A single play from Saturday night’s win over Detroit seemed to encapsulate much of the excitement surrounding the younger parts of Utah’s core. Rodney Hood fought through a screen before deflecting an entry pass into the backcourt in what looked to be a good defensive play, albeit one that would still leave the Pistons with possession after a quick-moving ball eventually bounced out of bounds. But out of nowhere came Dante Exum, turning on the jets for a tantalizing glimpse of his top speed and chasing the ball down, stopping on a dime before the sideline, and feeding a trailing Hood for a bucket.
Exum and Hood, selected 18 spots apart in the 2014 draft, represent an interesting place in Utah’s rebuilding trajectory: if recent signs are to be believed1, Dante and Rodney may be the final young core pieces added in the Jazz’s “rebuild” phase. This is obviously encouraging, but is also something of a self-fulfilling prophecy; in several small ways, both have allowed for what many would call an acceleration of Utah’s competitive timetable.
No one’s getting ahead of themselves, of course. Both guys still serve, for the moment, as complementary pieces, and the truest causes of the team’s recent success have clearly been Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert and Quin Snyder. But their play, and more importantly the team’s play with them, has only helped further the potential willingness of management to cash in assets and shoot for a contender as early as next season.
Exum is the true upside pick, the guy who would have gone first or second overall if GMs had a guarantee of him even approaching his ceiling, but his rawness has been frequently evident even as he flashes a physical profile that has to frighten points around the league. He remains quite hesitant to bring the ball into traffic, particularly among bigs, with his ball-handling likely a key factor here. It isn’t too high a dribble, the type that might limit his speed with the ball – rather, he simply doesn’t have many dribble sequences in his bag that allow him to create separation through diversion, and he’s still heavily right-hand dominant (at times to his detriment). But to a point, this is okay with his new coach.
“Just putting them in situations where they (Dante and Rodney) fail, frankly,” Snyder told me when I asked him what’s been (and will be) most important for their development. “And they can fail, and learn from their failure and go into the offseason. And even this season, the next time something happens, they’re familiar with it. That’s the growth process for both those guys.”
Exum has worked through many of these situations already. Apart from the above, he’s shown very little willingness to attack the rim if any opponent is in the vicinity. Much of this is likely strength and conditioning, something most expect will be a major point of emphasis this summer2, and of course his continued acclimatization to the speed and ferocity of the NBA game. And while he may never be Kyrie Irving as far as handles, a modest and fully reasonable improvement over the next couple years will easily suffice. The Jazz don’t play an isolation-heavy scheme or even close, and if Dante can at least reach a point where he’s confident with his dribble in traffic, it will complement his other quickly-evolving skills.
Key among these other skills has been his shooting, which continues to impress when compared with initial expectations. Exum is now shooting a round 37 percent from 3 on nearly four attempts per night since his insertion into the starting lineup in January, and his percentage on catch-and-shoot jumpers has steadily risen over the last two months. He’s slowly starting to use defenders’ expectations of him as mostly a spot-up shooter against them recently, as well – watch him hardly even pump fake before blowing by Patrick Beverley:
Once again, the prospect of what these plays may look like when Dante perfects their finer points3 is tantalizing. He’s already realizing the advantage his lightning first step gives him on defenders closing out, and he’ll never have to be a one-man isolation dribbler of any consequence if he simply refines things a bit.
Hood has less ridiculous upside, but has shown a polished confidence in just 37 games and is breaking out in a major way recently. Monday night’s game marked the third in four where he’s achieved a career-high in points, and he’s now shooting 51 percent from 3 since returning to the lineup after the All-Star break. Snyder has been trusting him with larger and larger levels of responsibility as he’s fully returned to health, including a win last week over New York where Hood played Hayward’s point forward role for much of the second half as Gordon sat his first game of the season.
Snyder has noted on multiple occasions that Hood’s injury really means his minutes resemble those of a rookie still in November of his first season, and adjusting to the everyday grind of the league while maintaining his consistency has been among his early challenges.
“Just the attention you gotta bring every single night,” Rodney told me when I asked him about early speedbumps. “There’s not a night off in the league. I think that’s been the toughest thing so far.”
Dante had similar things to say about his own development:
“On the court, obviously the amount of games, the travel every week, just kind of being in that professional environment off the court,” Exum told me. “Dealing with all the games and trying to recover and play at the highest level possible.”
And for all the positives evident in their still-developing offensive repertoires, it’s the other end of the court that is perhaps most encouraging. It certainly is for Snyder, who can’t seem to answer a single question about either without reverting back to how impressive both have been defensively.
“(Rodney)’s been a little better defender than maybe people have seen, but hasn’t been healthy until more recently,” Quin told me. “Dante obviously, I think [defense] was an area where Dante felt like he could make an impact. I’m pleased with both of them in that situation, I think their length is an advantage. Obviously a lot of things Rudy (Gobert) does are terrific, but the ball with those guys isn’t getting into the paint as much, and that’s something I’m very pleased with.”
After both were projected as below-average defenders upon being drafted, it’s a major point of encouragement to see both not only contributing here but playing solid minutes on what’s been the league’s best defense since Exum was inserted into the starting lineup. Quin’s point about length is well taken – for Utah to be capable of running these two (both 6’7 or taller) alongside Hayward, Favors and Gobert is just a complete nightmare for opponents. I broke down Utah’s overall wing play defensively last week, and adding Hood into the mix4 with his excellent footwork and smooth strides just compounds the difficulty for opponents.
Again, the prospects going forward are somewhat terrifying for the rest of the league. The Exum-Hood-Hayward-Favors-Gobert lineup Utah has started the last three games is allowing 86.9 points per-100-possessions on the season, a silly figure that’s even lower than the team’s easily-league-best mark since the All-Star break. They’ve also scored at a rate higher than that of the Clippers’ league-best offense, and though the sample remains somewhat small, very little feels unsustainable – Exum, Hood, and Hayward are all legitimate shooting threats, Favors is developing both on the block and as a midrange shooter, and Gobert is…well, Gobert. And they’re all under 25!
Should both Exum and Hood continue to develop at such a rate, they’ll mark a culmination of several years’ worth of top notch work by Dennis Lindsey and his team in Utah’s front office. To grab two likely above-average NBA starters5 in Gobert and Hood in the 20s of the draft is a masterstroke, especially as both came through trades and neither at the expense of a single relevant asset. Exum fell into their laps in a sense, but credit still for recognizing and drafting the best player available despite selecting another guy at his position a year earlier.6
Both will see rough patches, but as their coach notes, this is a good thing. This level of experience against starter-level NBA competition will be huge down the road as the Jazz look to compete for titles. The West’s contenders are thanking their lucky stars the Jazz didn’t put all this together a month or two earlier, but in part due to Dante and Rodney, they’re unlikely to have such good fortune next year.