Danté Exum: Bust or no bust?

Coming into the 2014 NBA Draft, the hype surrounding then 18-year-old Australian phenom point guard Danté Exum was as high as any player in the Draft not named Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, or Joel Embiid. Selected with the 5th overall pick by the Utah Jazz, Exum was expected to be the point guard of the future for a Jazz team that had struggled to find consistent point guard play since Deron Williams was traded in 2011. According to ESPN senior writer & NBA Draft analyst, Chad Ford, “One general manager said, ‘He’s the closest that I’ve seen to a young Kobe Bryant.’ Very lofty praise for an unproven player who although displayed flashes of brilliance in the 2013 Nike Hoop Summit against the USA Junior Select Team in which he scored 16 points, had yet to play against top-level competition consistently. Exum was ultimately able to showcase his rare combination of size, speed and playmaking ability, enough so to entice the Utah Jazz to select him in the top 5, despite the fact that Exum decided to forego college to enter the 2014 NBA Draft.

After an up-and-down rookie year in the 2014-2015 NBA season which saw Exum appear in all 82 games, starting in 41, Exum tallied averages of 4.8 PPG, and 2.4 APG while shooting just .349% from the field and .314% from behind the arc in 22.2 minutes of action per game. Exum displayed a penchant for playing stingy one-on-one defense on the perimeter and was considered a key part of a young Jazz nucleus that included Rudy Gobert and Gordon Hayward; many expected Exum to take a huge leap forward in Year 2. That, however, never came to fruition as Exum was sidelined for the entirety of the 2015-2016 season after tearing the ACL in his left knee while playing for the Australian national team prior to the NBA season. Meanwhile, fellow draftees selected after Exum in the 2014 NBA Draft, have gone on to carve out niches for themselves on their respective teams. Players such as Jordan Clarkson, Nikola Jokić, Clint Capela, Zach LaVine, and Marcus Smart, to name a few, were all selected after Exum was taken 5th overall. As a matter of fact, teammate Rodney Hood, selected 23rd overall by Utah, 18 picks after Exum in the 2014 Draft, has been a considerably more valuable asset to the team with career averages of 12.4 PPG, 3.1 RPG, and 2.1 APG.

Fast forward to the 2016-2017 season, Exum found it extremely difficult to crack Head Coach Quinn Snyder’s regular rotation after Utah acquired veteran guard George Hill from the Indiana Pacers via trade. Exum appeared in 66 games this season, starting 26, and did show some signs of improvement, posting averages of 6.2 PPG on .427% shooting from the field, a noticeable increase in efficiency from his rookie year. Exum, however, was firmly entrenched as the 2nd or 3rd, sometimes even 4th point guard for the Utah Jazz, splitting time with Shelvin Mack, and Raul Neto, both 2nd round picks from previous Drafts. Determined to make the playoffs for the first time since 2012, Coach Snyder seemed to have Exum on a very short leash, preferring to play more experienced veteran players rather than the still very raw and mistake prone young point guard. Exum logged 9 DNP’s (coach decision), 13 including the playoffs, in which he dressed but did not play.

Following the Western Conference Semi-Finals in which the Jazz were swept handily by the Golden State Warriors, Exum voiced his frustrations about his role on the team stating in regards to Coach Snyder “Even though sometimes I didn’t disagree with some of the stuff that he was doing, it was just to see what he was thinking and where can I work on my game so I can get my minutes back up. But we always reconnected so we could get back on the same page.” In this interview, Exum also expressed that he feels he is, in fact, ready to run the Utah Jazz offense as point guard. “I think that’s a lot of my playmaking, just being able to use my speed and quickness in the open court. Hopefully I get to get the ball in my hands a little bit more and showcase that.” Said Exum. After George Hill was sidelined with a toe injury following Game 1 in the Semi-Finals, I, along with many Jazz fans I’m sure, was expecting Snyder to insert Exum into the starting line-up rather than Shelvin Mack. The Jazz, quite frankly, had zero chance of beating the Warriors in a seven game series even if Hill remained healthy. Why not give the minutes to a young developing player so that he can gain invaluable playoff experience against arguably the best collection of talent on one team in the NBA?

All in all, the light has definitely dimmed on the future of point guard Danté Exum in Utah. Going out on a limb, I’m declaring Year four a make-or-break one for Exum. Jazz brass will have to decide whether to resign George Hill to an extension this summer, nonetheless, Exum is also eligible for a contract extension. It makes little sense for a small market team such as Utah to shell out major dollars for an unproven commodity such as Exum, after committing long term to Gobert earlier last year. Factor in that Hayward is due for a MASSIVE pay raise after an All-Star season, and Utah can easily fall into the dreaded NBA luxury tax range should they resign Exum, who will most likely look to be paid like the point guard of the future that he believes he is. Should Exum, who will turn 22 on June 13th, not showcase that he has made significant strides in regards to the development of his game midway into next season, look for the Jazz to move on from Exum, for their best interest, and for his.