Of course, Jazz fans — and coaches, and teammates, and front office personnel — have seen this all before, though never for such an extended duration.
“I’ve just been putting in a lot of work in the practice facility,” Exum said when asked the reason behind his recent success. “And then I’m just going out there and trying to play as comfortable as possible, get to my spots, try and do what I do.”
Derrick Favors, when asked what he’d seen from Exum in recent weeks, echoed one of those words.
“He looks comfortable out there. It looks like the game’s kinda slowed down for him. He’s making the correct read now without really forcing anything,” Favors said. “He doesn’t look timid — he looks like he’s having fun and not worrying about playing time and things like that.”
Not bad for a guy who, between the end of November through the first third of December, had fallen behind Raul Neto and was getting only sporadic gametime. Exum garnered just 6 minutes, 53 seconds vs. Brooklyn on Nov. 28; earned a DNP-CD against Charlotte on Nov. 30; was on the court for just 1:55 vs. Miami on Dec. 2; for 10:58 against the Spurs on Dec. 4, and 2:44 against them five days later.
“A couple weeks ago, there were a few games where he didn’t play well. It’s a time to be very honest with yourself about what you’re doing or not doing, and I think he’s been able to do that,” said coach Quin Snyder, who added of that prior stretch, “I think Dante was at a point where he really just needed to continue to invest” — a notion that Exum gently pushes back on.
“I’ve always been invested, I’m always two feet in,” he said. “It’s just about locking in every night.”
Much of that has come from his practice sessions with assistant coach Jeff Watkinson. “Wat” runs Exum through specific layup exercises — jumping off the wrong foot, finishing with his non-dominant hand, dialing in high-arcing floaters — all the while smacking him with a pad to simulate opponent contact. One day, he put Exum through a unique 3-point drill: seven spots behind the arc, a made shot enabling a rotation to the next station, a miss necessitating a return to the starting point and beginning all over again. Forty-five minutes later, Exum was breathing hard and sweating profusely, but he finally finished the sequence.
His teammates are pleased with the very tangible results.
“Man, I think he’s played really well the last couple weeks. He’s had a new level of aggression, he’s finishing around the basket, he’s making good reads,” said Kyle Korver. “… He has an ability to get to the rim like very few guys I’ve ever been around. He’s a lot more athletic than I realized he was. And he’s just been playing at a really high level.”
Center Rudy Gobert, who got five of his eight first-half dunks vs. the Knicks off of Exum assists, was even more blunt: “The last few games, I think, has been the best stretch of his career.”
Exum recognizes there’s plenty of work yet to be done. He attributed much of his recent play to being in the lineup with Korver and Joe Ingles, noting that having two elite-level shooters “forces guys to stay with them, so I can get to the basket even more.” In the meantime, he said the next steps in his development entail improving his ability to read opposing defenses to enhance his playmaking, employing more ball-fakes, better utilizing his height for both shooting and passing, and — perhaps most importantly — bolstering his comfort level with consistency and confidence.
“Obviously, when you’re making shots, it’s working for you. It’s when I’m not making shots, it’s when stuff’s not going my way — how do I get out of that? How do I find something that works for me?” Exum said. “That’s something that I’m going to have to keep going through as I keep playing. It’s gonna be a battle every night.”
Snyder has hammered home the notion that, while yes, technically, this is Exum’s fifth season, that’s “deceptive” considering the Aussie missed all of the 2015-16 season with an ACL tear, and played only 14 games of the 2017-18 campaign due to a shoulder injury. Also, Exum is still only 23 years old. So, naturally, he remains a work in progress.
“There’s gonna be volatility with a young player as they get better,” Snyder said. “… Some of it is there’s a tendency to evaluate Dante game to game, and I think that’s a mistake. He can play well or not play [in a given game], and to me it’s more about what he’s doing on the court, what he’s trying to accomplish, and his focus on the things he needs to do to keep getting better. Dante’s got a lot of growth left in him.”
Point guard Dante Exum has been on a hot streak, with an increase in productivity in his past 10 games:
Dec. 10, @OKC*9*2-3*0-0*3*0
Dec. 12, MIA*14*3-5*2-3*3*5
Dec. 15, @ORL*2*1-4*0-0*1*1
Dec. 17, @HOU*4*1-6*0-3*1*1
Dec. 19, GSW*6*3-4*0-0*3*0
Dec. 21, @POR*8*4-7*0-0*8*0
Dec. 22, OKC*4*1-5*0-2*1*1
Dec. 25, POR*15*7-9*1-1*4*1
Dec. 27, PHI*20*6-14*3-5*2*1
Dec. 29, NYK*13*6-11*0-2*13*1