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Dante Exum shows no signs of hesitation in season debut

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) dunks over Phoenix Suns guard Shaquille Harrison (10) during the game at Vivint Smart Home Arena Thursday, March 15, 2018.

Hit the shoulder. Don’t play nice.

As he got closer to returning from a left shoulder injury, the biggest challenge the 22-year-old Dante Exum faced was to convince his teammates that he could take contact even though he’s been sitting out the last five months.

“I mean, you don’t even think about it. It just kind of happens,” he said. “We’ve tried as much as possible to train falling if I get into that situation. I’ve strengthened it so much, I’m not worried about it.”

And neither, it seems, are the Jazz, who cleared Exum to play Thursday night against the Phoenix Suns for the first time this season. In just over 14 minutes, Exum scored 10 points (four at the free throw line). But he did take a spill and landed hard on his shoulder in the third quarter — then proceeded to roll back on his feet.

It’s a moment the team eagerly has anticipated, especially with a shrinking guard rotation. But no one has been more eager than Exum.

“It was tough,” he said in his first media appearance in nearly the same span. “It was a lot of nights where I’d come to the games feeling the energy and the grind of sitting and watching another game that I couldn’t be a part of. But a lot of the guys have helped me just get through it and just kept reminding me that I’d be out there soon, and that day has finally come.”

The Australian guard steadily has worked his way back to shooting, ball-handling and finally taking contact since shoulder surgery at the end of October. Exum joined the Jazz on the last road trip, scrimmaging against two-way players Georges Niang and Erik McCree, and he went to two Salt Lake City Stars practices this week to work in five-on-five full-contact situations.

With Exum, the Jazz add length and a versatile, switchable defender who, in the past has been one of the fleet-footed drivers on the roster. Exum likely is slotted for a bench role, adding depth at a guard rotation that lost Raul Neto (wrist fracture) earlier in the week.

But coach Quin Snyder said he’s not looking for Exum to take on the role of Neto, or anyone else for that matter, even if he’s occupying some of the minutes. The Jazz don’t want him to force anything about his game.

“We’re not going into it trying to evaluate how he plays tonight in maybe the traditional sense,” Snyder said. “In a subtle sense, he knows just to do the things you can do that help your teammates.”

Exum has played in just 148 games through three-and-a-half seasons (he missed all of 2015-16 with a knee injury) and has averaged just 5.4 points, 2.1 assists and 1.8 rebounds per game. His shooting — he’s a career 38.5 percent shooter — has been a particular point of frustration.

Hope was building inside the Jazz organization for Exum’s development throughout the offseason after a strong Summer League performance. But aspirations for a breakout season crumbled when Exum was fouled by T.J. Warren and spilled onto the court, landing on his left shoulder during a preseason matchup with the Suns. He dashed off the court while still holding it in place — the first sign that something was wrong.

Exum said Warren was among the first to reach out when the news broke that the injury might cost him the season (Warren declined comment before the game Thursday evening).

“He reached out to me straightaway after it happened,” Exum said. “There’s no hard feelings. It’s just ball, things will happen. It’s just a freak accident. I’ve moved on definitely. It was a long time ago. I’m excited to be out there and playing again.”

What’s gotten Exum through is the camaraderie of his team. Exum has been involved in many off-court activities, including film study, Snyder said. He’s also been on several road trips, and Exum said he’s particularly enjoyed daily inspirational (and sometimes funny) quotes from Derrick Favors.

He said he’s also enjoyed watching Utah’s success lately. The Jazz have won 20 of their last 22 games, and the winning made sitting courtside more enjoyable, even on nights when he’s been frustrated.

He now gets a chance to see where he can help.

“I think the main thing is to just kind of find a fit in the team,” he said. “We’ve been playing so well as a unit and found that flow right now, I just want to get back into the rotation and be able to play strong minutes and be able to contribute as much as possible.”

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