The Utah Jazz do not want to place undue expectations on Dante Exum.
And that’s understandable. Their young point guard, a lottery pick in the 2014 NBA draft, has yet to play a game this season, thanks to surgery for a separated shoulder suffered in Utah’s third preseason game. He’s still a relative unknown four years into his NBA career.
But when talking about Exum, it has been difficult for Jazz brass to hide their excitement for a return that could happen as soon as Thursday night against the Phoenix Suns at Vivint Smart Home Arena. The team officially cleared him to play Wednesday afternoon.
Exum has worked tirelessly on a comeback this season. He somehow has managed to stay in good spirits despite missing most of a season where he expected to finally make a big impact.
Most important, the front office says, Exum found a way to stay engaged with the Jazz. He traveled to many road games. He showed up at home games. He worked with Utah assistant Lamar Skeeter on skill development. He stayed involved when it would’ve been easy to disappear.
“His rehab has gone almost seamlessly,” Utah general manager Dennis Lindsey said. “He’s a kid that worked very hard to get back to a point where he can possibly play. We’re just happy for the kid, and we want the best for him.”
As first reported by The Tribune, Exum is aiming to make a return at some point this week. The Jazz optioned Exum to their G League affiliate Salt Lake City Stars for a closed practice Tuesday, where coach Quin Snyder said he looked “good” physically. He was recalled Tuesday night in time for Utah’s win over the Detroit Pistons, then optioned back to the Stars on Wednesday morning for another full-tilt practice.
Recovery and tests appear to be the last roadblocks for Exum’s return. The Jazz didn’t practice Wednesday and will play Thursday against the Phoenix Suns at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Exum’s return appears to be very close even if he doesn’t play against the Suns.
“We weren’t so much looking at Dante skillwise during the practice,” Snyder said. “We were looking at him physically, and we thought he looked good.”
So, what can Jazz fans expect from Exum when he returns?
The point guard was slated to have a significant role this season because of a great summer and a very good preseason. Exum’s ball skills improved from last season in part because of summer work with former NBA star point guard Baron Davis. His shot was smoother, cleaner coming out of his hands and falling through the net more efficiently.
Most important, his confidence was significant. He looked like he knew he belonged.
It probably is not fair to expect the Exum who played in the preseason to show up now, especially after missing so much time and the Jazz in the thick of a playoff race.
Even so, there appears to be a ready-made spot for him in Snyder’s rotation. Primary backup point guard Raul Neto fractured his wrist Sunday against the New Orleans Pelicans, which will cause him to miss at least two weeks.
So Exum certainly can play 10 to 15 minutes a night in relief of Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell. His first step always has been fast and explosive, and his defense at all the perimeter spots always has been very good.
So even if Exum isn’t ready to run Utah’s offense, Snyder has the option of playing him with Donovan Mitchell or Joe Ingles and having one of those two be the primary ball-handler.
One thing is for sure: Utah’s bench has been thin lately. The Jazz played eight guys primary minutes in Tuesday’s win over the Detroit Pistons with a sprinkling of Alec Burks as the ninth guy. So Exum probably can find minutes as a placeholder at first if nothing else.
The rest depends on how he looks. If Exum proves ready for a bigger role, there’s probably room for more minutes because he can play multiple positions. But the Jazz won’t force it if he doesn’t look ready.
Going forward, all indications are that the Jazz value Exum and see him as a piece for the future. The Australian will be a restricted free agent this summer, but the Jazz certainly want him in the fold longterm.
“It will be great to have him back, whenever he’s ready to return,” Ingles said. “We’ve all seen him putting in the work and the time. He’s been on the court, he’s worked hard to get back. When he’s ready to go, we’re going to be glad to have him back out there.”
• Was the fifth pick in the 2014 NBA Draft behind Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid and Aaron Gordon.
• Has missed almost two of his four NBA seasons with injury.
• Injured his shoulder against the Phoenix Suns in the third preseason game this season.
• Has practiced twice with the Salt Lake City Stars as final rehabilitation steps.
PHOENIX SUNS AT UTAH JAZZ
Where • Vivint Smart Home Arena, Salt Lake City
When • 7 p.m. Thursday
TV • AT&T SportsNet
Radio • 97.5 FM, 1280 AM
Records • Phoenix 19-50; Utah 38-30
Last meeting • Utah won 107-97 (Feb. 14)
About the Suns • Phoenix has lost six consecutive games. … Devin Booker has scored at least 30 points in 22 games this season. … The Suns were the first NBA team to be officially eliminated from playoff contention. … Former Jazz coach Ty Corbin is a Suns assistant. … Phoenix guard Elfrid Payton is averaging 17.1 points and 7.5 assists with the Suns.
About the Jazz • Utah leads the season series with Phoenix 2-1. … The Jazz are trying for their eighth consecutive win. … Joe Ingles is shooting 51 percent from 3-point range in March. … The Jazz are in the midst of a four-game home stretch.