At the end of practice Sunday, assistant coach Jeff Watkinson was armed with a padded shield and a foam rod, looking like a participant in a live-action role-play scene that you might see in Liberty Park on a nice Saturday afternoon.
Newly healthy attacker Dante Exum would come off a practice screen with the ball in his hands and attack Watkinson at the rim, trying to finish over the additional strength and length provided by the coach’s tools used to mimic the league’s best rim protectors. Together, the pair of men worked on a variety of finishes: reverses with either hand, quick flicks over the outstretched arm, and more.
Exum, finally healthy after undergoing knee surgery at the beginning of 2019, looked good doing it. For Friday night’s game against Memphis, the young Australian was finally on the Jazz’s bench, available to be selected by head coach Quin Snyder. The call never came, and Snyder went with the Jazz’s other guard and wing options.
So the question remains: When will Exum see the NBA’s real opposing centers, not just the Jazz’s coaches?
“Dante’s doing great. Roles change throughout the course of the year, and they change, frankly, game to game,” Snyder said. “You’re balancing, chemistry, continuity, all those things.”
It is true that Exum has talented players above him in the rotation. Currently, Snyder is playing a nine-man rotation, which involves Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley playing 30-36 minutes per game, Joe Ingles getting 20-30 minutes, and Emmanuel Mudiay getting 10-18 minutes in the fourth guard role. To find minutes for Exum, those players either have to play fewer minutes, or Exum has to largely replace one in the rotation.
Mudiay would be the logical candidate, but he’s playing well right now, shooting 51.5% from the floor, averaging 9.7 points per game. He’s also assisting and rebounding at a higher rate right now than Exum has at any point in his career, though it should be noted that Mudiay’s turnovers are higher as well. Where Exum’s usage rate is usually somewhere around league average, Mudiay’s definitely more aggressive, in good and bad ways.
Perhaps the aspect of his game where Exum has the greatest leg up, and greatest ability to impact the team, is on the defensive end. Exum’s 6-5 frame, 6-9 wingspan, and lateral quickness allows him to guard opposing smalls well. Mudiay is a little smaller: He measured at 6-3, with a 6-8 wingspan, but he’s a little stockier, which makes it more difficult for him to slither around screens.
"We’ve been playing really good defense, and I can add to that,” Exum said when asked about the issue last week.
With that said, after that knee surgery, we don’t know if Exum is going to be able to contribute right away at the same level at peak health. Snyder also preached the importance of patience, as Exum, now fully healthy, has to become the best player he can be.
“We want to have a player have success. But at the same time, sometimes you’re not going to be at the highest level anyway,” Snyder said. “So from the coaching standpoint, you’re patient. You don’t judge someone in an immediate moment.”
But while Snyder didn’t play him in his first game back, the coach is confident: Exum will make an impact on this Jazz team, this season.
“There’s no question in my mind that he’s going to help our team,” Snyder said. “I’m thrilled that he’s back and know that he’s going to help us.”