Has Dante Exum Hit a Rookie Wall?

January 19th, 2015 | by Ben Dowsett
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

In a broad sense, there was perhaps no better candidate for a collision with a rookie wall than Dante Exum. Unlike the majority of his peers in the 2014 Draft class who either attended a Division I college program or played a professional season in one of Europe’s several such leagues, Exum’s highest level of pre-NBA competition was a couple of appearances in international play1 and what basically amounts to high school level play outside these limited viewings. He barely even played competitive basketball of any kind last year outside Australia’s National High School Basketball Championships (several months before the Draft). His physical profile was obviously at the NBA level, but it was very easy to wonder whether his stamina and mental acumen would be able to keep up when thrust into a far higher level of play than he had ever experienced.

As he reaches the game threshold where such tendencies would be expected to reveal themselves, the bag is mixed. On the one hand, his shooting, once a pleasant surprise for a guy who was supposed to be a liability here coming into the league, has fallen off a cliff since the turn of the new year. His effective field goal percentage, which had maintained at a respectable 48.6 through his first 32 games spanning until the end of December, has plummeted to 39.6 thus far in January. His overall field goal figure is an icky 31.3 percent in this time, and he’s made just eight of his 33 attempts from 3, good for 24.2 percent (he was shooting just short of 34 percent from beyond the arc until this point). Any form coach will tell you that a big part of sustained jump-shooting is legs and conditioning, and it would appear as though Dante’s struggles here could indicate a bit of a cutoff point.

Of course, there’s another side to that coin. His splits for this month, and really for the entire season, still represent a very small sample, particularly for shots – he’s taken 48 in January and just 188 on the year, still far too few for his long-term percentages to have even approached stabilizing. Meanwhile, other areas of his game have seen small improvements in this sample, with his assist figures rising and his turnovers dropping amid his highest average minutes per night of any month so far in his career. The Jazz have actually been far more effective with him on the floor on a per-possession basis than they were to this point, though of course this metric has quite a bit of static attached in just a nine game period.

He’s certainly not in the clear by any means, though, even if whether he’s hit an arbitrary standard for a “rookie wall” is certainly debatable from a numbers standpoint. Exum has been a strange and unique study the entire year for the way his on-court performance has varied drastically from what most experts expected of him coming into the league. It remains very early in what’s certainly a long-term project, but certain elements of his game are drawing small bits of concern.

Most noticeably, Dante appears simply petrified at the idea of initiating or absorbing contact while handling the ball, an issue that seems to be compounding itself rather than improving as the year has worn on. Whether it’s hesitance or a lack of understanding of the system (it’s likely a good dose of both), he’s appeared highly unwilling to initiate any meaningful offensive action, preferring to defer universally to his teammates even when playing only with bench units. His usage rate, already in the bottom third for high-minute rookies, has decreased each month and now sits below 14 percent of possessions used in January, an uncommonly low number for any ball-handler.

Exum has attempted just 1.6 drives per game according to SportVU figures – by comparison, Trey Burke attempts 7.2, a huge discrepancy even when accounting for their gap in minutes. Exum’s number is on par with guys like Matt Bonner and Kyle Singler, and particularly within a Quin Snyder system that stresses drive-and-kick action, represents a young player who isn’t fully comfortable in his scheme just yet. It’s strange, too, because the few times he does initiate an incisive action, he’s shown good vision and awareness even as he goes out of his way to avoid contact:

Exum’s handle has been a small worry as well, and is perhaps part of the reason he isn’t comfortable taking guys off the dribble. He doesn’t really have any go-to moves just yet, and apart from sheer speed and surprise has been mostly unable to create any organic separation in one-on-one offense. Basketball Insiders’ Nate Duncan confirmed these points a couple weeks back while joining us on SCH Radio, noting it as one of his chief concerns for Dante going forward.

Now, none of this is anything resembling a condemnation. Exum won’t be able to legally drink a beer until just before his third NBA season begins, and his trajectory to the NBA is almost completely unique among can’t-miss prospects historically. His physical profile is absolutely present, and he’s been a pleasant surprise on the defensive end where many expected him to be among the worst in his class (he’s been the opposite).

Small concern is justified at his level of passiveness while on the floor, but it’s still likely that he’s yet to put everything together mentally at such a young age and will improve as he gains comfort both with his own skills and within an NBA system. He’s displayed absolutely none of the typical characteristics of a prima donna, and if anything appears a little too reserved and deferential to his more experienced teammates. He may have indeed hit a point at which his legs and conditioning are falling behind, but given the circumstances leading up to the beginning of his career, it’d be hard to criticize him here. The future remains as bright as ever for Dante Exum, though his path to stardom may be unfolding far differently from how we assumed it would.

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:

    Great article.
    I want to see Dante get aggressive, and Quin Snyder needs to inject a vaccine into Dante that prevents low confidence.
    He needs to get the mentality, that he’s the baddest (u know what) out there on the floor.

    Once he gets this mentality, then I want to see point guard duels between him and Trey Burke, where they are so close in overall skill, that they are fighting each other for minutes, to see who impresses the coaching staff more. Dante has to realize that he’s up on that level with Burke, he can compete with him in practice.

    So Ben, I think if Dante gets this type of mentality, than he will earn his starting spot by his 3rd season 2016-17.

  2. telochian says:

    I’m really with Dante, I’ve watched every game he has been involved in and am really hoping for big things. Seems to me that he’s working very hard on strengthening his weaknesses in practice, ie shooting 3’s etc but has forgotten what his strengths are. Dante is great at getting into the lane and distributing and finishing, that’s what he should be maximising at this stage. I think he has got the message as the last game against the Spurs he was much more focused on getting into the lane. The Jazz look great when he is pushing the ball and breaking down the defense and getting into the lane………he just needs to focus on attacking the lane for every second he is out there.

  3. Robert Morant says:

    He’s not very good period. All the excuses and waiting 3 seasons for a #5pick is a terrible pick.

    • JD says:

      He’s 18 for freaking sake with no college experience. Every draft expert said he worth a high pick but give him time. He was not expected by anybody to set the league on fire at 18. It’s called development idiot.

  4. Steven says:

    I’m sorry but I think too many fans have been enarmoured with Exum’s potential. Let’s face it Exum’s potential is off the charts compared to all the other players on the Jazz, his athleticism and physical traits that he was blessed are great for the position that he plays on the floor. If he can learn to harness those traits then he has the potential to be a really special player. However that should not get him a bye for the lack of performance that he has so far shown.

    Trey, quite rightly at times gets a lot of stick for some his performances, but he has been growng up in the NBA playing against the big boys, he through no fault of his own, other than circumstance of lack of other options meant since the day he came into the NBA after his finger injury has played against starters. Exum has had the luxury of time to find his feet amongst the second unit. Yes his defence is decent for a rookie, it should be, he has length, speed and athleticism that help in this regard. However offensively individually he is struggling. When the season first started there seemed to be a (Wow!) moment nightly, there was just a hint that when he put one wow moment together with another something good could come of it. Lately though there hasn’t been many of those moments. He seems to have retreated into himself. he seems to settle for shooting the 3 point shot. His plus minuses at least by my eye seem to be inflated by the fact that a lot of the time he is on the floor with Hayward who takes up some of the point duties when Exum is on the floor. Too often I see Exum pick up the ball, take it up the floor and lay it off for a simple pass to a teammate, rather than pushing and proding at the defence until a mistake is made by a defender getting out of position. He then doesn’t make himself available in any way that gives the defence any real trouble, he doesn’t leave any illusion that he will drive to the basket if the ball comes back to him, as soon as he release the pass, he settles for the 3 point line. If there was a question mark about what he may do he would be a more effective threat, even if the ball didn’t come back to him it might just leave a little bit more space for a teammate. As I said, a lot of the time he doesn’t even take the ball up the floor, but I can almost understand Hayward doing so, Hayward is all rounder able to be effective in many ways, but there are times when Exum defers to his fellow Aussie. Ingles is a much more limited player. He isn’t even a PG, but too often when he is on the floor, Exum is deferring some his duties to Ingles. It doesn’t seem too many games ago that Exum had no assists and Ingles had the kind of stats expected from a PG, points, rebounds, assists.

    I can take Exum missing shots, its part of learning the game. I can can understand him not being good enough yet for starter minutes. However at this stage I don’t understand with his potential when he he plays with the second group of players he isn’t dominating his teammates. Nor the opposition. This is the number 5 drafted guy in a highly rated draft, he should be dominating in at least some matchup on some night, even if all he is using at this stage in his NBA carreer is his god given speed and height. His instinct to defer to teammates worries me. His lack of guile to use the advantages he has at this stage worries me. Potential can be a dangerous thing. Players with limited physical attributes, and skillsets sometimes make more of their careers than guys with potential.

    So far, this season Exum has been the biggest disappointment for me on this Jazz squad. I don’t expect him as a 19 year old to be a world beater. However there are times with his physical attrbutes than he should be matched up with a very limited second unit player that he should be able to dominate off the floor. Yet I can’t think of one instance where a second unit player came off the floor and thought I’m glad I don’t play against him every night.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      For what it’s worth, I’ve always thought Favors had a higher ceiling than any player on the team, including Exum. I don’t believe Exum’s potential is off the charts. It’s excellent, but limited in some very specific ways and always was. My take.

  5. telochian says:

    One thing I’ll never understand is why he wasn’t in the weight room for all of the year before the draft. His parents/management knew he was going to be drafted and they had 12 months to wait where according to all sources he played very little basketball……….why the hell wasn’t he in the weight room getting his body NBA ready.

    I think the passivity he has shown has a lot to do with not being fit enough or strong enough. Maybe his management was concerned he would get an injury in training before making the big bucks.

  6. Ben Dowsett says:

    I appreciate all the comments, guys. Instead of responding to each individual one, I’ll do so here:

    We need to remember that he is 19, and that as I say in the article, his trajectory to the league is completely unique. Comparing him apples to apples with other guys in his class, or other guys drafted in or around his position in previous years at his age, is a futile exercise. Comparing him to Trey Burke, who was nearly three years older than Exum when both were respectively drafted, seems a bit off base.

    His timidness worries me also, but writing him off as I’ve seen a couple of you do in these comments before he turns 20 is fairly ridiculous. The adjustment from his previous playing career to what he’s doing now is more enormous than I think many here are willing to fathom. Give it time.

    • telochian says:

      I couldn’t agree more. Twice he has been mentioned in the top 10 rookies and has ranked as high as 5th but a few sub standard, deferential games and people want to jump all over him. Early in the season everyone was screaming for him to start when Trey Burke was struggling…….how fast things change.

      Sure he has weaknesses, but he’s a super fast, athletic, true point guard at 6’6″ with a real passion for defense and an undeniably great feel for the game. Let’s give him some time in the weight room and a summer to work on his jump shot before writing him off.

    • Steven says:

      I’m not writinhg him off, but I do think he has been by far the biggest disappointment on the roster this season. There are players will less tools than him that seem to be doing more with what they have, and are imposing themselves in games in a way tat he just isn’t. I just think he is looking like a 19 year old kid, trying to get by keeping things simple. Unfortunately in the big mans game, simple doesn’t cut it. Not at the PG position anyway. I’m looking forward to a stage where he starts making mistakes, because he is trying something new. Doing something new, failing, and trying again and executing better is where progress is made.

      Putting on some weight and muscle will come in time. However this is the time to make mistakes by trying things, seeing what works, what doesn’t. He has an advantage over Trey in his position in his length and that quick step, I want to see him use it more. I don’t think at this stage that we can expect him to be a world beater against starting caliber PG’s but against those second units he should be able to impose himself in games more, he should be able to try things out that he wouldn’t get the chance to do against the top guys. He has a luxury of coming on in games against guys who were drafted way lower than he was.

      • telochian says:

        To be honest I find myself screaming at the screen regularly when he has the ball and a miss match against the opposing teams power forward….drive….drive. But I think Ben is right in saying he is 19, he’s never played college and banged bodies against the guys that he is seeing now. Sure he was a high pick but his situation is different, frankly I’m surprised he hasn’t been show up a lot more this season. Physically he has held his own, his turnovers are low and his defence has been solid. He definitely needs to look for his own shot a lot more, especially in the lane, but who can blame him for deferring a little bit, especially when he has guys like Haywood around. In some ways he is showing a lot of maturity, realising that he needs to put the ball in the hands of the person most likely to score…….soon enough he’ll realise that in a lot of situations, that’s him.

        I definitely agree that he needs to push things more, make mistakes and just attack though. I think a lot of the frustration with him comes from the fact that I (we) can see just how good he could be with an agressive scorers mentality.

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