Dante Exum relentlessly got into the lane in Wednesday’s win over Denver. He flew past Ty Lawson, one of the quickest players in the league1, on multiple occasions and sliced through Denver’s weak help defense on the way to a Jazz season-high 12 assists. He was in command of the ball from the start, looking confident and willing to challenge the Nuggets when given any opening.
A Jazz fan reading the above paragraph two months ago would have checked the dateline on this piece and assumed it to be an April Fools joke. It isn’t.
When I talked to Quin Snyder about Exum’s progression before the game2, he candidly noted that, while Dante has exceeded expectations in several areas, aggression toward the hoop was “not second nature to him yet.” Quin emphasized that he wanted to see Exum make mistakes, wanted to see him grow through trial and error. But even so, he wasn’t surprised at Dante’s performance versus the Nuggets.
“I wasn’t surprised as much as I was pleased, because we’ve seen flashes like that,” Snyder told me postgame. “He’s such a conscientious kid, he doesn’t wanna make mistakes sometimes. There’s some plays he made tonight that he’s seen before, he just hasn’t made the play. But tonight the game slowed down a little bit more for him, it was really good to see.”
Snyder’s comments were illustrative of some of the issues between the ears that have held Exum back some of the year, hurdles he appears to be clearing more regularly in recent weeks. And in what should come as no surprise to diligent Jazz fans, a big part of it is due to his coach, to whom he credited some of Wednesday’s performance along with growing comfort around his NBA teammates.
“I had a good talk with Coach yesterday, and (we) kind of got a better understanding of each other. Just, you know, building better relationships with my teammates every day,” Dante told me when I asked him what’s been working for him lately on the mental side of things.
It’s important to consider the degree to which this matters for Exum in comparison with his peers, especially for those quick to point to his stats or the frequent instances of timidness throughout his first professional season. This is a 19-year-old who won’t turn 20 until a couple weeks before his second NBA season, and one who played at a level exponentially lower than his rookie peers3 directly prior to joining the best basketball league in the world. For someone so young and inexperienced to make so many adjustments so quickly, both on and off the court, will almost always take time. And now, Jazz fans who were patient with him are beginning to reap the rewards.
His teammates are seeing a shift, as well. I asked Derrick Favors if there were elements of Dante’s personality, ones perhaps unavailable to those of us not around him every day, that were developing over the course of the season, and Derrick confirmed as much.
“You can definitely see it in his personality in practice – he’s always talking a lot more now and just being aggressive,” Favors said.
Just add it to the list of positives for Utah this season. The physical profile on the young Aussie is positively frightening, and as he takes these small steps toward utilizing larger portions of his skill set, the results will be huge for a guy who has already exceeded reasonable expectations in several areas.4 His ceiling seems nearly limitless on nights like tonight; if he ever scrapes it down the road, your TV had better be on.
|Derrick Favors, PF 25 MIN | 9-16 FG | 1-2 FT | 7 REB | 1 AST | 0 STL | 3 BLK | 3 TO | 19 PTS | -3 +/-Back after a couple games out with a nagging injury, Favors was his usual dominant self down low. Foul trouble kept his minutes low (he scoffed good-naturedly after the game when asked about them – clearly didn’t like a couple), but this was his only mark against tonight.|
|Gordon Hayward, SF 34 MIN | 3-8 FG | 5-5 FT | 3 REB | 2 AST | 1 STL | 1 BLK | 0 TO | 13 PTS | -6 +/-Gordon tied his season-low in field-goal attempts, and was perhaps a bit less visible than he might typically be. But much of this was likely selectivity, as Utah certainly didn’t need anything approximating a Herculean effort from him.|
|Joe Ingles, SF 27 MIN | 4-7 FG | 0-0 FT | 3 REB | 0 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 2 TO | 12 PTS | +13 +/-It appeared Jingles had some sort of war of words with someone in the Nuggets’ camp at some point, because he had a couple things to say in their direction on multiple occasions after nailing 3s. He was 4-5 from deep, by the way.|
|Rudy Gobert, C 30 MIN | 7-7 FG | 6-11 FT | 12 REB | 2 AST | 1 STL | 2 BLK | 2 TO | 20 PTS | +20 +/-Rudy collected nearly a quarter of all the available rebounds while he was on the floor, and finished with 20 points on only seven field-goal attempts. His offensive game is expanding quite quickly, and he remain among the league’s premier defenders.|
|Dante Exum, SG 29 MIN | 1-4 FG | 0-0 FT | 1 REB | 12 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 3 TO | 2 PTS | +9 +/-This is a relative grade, of course, but this was Dante’s best game in the NBA thus far. He was aggressive and frequently left Nuggets defenders seemingly standing still, plus the two points he did have came on likely the prettiest drive-and-finish we’ve seen from him to date.|
|Trevor Booker, PF 29 MIN | 3-9 FG | 2-4 FT | 4 REB | 2 AST | 1 STL | 1 BLK | 1 TO | 9 PTS | +9 +/-Book had to shoulder a slightly increased load with Favors in foul trouble early, and he was up to the task. He could have been more efficient from the floor, but contributed elsewhere and helped the Jazz thoroughly outscore Denver while he was on the court.|
|Chris Johnson, SF 12 MIN | 2-5 FG | 0-0 FT | 2 REB | 0 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 0 TO | 4 PTS | -3 +/-Johnson is getting some late-season burn from Quin Snyder, perhaps in an attempt to gauge his NBA readiness going forward. But to this eye he appears to have a very limited skill set; he was out of position defensively several times in just 12 minutes, and could barely hit the rim on any of his 3-point attempts.|
|Jack Cooley, SF 1 MIN | 1-3 FG | 1-2 FT | 2 REB | 0 AST | 0 STL | 1 BLK | 0 TO | 3 PTS | -1 +/-Cooley makes this list despite my 10-minute minimum, all for his barbaric swat on Gary Harris in garbage time. It was called a foul, but this was a clearly ridiculous decision. The NBA should reverse this call and give Jack the block he deserves.|
|Trey Burke, PG 25 MIN | 5-12 FG | 0-0 FT | 5 REB | 4 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 1 TO | 12 PTS | +15 +/-For the first time in what seemed like ages, Trey had a somewhat average game. He wasn’t awful and wasn’t spectacular, and gave the Jazz a relatively solid 25 minutes off the bench. It must be a relief to finally be out of the spotlight for a day or two.|
|Elijah Millsap, SG 21 MIN | 1-5 FG | 0-0 FT | 9 REB | 1 AST | 2 STL | 0 BLK | 2 TO | 2 PTS | +20 +/-Millsap isn’t a great offensive threat, but he doesn’t extend himself too far on that end and defers to his more talented teammates. Meanwhile, he’s likely among the five best perimeter defenders in the league at navigating screens, and is among the elite overall.|
Quin didn’t have to do much tonight, as his team could likely have beaten a sad Nuggets squad without anyone behind the bench. This is more of a cumulative grade; Quin’s guys wouldn’t be at this point were it not for some magnificent work by him over the course of the year.