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.