November 23, 2018, 11:12 am
Hello Hoop Ballers, hope all of you had a great Thanksgiving day with your loved ones, enjoying this very special day of the year will plenty of food that covered your appetite for hoops on a Thursday with zero NBA games.
This week we are going to take a look into Dante Exum, the Australian guard who has been plagued by injuries in his first few years in the league, having played in just 180 games out of the possible 264 in four NBA seasons.
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Drafted at just 18 years of age and without having played basketball in the US, Exum entered the NBA as a somewhat unknown commodity after impressing scouts with his length and athleticism at the 2013 Nike Hoop Summit and the FIBA U-19 World Cup.
After becoming the No. 5 pick, Exum’s rookie season was underwhelming, proving that the challenge of coming into the NBA straight out of high school is considerable. Under newly hired coach Quin Snyder, he managed to get lots of playing time, averaging 4.8 points, 2.4 assists and 1.6 rebounds in 22.2 minutes per game, but his efficiency suffered, shooting 34.9 percent from the field, 31.4 percent from behind the arc and 62.5 percent from the charity line, all career-lows to this day.
A torn left ACL in 2015 ruled him out for his entire sophomore season and shoulder surgery in October of 2017 caused him to miss 68 games last season, but Exum surprisingly reemerged in last year’s Western Conference Semifinals as a tenacious defender who was able to slow down the league’s MVP.
Exum matched up with James Harden for 22 possessions in Game 2 and limited him to two points on 0-for-7 shooting from the field while the Beard didn’t do much else in the minutes Exum defended him, totaling one assist to go along with one turnover and one trip to the free throw line. The Jazz were able to steal Game 2 in Houston and Exum’s ability to bother Harden with his unusual length and impressive foot speed and forcing him into contested shots was a big part of it, showing NBA fans why the team is still heavily invested into him.
Unfortunately, Exum suffered another injury during the playoffs, this time his hamstring, while the Jazz, who were already without Ricky Rubio, went on to lose Game 4, with the Rockets taking a commanding 3-1 lead. The team validated how it has never lost faith in their 22-year-old guard by re-signing him to a $33 million contract extension in the summer even though he has battled through multiple injuries since getting drafted in 2014.
Utah’s Strong Player Development Skills
Quin Snyder and his assistants have been behind Gordon Hayward’s transformation into an All-Star, Rudy Gobert becoming one of the best defensive players in the league and Hoop Ball favorite Joe Ingles emerging as a key contributor late in his career. Last year, after a rocky start, Igor Kokoskov and Rubio constantly worked on his shot before games and after practice with the results beeing career highs in field goal (41.8) and 3-point (35.2) percentage.
Former Jazz point guard George Hill, who also had a great season a couple years ago in Utah, repeatedly acknowledged the help he got from the coaching staff. “The things that they have me do are different than what I’ve been used to, little things that I didn’t know would help me become a better shooter and better off the dribble, things like that. We take a lot of time doing balance and core. You always want to work with someone who’s experienced, and the coaching staff has been very good for me.”
Snyder is widely respected around the league, especially by NBA players, due to his player-development skills and he is really big on players putting in the necessary work to become better while you can notice how his assistants always have a very thorough and extensive pregame workout with the Jazz players. Following the same pattern mentioned above, Exum made progress in the limited time he spent on the floor last year before but unfortunately, he has again regressed in 18 games so far this season. His percentages have dipped from 48 percent to 39 percent while he is shooting an atrocious 27 percent from behind the arc, making it easier for defenses to deal with an underperforming Jazz offense.
Ball Movement and the Jazz’s Struggles
Unlike the majority of NBA teams, European basketball clubs teams don’t aspire to revolve around making life easier for their best player. NBA superstars like LeBron James and James Harden often get a pass on the defensive side of the ball but under Quin Snyder all players bear heavy responsibility on each possession while his offense strategizes with more egalitarianism. The ball zips around the perimeter and goes in and out of the post as players whirl around, screening and cutting.
Utah’s roster the past few years has been populated by players from Brazil, France, Australia, Ukraine, Sweden, Spain, and Switzerland among others. Having spent a few years in Europe coaching, Snyder has been able to overcome language barriers when communicating with players who didn’t speak English while developing a Spurs-ian approach in Utah where everything operates as being a close family.“You can’t be married to a certain style of play if your players don’t fit that style,” Snyder says.
Ball movement is the primary principle in Utah’s offense and it’s the most identifiable similarity between European teams and today’s Jazz, a squad that has somehow stayed away from the NBA’s obsession with speed and multiple 3-point shots. Look at how patient the Jazz are being in this possession with the ball moving around and Exum attacking at the right time when Favors is waiting for the easy lob.
Between Exum and Rubio’s sub-40 percent shooting this year, the Jazz simply aren’t a threat to score the ball in the backcourt next to Donovan Mitchell, while as a team they are shooting 32.7 percent from the 3-point line, 27th worst in the NBA. For a team that relies on ball movement and spacing to facilitate their offense, their inability to knock down shots has dropped them to the 24th-best offensive team in the league.
Utah has become extremely easy to defend because teams can close in on Donovan Mitchell, the lone offensive threat, and are completely fine with him pulling up from deep where he’s proven less than efficient. And while someone might argue that the team as a whole may be in a shooting slump, what’s alarming is how the main concept of ball moving and passing has also regressed as the Jazz average just 276.2 passes per game (they were seventh last year with 318.8). Here is an example of Exum failing to make the extra pass while he rolls to the basket and Gobert (with Crowder) follow next to him waiting for the assist that never comes.
Attacking the Rim
When it comes to team offense, Exum is more of a shooting guard, with his non-stop driving and slashing ability that has characterized him since the early days of him playing hoops. One of the main reasons the Jazz are using both Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors in their starting lineup is because offensively, they want to constantly set multiple ball screens. With each ball screen they run, the defense gets stretched farther and farther out of position and they are able to find opening lanes and attack the rim easier. Exum is a big beneficiary of this tactic as he is constantly on the move looking to finish either with a layup, a dunk or a floater around the basket. Look at how the Raptors defense totally collapses after a double screen action from Jae Crowder and Rudy Gobert that leaves a huge opening to the middle while Serge Ibaka opts to stick with his man instead of covering the hole.
Surprisingly though, this year Exum has struggled finishing efficiently around the basket shooting a below average 51.9 percent in the restricted lane even though the Jazz as a team are well above the league average at 66 percent, only behind the Warriors, the Bucks and the Kings (!).
And this is another sign of his inconsistency that proves how young the Aussie still is. Here is a sequence where Exum comes flying out of a nice screen from Rudy Gobert only to miss the layup against Joel Embiid who seems to take a step back on this possession.
Defending the Pick and Roll
Even though their perimeter defense has not been very good this year, the Jazz have a very interesting defensive scheme in place as they are a no-middle team and their pick-and-roll defense is always trying to keep the ball out of that area. They are adjusting their defensive package to the abilities of their players as defenders, but the most important thing in their whole coverage is sticking with the ball and not regularly switching. Snyder believes that when his team can handle the 2-on-2 pick-and-roll that’s ideal, as he wants his guard defender to get over the screen and gets back in front of the ball to allow the screener’s defender to get back to his man.
The team has established an “Under Line” rule where anything below that line, the guard can choose to go under the screen, otherwise there has to be an attempt to recover on time. Length and athleticism is how you accomplish this strategy and that’s where Exum fits in the big picture of the Jazz defense. Players have to fight through screens they way Exum does in this position, as Ekpe Udoh rolls back to the middle to cover the area and Cory Joseph is forced to take a long contested shot.
The Jazz also have mandatory switches as well as late switches in case the guard defender is beat and can’t get back in front of the offensive player. But they don’t want to allow to switch too much and too early even though they have one of the better rim protectors in the entire league in Rudy Gobert. Here is a defensive possession close to the basket where Exum and Favors miscommunicate for a second, allowing Markuelle Fultz to nail the easy jumper. Small parenthesis here, love or hate him, Draymond Green is the best switch defender in the league by far and this possession shows you how difficult it is to effectively rotate in these situations.
Uncharacteristically so far this year, with Gobert on the floor, teams have been able to force the Jazz to switch and attack more often with above average results which further validates my point about how the defensive struggles for the Jazz are not fundamental. Exum has been a big piece of the defensive efficiency of the team in most wins, prompting Quin Snyder to talk high about the young guard after a recent game in Memphis. “Dante was terrific tonight. He changed the game in the first half with his ball pressure. Really, really proud of him.”
The current NBA season was expected to give Dante the chance to finally demonstrate his true potential, and carve out an invaluable role on the Jazz roster after finishing strong with an admirable playoff series against Houston last year. What most people forget though is that Exum is still learning the game and it might take more time for him to prove that he belongs in a league filled with talented guards.
The last couple weeks have shown us the absolute best and worst of Exum. Against the Celtics in Utah, he was benched after just two minutes and 47 seconds in the first quarter as he struggled badly on both ends of the floor, forcing Snyder to ignore him for the remainder of the game. The kid responded with one of his best games of the season in Memphis where, with Mike Conley dominating the game offensively, Exum was able to slow down Conley with his defensive intensity and length.
Ricky Rubio is headed into the final year of his contract and has proved to be a solid fit alongside Donovan Mitchell but the team’s offense often struggles with both of on the floor. The Jazz paid Exum $11 million per year and it’s currently difficult to see them committing double-digit million dollars per year to Rubio next summer as well. The opportunity is there for Exum and this is a very important year for a player who has repeatedly shown what he is capable of, but finding consistency will be the key to receiving regular rotation minutes and taking the next step.
Thank you for reading and please don’ t hesitate to let us know about an international prospect that you would want to learn more about in the next few weeks. Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @philysstar and stay up to date on all the breaking news and rumors posted on our website and on our Twitter account @HoopBallFantasy.
Stats are courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of November 23rd. .