Oklahoma City • Dante Exum had been ramping up his workouts at Zions Bank Basketball Campus. He was even a partial participant in Wednesday’s first practice back from the All-Star break.
There was growing optimism that a sprained ankle which had kept him out since early January would soon be in the rearview.
Then, on Thursday, he was ruled out from playing in Friday’s game against the Thunder. And on Friday came worse news still — a bone bruise had developed as a natural byproduct of the sprain, and he will miss at least two more weeks.
Coach Quin Snyder noted before the game that Exum’s latest in a long line of injuries has been “hard on a couple levels.”
Mostly, Snyder said, he was disappointed for his player because of how hard he’s worked to improve.
“You just feel for him, because no one’s given him anything. He had some games this year where he DNP’d, ’cause he wasn’t playing well. The one thing we’ve always done is be honest with each other, and he knew he had to do better and play better, and that’s what he did,” the coach said. “And then you see a lot of that work beginning to translate, you see his confidence coming up, and he was playing really, really well — better than he’s played in his career in the league. And so to have him knocked back because of the injury was hard to see for him.”
That said, Snyder added he’s confident that Exum will ultimately be a difference-maker once he finally is ready to return, because of his belief in himself.
“There’s a level of mental toughness that you have to develop in dealing with adversity, and he’s had more than his fair share,” Snyder said. “But every time something’s happened to him, I’m proud of how he’s responded. And that’s the only thing that he can control. And that perseverance and that persistence, ultimately that’s what makes players really good.”
Still needs work
While the Jazz have earned league-wide plaudits for again being one of the league’s sturdiest defensive units, Snyder keeps preaching the need to maximize what each player is capable of.
In Kyle Korver’s mind, that means there’s plenty of room for improvement yet for the team on the side of the ball he’s best known for. In fact, the team’s postseason success depends upon it in his estimation.
“Offensively, we gotta keep on finding ways to get easier and easier shots, easier baskets,” Korver said. “I think that’s probably been more of a challenge for us on that side. In the playoffs, the games slow down even more, so we gotta be that much sharper and that much cleaner.”
Going into Friday’s game, Utah ranked 20th in the NBA with 109.2 points per game, and 19th with a 108.4 offensive rating.
Asked what his teammates had said to him following his botched attempted self-alley-oop in last week’s Rising Stars Challenge, guard Donovan Mitchell grimaced and claimed he didn’t provide any opportunity for instant feedback: “Oh man … I just turned my phone off!”
While initially feigning mortification at his pass going far too high and eventually over the backboard and out of bounds (“I hadn’t really messed up like that — publicly — since … I’ve done that a few times practicing, but never like that in the midst of a game. It was pretty funny, though. I enjoyed it.”), he later jokingly tried to play it off as though he only went slightly higher than intended.
“I’m gonna call it [an attempted] dunk off the shot clock,” he concluded in mock seriousness.