Gordon Monson: Dante Exum’s exit from the Utah Jazz prompted by promise that wasn’t kept

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Dante Exum (11) takes the ball in for a layup after stealing it from Minnesota Timberwolves, in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Minnesota Timberwolves in Salt Lake City, Monday, Nov. 18, 2019.

People around here were excited when the Jazz drafted Dante Exum with the fifth overall pick. That was back in 2014, more than five years ago, when Exum, a kind of mysterious youngster out of Australia, had all his promise in front of him.

But now the intrigue of that mystery has faded away, that promise has not been kept.

And the Jazz traded him on Monday for Cleveland’s Jordan Clarkson, a player who is short on mystery and long on scoring. He went for 33 points just the other night. The Jazz bench has been lurching, unable to keep leads the frontline players have built for it, unable to keep their heads above water, all as Exum sat on the bench and watched, occasionally cheering the guys on.

That cheering was not enough of an asset to hold onto, even straight into the direct-facial acknowledgement that a fifth pick had been squandered on the shooting guard, the point guard, the wing, whatever Exum was and is, whatever he’s become.

What he’d become for the Jazz was … it sounds cruel to say it … useless.

Even healthy now, he simply could not be trusted in games. He was too much of a gamble. Put him on the floor to see if he could add something positive, and two missed jumpers and three turnovers later, he was back on the bench.

It’s not all Exum’s fault. Everybody knows the way injury hijacked his career. A blown knee here, a busted shoulder there, and a thousand lonely rehab sessions in the aftermaths. And then, more wondering, all around, whether Dante could find a way back to the path that would lead him to being worth his selection.

It never happened.

Ironically enough, Exum played every game his rookie season, before the basketball sorcerers in the sky decided he would never play every game again. The Jazz were different back then than they are now. They were developing, they were up-and-comers, they had, like Exum, their future to look forward to, they had time on their side.

They do not have time, not anymore.

They have made their moves, reaching for contention. They aim to be one of the best teams in the West. They no longer can afford to fiddle-faddle around with Exum. They need an infusion of scoring, and all the talk about the kid’s quick first-step, his athleticism, or his ability to defend high-scoring wings, couldn’t solve that first problem.

Exum wasn’t just expendable, he was exorcise-able. He needed to hit the exit. It’s sad, in a way, a shame, but the player who couldn’t be trusted had to go.

Through all his undulations, he always held onto the belief that he could contribute — if his body would cooperate. But over so many downward slides, it wasn’t just the physical deficiencies that plagued him, it was the mental, too. His confidence eroded to the point where you could see the mistakes coming before they ever arrived.

Two-hundred-and-forty-one days after his initial knee injury, the one suffered while playing for the Australian national team, after his rookie season, Exum was fired up, ready to cap his comeback by showing what he could do.

He was looking at the bright side at that juncture.

“It’s given me an opportunity to work on everything that I need to work on, and step back from the game and be able to learn, ” he said. “Being away from playing, and seeing the team, you get to kind of realize how we can get better.”

And by “we,” he meant “me.”

But it never happened.

He talked at various times about how he was learning how to control the tempo of a game, how he had worked on his jump shot, how he had become more aggressive, how he had improved his handle, and his judgment on the floor, how he was ready to impose his will on real games.

It never happened.

You have to feel for Exum, although since the Jazz extended him, rewarding him with a fine contract for what he had actually produced on the court, he was the embodiment of a human bump-and-skid.

And the Jazz finally ran out of patience.

“Patience,” said Dennis Lindsey, in the days following the 2014 draft. “I hope expectations don’t get too big too fast.”

Five years is long enough.

If necessity is the mother of invention, it’s also the father of impetus.

Clarkson is a much better scorer, a thoroughly better player. It will be up to him to attach his abilities to what the Jazz do on offense, sharing the ball, moving it to the benefit of all. If he does, he will be a useful piece on a bench in sore need of useful pieces.

As for Exum, the days of waiting and wondering are over, the days when the Jazz opened the arena for a summer league entry practice, what was essentially a team scrimmage, pulling the curtain up on Exum, revealing him to their fans for the first time — and 10,000 people showed up. Remember that?

On that night, the fresh-faced guard clanked shots off the rim, made bad passes, he looked uncertain, he leaned on the notion that he would grow. He was just 18, after all.

Asked about his shot, he said, “Yeah, it’s something I’m going to have to work on.”

The work came, the shot did not.

It never happened.

Is there an echo in here?

Dante Exum might have seemed like a good idea at that time. And while the Jazz may have resisted trading him away before now because they didn’t want to move him and then watch him blossom somewhere else, times have changed.

They need rock-solid production now, not promise that hasn’t been kept, not promise that might show up at some undisclosed point in a future that remains not just unseen, but unimaginable.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.