Dante Exum, Rodney Hood and Accelerated Developmental Timetables

March 17th, 2015 | by Ben Dowsett
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

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.

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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11 Comments

  1. Andrew says:

    That game last night made me really hate the imbalance between Eat and West. We’d have a real shot at the 8 seed even in the West if we hadn’t played such an insanely tough schedule to start the year. We’ll just have to settle for being this year’s version of last year’s Suns. (And hope that next year we don’t turn into next year’s version of this year’s Suns)

    • IDJazzman says:

      Need to remember that to come from the East and play in the West is more difficult then for the West teams to play in the East because of the time difference, so there is a little skewed win difference there in favor of the West. Yes the West is much better, even with that difference taken into consideration, but with all things considered the day will come when the reverse will be true and the East will be better than the West.
      I really think the NBA would really benefit with wild card playoffs for some of the lower seeds in each conferences, maybe go 10 deep in each conference with the bottom 4 from each conference doing a mini-series playoff to fill the remaining 7th and 8th seed in each conference, which means the possibility would exist where teams from another conference could fill in the bottom 2 spots of the other’s conference.
      With the wildcard playoffs, the NBA could decrease the number of games played for the regular season, as they have talked about and they wouldn’t loose the revenue income.

    • Mewko says:

      If you could change the playoff format, would you also change the schedule?
      I like the idea of 58 game seasons, you play each team at home, and on the road. Then select the top 16 finishers for the playoffs. That would truly eliminate conferences.

      But, the league likes to get money, so more games means more money.

      • IDJazzman says:

        I am guessing that part of the reason why the NBA wants teams in playoffs from different conferences every year, is to get more viewers from a wider demographic base. If all the playoffs teams were from California, Texas, and Eastern teams for example, that would eliminate a lot of viewers because of a lack of interest in the other areas . I am sure that dropping to 58 games for the general season would be totally off limits, because of the drop in revenue as you mentioned. If the playoff format was changed, which included more games, then I think they would decrease the number of games in the regular season.

  2. gussomer says:

    Not that I doubt you re: “$3.50 on the dollar” comment, bit I would love to see this particular analysis.

    • Ben Dowsett says:

      It’s been done on Twitter (not by me). Someday, once all the picks/prospects are realized, I’ll do a big breakdown of it. But I mean, even just Favors alone right now, and his great bargain deal (becomes an even huger bargain in a year or two), are at least $2.50 on the dollar when compared with Deron and the massive albatross contract of his the Jazz avoided. The flexibility this has left elsewhere has had a trickle-down effect in sooooo many areas. There’s a legit chance $3.50 on the dollar is underselling it, especially if Jarrett, Pleiss or the draft pick ever even sniffs the NBA rotation.

  3. Spencer says:

    Great analysis Ben, as usual.

    During summer league, it appeared to me that Hood feels like the type of player who could be an all-time great role player. What I mean by this is he could be the Robert Horry, Shane Battier, Derick Fisher type plus the ability to be an offensive focal point on occasion. He just seems to fit that role so well. He seems to mentally approach the game with that mindset. Just great basketball IQ and that pure stroke that could easily win a few playoff series.

    He can guard four positions depending on matchups, he can create off the dribble, pass, shoot, rebound. Always plays under control. Does not need a lot of touches to be effective, can run off screens, can’t leave him anywhere on the court and he is a coaches dream. I’m going to copyright “Big shot Rod” and “Hot Rodney Hood” and…you get the picture. When this happens remember me.

  4. Steve Phelps says:

    LOVE QUIN! Something in this piece that should not go unnoticed. Quin is okay with the young guys failing. Given there are learning from the mistakes. Given students an okay to fail is an essential tool for high quality teaching.

    • Spencer says:

      So obvious, yet so rare. No wonder we have rookies playing like vets. It is not age, but experience and understanding that is needed, thank you for getting that Quinn.

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