Dante Exum is quickly re-establishing himself after return from shoulder surgery, strengthening Jazz bench

Australian’s quickness helped beat defenders and create plays on just-completed road trip.

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Dante Exum (11) and Phoenix Suns guard Shaquille Harrison (10) during the game at Vivint Smart Home Arena Thursday, March 15, 2018.

Oakland, Calif. • Maybe he forgot. Maybe Kevon Looney never knew.

As the Warriors forward switched onto Dante Exum after a screen, he was already too late. The Jazz backup point guard was blowing by Looney on the way to the hoop, a 6-foot-6 wraith.

The NBA has known since 2014, when Exum was picked fifth overall, that the Australian has speed to burn. But maybe the league has needed a refresher, because Looney isn’t the only defender who has been caught trying to play catch-up since Exum returned from his shoulder injury six games ago.

There’s something of a reward for him when he sees that surprised look in his defender’s eyes.

“Obviously I’ve been in and out a bit, and I don’t think I’ve shown my speed every game,” Exum said Sunday, after the Jazz finished blowing out the injury-depleted Warriors 110-91. “Hopefully everyone takes notice and they think about me in a different way.”

Exum, who had 13 points and five assists in 17 minutes, enjoyed his best game this season at the end of the three-game trip, but it wasn’t his only good one. Against the Mavericks and the Spurs, he only scored six combined points in 20 minutes, but also had seven assists — sparking bench runs to pull the Jazz out of slow starts in both games.

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Bench scoring has been a particular weakness of the Jazz lately, with Jae Crowder appearing as the only reliable off-the-bench bucket-getter, and even he doesn’t often create his own shots. But if Exum can find the rhythm he started to catch against the Warriors, there’s hope that might change.

In the last six games with Exum, the Jazz bench has scored 103 points per 100 possessions. That’s still in the back half of the NBA, but better than the stretch between when Utah traded away Rodney Hood and Joe Johnson and before Exum came back (98.9). The advantages Exum can create with his quick first step have been on display since he’s been healthy, and the key — perhaps as it’s always been for the 22-year-old — is to stay aggressive and use his speed as a weapon.

Teammates also said they expect Exum to improve as his comfort level increases in Utah’s system.

“It’s good to see him comfortable out there,” said Joe Ingles, Exum’s countryman and one of his close friends on the team. “He’s gotten better each game. … Just to be out there and run around with the guys, I think he’s loved it.”

Connecting with the team is often an understated challenge of dealing with injuries, as Exum has throughout his career. When he missed the 2015-16 season with the knee injury, there was a reintegration process. While he also traveled on the occasional trip with the Jazz after his shoulder surgery in October, there were certain things he just missed.

It’s inevitable, Exum said, but he was glad he was able to go on the trips he was able to go on. Being back in the locker room allows him to feel like a member of the Jazz again.

“Once you get disconnected from the team, it’s all inside jokes when they come back from the road trips,” he said. “You just want to be around them. I found that at the start of the season when I wasn’t traveling because of the surgery, but since coming back then around them, it’s easier to communicate.”

He has gotten support from Ingles and his workout partner Royce O’Neale, and he added that Rudy Gobert has also helped boost his confidence.

In return, Exum has given them faith that he could develop to be a big help off the bench, something the Jazz will need to both make the postseason and make some noise if they get there.

“He’s really getting his confidence back, attacking the rim and making plays — that’s what you want from him,” Gobert said. “He’s getting better and better. He’s a smart guy, he plays hard and defends. … Hopefully he stays aggressive and keeps the same mindset.”