The Utah Jazz hoped to earn a playoff berth for the second consecutive season in the rugged Western Conference by utilizing a deep and athletic roster.
That depth has suffered a major blow.
As first reported by The Tribune, point guard Dante Exum will miss significant time and could miss the entire season after suffering a separated left shoulder to go along with ligament damage Friday night.
The Jazz say no recovery timetable has been set, and Exum and the organization were seeking a second and third opinion as of Saturday afternoon. But sources say surgery is very much an option for Exum, although the Jazz are exploring every avenue that doesn’t include a season-ending timeline.
“I feel really bad for him,” Utah starting power forward Derrick Favors said. “Dante is a guy who worked really hard in the offseason. He improved his game. He came into camp in good shape, and he looked really good. It’s just unfortunate.”
Exum suffered the injury during the first quarter of Friday’s 112-101 win over the Phoenix Suns at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Exum drove to the basket and Suns forward TJ Warren leapt to block the shot but came down hard on the fourth-year point guard.
Exum used his left arm to break the fall and landed awkwardly on the baseline. He rolled around for a few seconds, kicking in pain, then rose to his feet and sprinted to the locker room.
He underwent an MRI on Friday night, where doctors discovered ligament damage.
“This is devastating,” Jazz center Rudy Gobert told The Tribune. “I saw him work hard all summer, and this was a big year for him. Hopefully, Dante can keep his head up, come back and be better.”
Exum’s injury is significant for the Jazz.
He was a sporadic member of Quin Snyder’s rotation last season but was in line for important minutes as Ricky Rubio’s primary backup at point guard this season. He supplied the second unit with length and athleticism from the position through three games, and the Jazz will struggle to duplicate that in his absence.
There are multiple options for Utah with Exum sidelined. The most obvious is elevating Raul Neto into the backup point guard role, and the Jazz will do this on many nights. Neto was slated to be the third point guard on the roster but has proven in the past that he can be a rotation player in the NBA.
Another option is playing rookie Donovan Mitchell some at the position. This would allow for more rotation minutes from shooting guard Alec Burks, who has played significantly well in the preseason.
Moving Mitchell to the point is tricky. He doesn’t have a lot of experience there — he’s a shooting guard by trade — and he struggled Friday when playing there. Defensively, he can guard point guards just fine. But if the Jazz are going to play him at the point, they’d likely need either Joe Ingles or Rodney Hood on the floor with him to help him run the offense.
As it is, Exum’s injury almost certainly raises a bar for Mitchell. Already in line for consistent minutes, the Jazz had the luxury of bringing him along slowly if the rookie struggled. That luxury now is gone. Mitchell will be needed in the rotation.
For Exum, the injury couldn’t have come at a worse time. He and the Jazz almost certainly will not reach an agreement on a contract extension over the next two weeks, which means Exum will be a restricted free agent next summer.
That means the Jazz will have to figure out what to pay Exum without having had the benefit of watching him, especially if Exum misses the season. The Jazz took note of Exum’s hard work this summer and were impressed with his rate of improvement, so they have a willingness to re-sign him. But if Exum had a breakout year, he would’ve been able to command more on the restricted free agent market.
The Jazz now may have to negotiate without the data of Exum’s play this season.
This is Exum’s second major injury in four years. He tore his ACL three summers ago and missed all of his second season. He returned last year but struggled to make his mark. His improvement from this summer was obvious.
Most importantly for the Jazz, this is the fourth consecutive year they’ve lost a major rotation player to injury for a long period of time.
Overall health was a must coming into this season, and Exum represents the first major blow on that front.