Dante Exum and the Third Defender

April 3rd, 2015 | by Dan Clayton
Poor Gary Harris can't stay in front. A different Exum came to play vs. Denver. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Poor Gary Harris can’t stay in front. A different Exum came to play vs. Denver. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

When Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder talks about his young point guards, the conversation naturally steers towards their ability to make reads. So when Dante Exum had perhaps his best pro game, it’s only natural that we’re all talking about reads.

Of course, “reads” is a ridiculously oversimplified way of describing a mental process with so many variables. On any given play, an NBA athlete is sharing the floor with nine other guys, who can each react to a situation in any number of ways. The math on that adds up quickly, and there are seemingly endless ways a possession can play out. The angle of a pick, the on-ball and off-ball strategies, the personnel on the floor and myriad other variables are all weighed in an instant.

So where does a 19-year-old kid start to process all that? According to his coach, Wednesday’s impressive display of facilitation was all about making one small mental advancement in how he sees the game: reading the third defender.

“Rudy (Gobert, the recipient of 5 of Exum’s career and Jazz-season high 12 assists) did a better job of rolling,” Snyder said. “When he rolls to the basket, either someone’s going to come and take him (and) you’re going to have someone open over the top, or they’re not going to come and he’s going to have an opportunity. And Dante was making the right decision in terms of reading that third defender. Not just reading his man and Rudy’s man, but reading that third man usually coming out of the corner.”

Let’s look at a few of Exum’s plays from Wednesday through the lens of that third defender comment.

This play is probably the exact one Snyder had playing in his mind when he dropped the quote above, because it follows that precise script. Kenneth Faried is behind Rudy’s roll because he had to show hard on Exum, and that necessitates a third defender. Derrick Favors’ perfectly timed baseline cut takes Danilo Gallinari out of the picture, so Randy Foye sucks way in, somewhat unnecessarily. Exum recognizes this, and the skip pass gives Chris Johnson an advantage to score.

  • Exum’s man: Went under on the initial screen, fought over on the rescreen.
  • Screener’s man: Had to show hard on the second screen because Lawson was going over.
  • Third defender: Honestly, it’s some really bad defense here by Foye, who helps without helping, and hadn’t looked at Johnson since he was above the break.

Poor defense by Denver, but good recognition by the rookie, and then Gobert screens for Johnson’s baseline finish. Let’s look at another.

Denver traps this side P&R, so originally there really is no third defender. The flip-back to Booker was there, but Exum correctly sees that the weakside D is way in for seemingly no reason1, and the on-ball defenders didn’t seal the trap. So he continues to put pressure on the D, and hits Trey Burke wide open before Denver reacts.2

  • Exum’s man: Goes over in an attempt to trap.
  • Screener’s man: Tries to trap, but doesn’t seal the baseline.
  • Third defender: The interior defender stayed glued to Favors, but Jameer Nelson came way off of Burke.

One thing Exum did a lot in this game was catch the defense sleeping by going before the pick was actually set, which you saw on that last clip and you see again here. Faried’s late to get back, so Dante drives right at Gallo to force him to commit. That leaves Trevor Booker free to catch baseline. Gordon Hawyard’s defender just kind of hangs out the whole time.

  • Exum’s man: X went away from the pick so no real decision for Ty Lawson to make here, but he absolutely cannot stay in front of Exum’s crazy first step.
  • Screener’s man: Faried is nowhere to be found. Seriously. Check your milk carton.
  • Third defender: Gallo has no choice but to try to stop Exum. Wilson Chandler (now we’re getting into fourth defender stuff) could have helped him out a little more vigorously, but then Hayward’s open for three. If Faried gets into position in time to help on Hayward, then Joe Ingles is open. See how Exum’s speed takes everything off balance?

Here’s another one where Exum turned on the burners before the pick was set because Denver was playing it so passively. Often, the third defender comes from the weakside, but honestly it looks as though here Gallo should slide down, at the very least to stop ball. Nobody else is in any way, shape or form getting to Dante in time. Faried gets in the picture in time to force a reverse, but neither the weakside help nor Gallo ever came, so Exum just scoops it up off the glass.

  • Exum’s man: Again, Lawson is completely caught off guard by Exum blazing away from the pick, can’t stay in front.
  • Screener’s man: Faried had been setting up for a pick going right, but needed to get back in the picture sooner here.
  • Third defender: Gallo weirdly refuses to slide down and Nelson doesn’t want to give up the corner three, but it’s really moot: the only player who really had time to change this shot at all was Manimal.

This FT assist might be my favorite play of the bunch. Denver’s all kinds of messed up because this is a semi-break opportunity and so there are mismatches. Nelson picked up Gobert in transition, and Jeffrey Lauvergne never really came to get him. So as Exum drives hard to the baseline and forces Lauvergne’s help, Nelson releases to the corner to watch Trey Burke, and the Nuggets have left Gobert completely unguarded.

  • Exum’s man: No screen, just loses him on that first step. Seriously, this kid can get anywhere he wants to go.
  • Screener’s man: No pick set, but Lauvergne is waiting for Exum baseline.
  • Third defender: Nelson never gives Rudy back to Lauvergne before he vacates, so Exum now has a wide open 7’1″ target in the paint.

None of these are crazy advanced plays, and most of them have the common denominator of being against a defense that made completely inexplicable choices at times. But Exum’s mental quickness seemed to take a leap forward, and the results were confused defenders all over the floor.

And on many other nights, opponents have made those spacing/switching mistakes and gotten away with it because of a more passive Exum. On Wednesday, Exum showed up ready to find and exploit those mistakes where the helper’s help was concerned. Some of his assists were more milquetoast examples of simple second-defender situations3, but not all were. Some were the product of Exum reading the whole defense just like Snyder pointed out.

“The game slowed down a little bit more for him,” Snyder said of Exum. “It was really good to see.”


Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton


  1. telochian says:

    This game (finally) showed Exum’s strengths. Of course he is learning many other facets of the game such as 3 point shooting etc, but attacking the lane and distributing is what he does well naturally. As he looks to score the ball more off his paint attacks, even more passing options will open up. I think this was a big game for him mentally, it’s definitely not the “Exum Game” that everyone so badly wants to see, but it’s significant. He’ll certainly have more struggles but I’d be surprised if we see a return to the timidity that has plagued him…….it appeared to me like he’s turned the corner.

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