On a large level, it is hard to believe Dante Exum is still only 22 years old.
Sure, he’s older than the wide-eyed teen that he was when he entered the NBA as Utah’s 2014 lottery pick. But, the trials and roadblocks packed into a still-blossoming four year career makes it feel like he’s been around for a lot longer.
Exum’s game still has a long way to go. His jumper still needs a lot of work. He has no mid-range game to speak of. And, as his struggles against the Oklahoma City Thunder showed, he can still be bullied a bit by some of the stronger and more stout guards of the league.
However, after missing most of the season following to yet another major injury, the Jazz point guard fought through struggles and found a way to make a positive impact on Utah’s playoff run.
His defense on Houston star James Harden was sublime. He flashed an innate ability to get to the rim off the dribble, finishing at the basket with an assortment of moves. His dunk to punctuate Utah’s Game 2 Western Conference semifinal win over the Rockets in Houston was a defining moment for the Jazz and their postseason. For the first time in his career, Exum showed production to go with his massive potential. He proved he could be a positive NBA rotation player.
“There’s a lot of things I can’t control,” Exum said. “But I can control how hard I work. Nothing changes for me. I’m going into the summer with the same mindset. I want to get better.”
The Jazz were patient with Exum during the postseason, sticking with him in the rotation when it would’ve been easy to pull the plug after the OKC series. And Exum responded by playing the best basketball of his career against Houston.
• Separated his shoulder in the third preseason game against the Phoenix Suns and missed most of the regular season.
• Established himself as a good perimeter defender in the playoffs, guarding James Harden and proving key to Utah’s lone win against Houston.
• Is a restricted free agent this summer.
It could be a sign of how the front office feels about the 6-foot-6 point guard headed into his restricted free agency this summer.
Could it get complicated? Sure. Even with his series against Houston, the Jazz have precious little sample size to judge him on through four seasons. He was a neophyte as a rookie. He missed all of his second season with a torn ACL. His development was largely placed on the back-burner in season three, as the Jazz brought in George Hill to play point guard in an effort to make the playoffs and retain Gordon Hayward. He separated his shoulder and tore ligaments and was forced to undergo surgery this past season, only coming back in the latter stages of the regular season.
So, the Jazz could offer Exum a contract, but it could be a contract offer based on what he could do in the future, rather than what he has done. They could allow him to test the market and find an offer from another team.
“I want to be back, and I think the Jazz want me back,” Exum said. “I hope it all works out.”
In fact, it will be a major upset if Exum isn’t wearing a Jazz uniform next season. Utah covets his size and athleticism. The front office, led by general manager Dennis Lindsey, maintained through the postseason they would be patient with Exum and his development. And his improvement defensively gives him potential to carve out an important role in coach Quin Snyder’s rotation next season, even if he won’t be a starter.
Most importantly, Exum is under team control. The Jazz know how important it is to develop their draft picks as a small market organization. And players with Exum’s physical dimensions as a point guard aren’t easy to come by.
“We hope to retain him, so we can start there,” Lindsey said. “It’s hard to predict, but Dante’s done his job. He’s had some unfortunate things happen to him, we don’t feel that he’s injury prone. He’s the right guy, he has the right level of talent. It’s our job to develop him. We’ll see what happens.”
Exum says he will spend most of his summer working out in Los Angeles, trying to improve key aspects of his offensive game. His blow-by ability, length, first step and athleticism make him dangerous off the dribble. But his shot has to improve and he knows that.
Still, heading into year five, Exum will be just 23 at the start of training camp. Exum knows he’s developed a base to build from in the postseason. Now, he knows he has to expand on it.