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It was last Thursday against Minnesota that Jazz point guard Dante Exum’s latest comeback from injury was cut short by another injury — this time, a partially torn patellar tendon in his right knee.
He was cleared on March 8 to return to practice, and then on March 11, hours before facing Oklahoma City, he met with a select few members of the media to discuss his rehab of and return from a sprained ankle that kept him sidelined for more than two months. And then, three games and a combined 27 minutes, 15 seconds of game time later, he was checking out against the Timberwolves and heading straight to the locker room, his season again in jeopardy.
The days since have been filled with plenty of Monday morning quarterbacking — about whether the Jazz can ever count on him going forward, about whether it was a mistake to sign him to a three-year extension last summer, about what kind of potential he truly has. Maybe before we all play armchair GM, though, we can take a minute to remember that Exum is more than a name on a roster, more than a salary cap figure on a budget spreadsheet. Take a minute to think what it might be like for a 23-year-old to be constantly battling his body, and what kind of physical — and mental — strain that can have on a person.
I’d been planning to write a feature story about Exum’s latest return, and spoke to him a little bit postgame in Phoenix after the Jazz knocked off the Suns last Wednesday. The story got scrapped, obviously, when he got hurt the next night, but his comments were still telling. He hadn’t played well vs. the Suns — 0-for-2 shooting, two rebounds, two turnovers, three fouls in 9:12 on the court — and was clearly trying to shake off the rust of a two-month layoff. But he was clearly also thrilled to be back out there playing again, if a little annoyed with himself that he was struggling as much as he was.
“Obviously it felt good. … I just wanna play a bit better and not turn the ball over,” he said. “It’s just gonna come with time — I just need to make sure I’m going out there and doing the right things.”
He acknowledged that “it’s always frustrating” when you don’t play well. And he admitted that the biggest challenge to that point had been readjusting to the physicality of NBA-level games: “Just getting out there and getting hit, taking hits. I need to be delivering hits. I’ve been kind of shying away from that. But I did do that the last little bit, so it’s coming back.”
Mostly, though, he spoke about the need to remain upbeat and positive through it all: “Just keep my head up — that’s the main thing,” Exum said. “It’s gonna come back. That’s just what I’m gonna continue to do.”
Regardless of how you feel about Exum as a player, I think we can all agree that his attitude, at least, is pretty special.
Donovan speaks — about early-season struggles, being a free-agent recruiter
Donovan Mitchell recently did a Q&A with Alex Kennedy of HoopsHype, and dropped a couple of interesting tidbits. You should give the whole thing a read, but the two things I found most fascinating from the interview are:
• Donovan addressing getting off to a slow start this season, and the difficulty he had in adjusting to being the focus of opponents’ game plans: “Everyone says, ‘It’s going to be different! It’s going to be different!’ But it’s one thing to hear it, it’s another thing to go through it. I think it’s just one of those things that you have to go through. For me, I hold myself to such a high standard so I was pretty upset; I was upset with my first three months of the season.”
• His optimism that he can help recruit some key free agents to Salt Lake City this summer: “I definitely think I can. It’s not just a single person [who I can recruit], it’s the fact that I know a lot of guys throughout the league. I think that will definitely help [our free-agency pitch]. I think we’re in a position where we can bring guys in. I think guys want to play with us. We have a lot of chemistry with this team, and it’s easy for everyone to see that. We’re not a typical NBA team when it comes to our chemistry. I think that’s something that will stand out to players.”
In case you missed it …
There’s been no shortage of Jazz news to keep up with of late — four games last week and four more this week; the Russell Westbrook situation, Dante’s injury, et cetera, et cetera. You might have missed something, so here’s a partial recap.
It’s probably not all that surprising that basketball players are basketball fans. So Andy Larsen asked some Jazz players about following the NCAA Tournament. He also wrote about Jazz center Rudy Gobert being named the Western Conference Player of the Week. Gobert’s frontcourt mate, Derrick Favors, has been on a bit of a tear of late, so I broke down what’s gone into his uptick in production.
And if you care to re-hash it — and maybe you should, because this stuff is important — there was plenty written and said about a pair of Jazz fans receiving lifetime bans from Vivint Smart Home Arena for hurling racist abuse at Russell Westbrook. Gordon Monson wrote a column about how there’s a definite line between passionate fandom and stupidity. I wrote a column about how Utah’s culture bubble is part of the problem, considering the sheer number of fans who apparently don’t know calling a black man “boy” is racist. Andy wrote about Jazz owner Gail Miller addressing the fans and telling them this behavior won’t be tolerated. Andy and I combined on a story about the second fan being banned. And Andy and Chris Kamrani did a deep dive on why Utah’s fan base has a reputation as being exceptionally racist. Andy made an appearance on the Dan Patrick show to discuss the issue:
Other people’s stuff
As the HoopsHype Q&A showed, there’s good Jazz stuff out there from people other than us. Here’s some of the other good stuff from the past week:
• Sports Illustrated’s NBA-centric site, The Crossover, talked to Donovan about his transition from being a breakout player as a rookie to a dependable star as a sophomore.
• Eric Woodyard of the Deseret News talked to Donovan about his New York roots, and how his second trip to Madison Square Garden will be different. Ryan Miller of KSL.com had a story on Mitchell and MSG as well.
• Tony Jones of The Athletic also got a chance to talk to Gail Miller about her decision to ban fans who engage in improper conduct at games.
• James Hansen of SLCDunk foresees the Jazz proving a playoff pain to whomever they play in the postseason.
• In a guest editorial for KSL.com, Ben Anderson says it’s time for the Jazz to start planning on life without Dante.
• That other Eric W., of the D-News, spoke to Latter-day Saint NBA player and part-time Utahn Jabari Parker about the perception of Jazz fans.
Three games remain on the Jazz’s final extended road trip of the season: they’re in New York tonight to face the Knicks, they’ll make a quick trip down to Atlanta to take on the Hawks on Thursday, and then they head to Chicago for a Saturday game against the Bulls. Their next game in Utah comes next Monday against the Phoenix Suns.