When he was drafted, and for the first few years of his career, Dante Exum was adamant about being a point guard.
Some of that was because he was drafted just a year after Trey Burke. Exum didn’t work out for the Jazz, with the thought from his representation being, essentially, “They already have a young point guard, why would they take Exum?” But when Orlando surprisingly took Aaron Gordon No. 4 in 2014, the Jazz pounced on Exum at No. 5. Would Exum or Burke be Utah’s point guard?
Truth be told, Exum won that battle nearly immediately. The Jazz moved Exum to the starting lineup in January during his rookie season, and after that, Burke started just two more games. It certainly wasn’t a scintillating first year, but Exum looked like the Jazz’s point guard of the future.
And then everything changed after his ACL tore. He missed a critical year of development right as the Jazz could have used him most. With playoff aspirations, the Jazz moved on, first to Shelvin Mack and Raul Neto as Exum struggled in his return, then to veteran options George Hill and Ricky Rubio. Other injuries sidelined Exum, including a separated shoulder joint, and last year’s patellar tendon surgery.
With so much time spent off the court, Exum wanted to find other ways to get on it.
“Coming in, I was adamant about being a point guard, and I still am, I still want to be, but I’m fighting for minutes,” Exum told Olgun Uluc at foxsports.com.au. “I want minutes. I think, for me going forward, the best thing is just being on the court.”
So Exum’s finding ways to be there, not only at the point guard position, but nearly everywhere else as well. He says he’s spent time practicing at shooting guard, small forward and even power forward during the Jazz’s training camp this week, as the Jazz look to diversity their offense.
And being at point guard was sometimes slowing Exum down — literally. At the one, he’d always be focused on coming back to get the ball to start the next play, rather than get out in transition. One of Exum’s great strengths is his quickness, but he would start some plays by running the wrong way.
“I have to stop coming back to get the ball every time. I think for my game, it’s good,” he said. “There are times I’m at the high quadrant and if I get that rebound, I can try to beat my man down the floor and get cheap baskets. I think that’s where it helps me.”
That being said, the Jazz aren’t counting on Exum being available right away to begin this preseason. While general manager Dennis Lindsey said that Exum is “moving very well,” he has yet to pass some of the “testing with balances and imbalances” that are part of the Jazz’s return-to-play protocol. The idea is that the Jazz want to make sure that Exum’s legs are at equal strength, so that during play, he doesn’t rely on one leg more than another. That might make another injury more likely.
When will Exum pass those tests? The Jazz don’t want to commit to a timetable.
“We’re going to be very conservative, it’s a long season,” Lindsey said. “So if (Mike Elliott, Jazz VP of performance health care), as an example, sees something in seven or 10 days that he doesn’t like or wants to pull the brakes, then we’ll do that. If there aren’t any setbacks, maybe we’ll push him forward.”
At the end of each of the Jazz’s morning practices this week, Exum has been working on balance shooting alone, going through shots carefully, slowly, on his tip-toes. In training camp sessions, though, he’s been a bigger part, working with his teammates on the offense, though Lindsey said “the contact will be limited right now.”
Jazz coach Quin Snyder also says that it’s probably not fair to expect Exum to hit the ground running at 100%, either. The truth is, it takes time to come back from any injury, and knee surgery is definitely included. But in his sixth year, they won’t be quick to judge him on his play in October or November.
“I think it’s important to know that we know who Dante is and the things he can do. It’s important to just be patient with him,” Snyder said. “He’s got great speed with the ball, his size defensively is a factor. He’s going to continue to improve in a lot of ways, and we’re looking forward to having him contribute.”