Dante Exum and Utah’s Guard Rotation

July 2nd, 2014 | by Ben Dowsett
(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Given the fast-paced nature of the silly season, it already seems to feel like last week’s Draft took place ages ago. Dante Exum and Rodney Hood have arrived in Salt Lake City and given their first sound bites to local media, and they’ve quickly become yesterday’s news (the hype part, at least) as the league collectively turns its eye to free agency. It’s the nature of the business given the NBA’s compacted schedule this time of year, and Jazz fans have every right to quickly shift focus as a vital few weeks approach for determining both personnel and payroll going forward.

Gordon Hayward and other free agency concerns will certainly top most lists as far as interests go, but it’s easy to forget also that another offseason staple, summer league play, also begins in under two weeks. It’s an event that tends to vary somewhat wildly in importance from team to team, mostly due to roster construction and differing ages within teams’ talent. But given their youth, both familiar and unfamiliar, along with a new coaching staff and a front office set on turning last year’s train around as quickly as possible, summer games this year could end up being as relevant as any in Jazz offseason history.

With that in mind, and with the hubbub mostly faded from Thursday’s unexpectedly positive evening, the time is also ripe for a look at the on-court impact Utah’s new faces will be expected to bring. Exum, as such an unknown commodity, will be of particular importance to the brass. And while Utah’s entire projected guard rotation obviously won’t make the trip to Vegas for summer league (Exum and Hood are both expected to play), some of his most intriguing elements are down just those lines – how will he fit within the wing rotation? How often will he play, and can he be effective against NBA-level competition right away? Will he play more 2-guard than point to start out? These are all fair questions that should begin being answered in Sin City July 12th; let’s get a bit of a head start.

(A caveat: it’s obviously impossible for me to predict which personnel will or won’t remain after free agency. For the purposes of this piece, I’ll be using the assumption that the Jazz match an offer for Hayward while retaining the other prominent members of the guard rotation – Trey Burke, Alec Burks, Hood and even Diante Garrett.)

I assume the above for two reasons: it makes this piece way easier for me to write, and I also believe it’s the most likely scenario. Everything in Salt Lake over recent weeks, months and even years has felt more and more Spurs-ian, and while the Jazz obviously lack an all-time centerpiece in the middle like Tim Duncan, Thursday’s Draft only confirmed my initial notion that Utah intends to emulate many parts of San Antonio’s wildly successful style. Specifically, coach Quin Snyder appears ready to steer his team toward a guard-oriented, high-movement system, much like he ran at Missouri given strong wings on the roster. It’ll be meant to emphasize penetration and initiating of defensive rotations, along with smart stand-by’s like the pick-and-roll and off-ball action.

As far as skill set is concerned, this is perfect for the young Aussie. It’s near impossible to say how long it’ll take him to find his NBA legs and get in tune with speed that will be entirely foreign given his previous levels of competition1, but once he does, Snyder’s scheme should be a godsend.

Offensively, he should pair at least reasonably with any of Utah’s other high-minute guards. His undeveloped shot2 poses spacing problems, but both Burke and Hayward are expected to be, at minimum, capable shooters for most of their careers, last year’s train wreck for both in that regard notwithstanding. Burks and Garrett, while not considered jump-shooters in the same vein as the other two, both actually had better 3-point percentages last year on a decent number of attempts, and a continuance of this trend will make both easily playable alongside Exum for stretches. Further, add in periods where Hayward slides to small forward (likely to happen frequently, if not the majority of the time, depending on the status of Marvin Williams this summer) or Hood is in the game, and it’s likely Exum will see most of his time with at least two competent shooters3.

And while defenses will surely feel just fine giving Exum plenty of space on the perimeter and daring him to shoot, their rotations back from more deadly marksmen had better be precise, or else:

Exum is just lightning fast, and will instantly boast one of the quickest first steps in the league for his size. He’s shown enough second-level awareness already in his young career to be dangerous as a passer after penetrating if defenses show him bodies, and Snyder and his staff are sure to emphasize this sort of stuff as a huge part of Utah’s offense. Exum and Burks together will be an absolute nightmare for opposing defenses, especially if the latter continues his slow ascension to the 40 percent plateau from beyond the arc. Exum’s addition as a ball-handler also has the potential to shore up turnovers from last season, especially in the halfcourt, despite Exum’s tendency to cough the ball up reasonably often4; Burks and Hayward, both of whom posted slightly high turnover numbers among high-usage players league-wide last season, will have some of their ball-handling reduced when Exum sees the floor, likely a benefit to both since neither should really have been initiating the offense as frequently as they did under Corbin.

This gets to another issue that’s been bandied about since Thursday: folks, let’s all take a deep breath and stop worrying so much about which specific position Dante is going to play. The NBA has been trending towards being a matchup-oriented league for years now, especially among guards and wing players. This obviously has limits and boundaries, mostly decided by team context and personnel, but Utah, barring a major shakeup to wing personnel, is clearly building the sort of team where these distinctions mean very little. Snyder will have multiple strong handlers on the floor constantly, and the man initiating a given set will matter less and less as everyone becomes more comfortable5. The goal will be a Spurs-esque scheme where any piece in the guard/wing rotation is capable of being plugged in without confusion, and the result would be a flexibility that’d empower a thinking coach like Snyder to a high degree. Given reasonable development for their youth, the Jazz absolutely have the pieces to play such a system at an elite NBA level in the not-so-distant future.

This speaks also to the defensive side of the ball, where this sort of flexibility may even be more important as far as Exum is concerned, at least initially. He shows plenty of overall upside defensively and has the body type and athleticism, but will need a reasonable adjustment period in the big league before he’s strong enough (both physically and mentally) to keep on the floor for decent minutes regardless of opponent.

Luckily, Utah projects to be in pretty decent shape here, even if it takes Exum more than one season to be playable on D. Those familiar with my writing or my Twitter account6 know how high I am on Burks, particularly as an on-ball defender, and his skills here will mesh well with Exum’s current abilities. Burks can handle all but the league’s very quickest guards (and it’s not like anyone else on the roster will do a better job with the Westbrook’s and Lawson’s of the world), making it easy to simply assign him the tougher guard and hide Exum on the other. This can be taken a step further, in conjunction with the flexibility theme – Hayward is more than capable of defending both wing spots7, and if all three are in the game, Exum can simply be hidden on the least threatening non-big on the court.

Things get a hair tougher with Burke (plain bad as a defender in his rookie season, not entirely unexpectedly), Hood, and Garrett in the spot minutes he sees with Exum8. Burke and Exum as a 1-2 combo will be totally unplayable on the defensive end next year no matter who else is out there, and Snyder will likely be careful to avoid long stretches where neither Hayward nor Burks is on the floor. But again, flexibility is paramount here – Utah’s depth at the wing/guard positions and overlapping talents among said depth will make these sort of chess games manageable, and even advantageous as guys get better and more familiar.

They say this is a marathon, not a sprint, but as I’ve said in this space before, never rule out a series of power moves by Dennis Lindsey. But barring such an occurrence, Jazz fans should prep for another season outside the playoffs in a ludicrously difficult West; that said, I think the cautious optimism starting to leak its way into public Jazz consciousness has merit. Given the somewhat miserable state of the franchise as the regular season wore down a couple months ago, Jazz fans have to be elated with the steps the team has taken since. It may take Exum plenty of time to adjust to life in the NBA, but he’ll do so alongside other young talent and under a coach who comes lauded for his development. The future has brightened, and the next few weeks could up the glare even another notch. Welcome to the fold, Dante.

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett is a life-long Jazz fan and current in-depth analyst based in Salt Lake City. He also writes for Basketball Insiders and BBallBreakdown, and can be heard on SCH Radio on ESPN 700 weekly. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.
Ben Dowsett
Ben Dowsett

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  1. Mewko says:

    Nice article. So why do you think Exum will be a defensive liability at first? Yes, he does have to get used to strong 2 guards bumping him out of the way, Exum is skinny.
    I think he will have quick hands that get him steals, Michael Carter-Williams is 185 pounds, Exum is 200 pounds. MCW did fine on defense, and was 7th in the league for steals per game.

    • Ben Dowsett says:

      He has the physical qualities to be at least an average defender or better at some point in his career, but there are multiple initial concerns for his rookie season. He’s spent basically all of his basketball life thus far as nothing but a glorified DH on defense, and detailed scouting reports from those who saw him live were extremely critical of his effort level and stance/positioning. Some of this is obviously likely to change at the NBA level, but there’s also the far more important issue of his adjustment to NBA speed and especially strength, which as I mentioned in the piece will be several levels beyond anything he’s seen. Fighting through picks and learning off-ball schemes at the NBA level will be very tough for him initially, and he just won’t have the savvy right away to handle crafty points who can match his speed. All of these are areas that could improve to varying degrees given his skill set, but it’s nearly a lock that he’ll have trouble with them initially. This isn’t a knock, either, as it’s a very common thing for his type of prospect. If he develops as expected it’ll be well worth the wait.

  2. David says:

    Very exciting future indeed. I am pretty worried about losing some key pieces (Kanter, Burks, Evans, etc) to our team though. It may be best to shop some of them for different pieces but I don’t like changes! :)

  3. Clint Johnson says:

    Derrick Favors will have recurring nightmares of a Burke/Exum backcourt as soon as they’ve played five minutes together. That said, I think your assessment is correct. I do have a question for you, though: How do you see this Jazz team using the pick and roll?

    Exum is fantastic at beating his man in isolation, but I’m not sure footage exists of him using a screen. From what I’ve seen (everything I know of that is publicly available), he either drives away from the screen, walks passed the screen and waits for an iso to develop or defenders to trap, or shoots a three while the screen is set. He may be the only player on the planet who utilizes screens less efficiently than Alec Burks. Add in the well-documented foibles Hayward had in pick and roll situations last season and that leaves the Burke/Favors combo as the only real P&R tandem. Wouldn’t that be a problem, having so many versatile wings but only one capable of making use of Favors’ dynamism in the pick and roll?

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